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Foreign Language Film Nominees Find Hope Amid Conflict

Just over a week ago I had the daunting pleasure of interviewing three of the five Oscar nominated Best Foreign Language Film directors. I began my day interviewing Ziad Doueiri, the director of “The Insult,” followed immediately by “The Square” director Ruben Ostlund. I had about 30 minutes between Ostlund and “Call Me By Your Name’s” Timothee Chalamet, and finally I was talking to “On Body and Soul” director Ildiko Enyedi.

I have to admit that after interviewing Timothee Chalamet I was a bit spent, but I was incredibly eager to speak with Enyedi, particularly when I discovered it had been 18 years since she directed her last feature.

We struggled a bit hearing each other, and unfortunately when I listened back to the recording, the first part of the interview was impossible to transcribe. Halfway through the recording things suddenly cleared up, thank goodness, because I was listening for a specific comment she made about the state of humanity today. A statement that, for me, tied the five nominated films together.

“Sometimes I have the feeling we are too tough with ourselves. We don’t accept or like each other or ourselves enough. That was one of the goals of the film. Don’t waste so much. Just enjoy your life as it is.”

“We are in a world today with so much division,” I responded. “I think that is when cinema is so great…when it takes a look at who we are and makes us look a little closer at ourselves.”

“That was very much our goal,” Enyedi replied.

“On Body and Soul” is the type of film that would most likely never be made in the United States. It’s a fantasy romance set in a slaughterhouse. Gorgeously shot by Mate Herbai, the film begins with a male and female deer in a winter wonderland of sorts, who we later discover are the dream versions of Maria (a remarkable Alexandra Borbely) the new inspector at the facility and Endre (Geza Morcsanyi) the financial director. They discover they are both having the same dream through interviews with a company psychologist and attempt to achieve the love from their dreams in real life.

It is clear that “On Body and Soul” is a very personal work, and Enyedi admitted to me that her lead character of Maria is much more like herself than the actress who plays her.

“Somehow I didn’t just want to tell a love story but rather a love story that can contain as much as possible from those issues which are important for me now. Our culture in its well functioning form is hiding so much cruelty. It is part of the system. It is part of our well arranged lives. We are not taking into consideration…how we treat animals, how we keep them in horrible places before killing them. This is how we treat ourselves nowadays.”

After watching “Loveless” directed by Andrew Zvagintsev, I turned to my friend Amy and said something along the lines of “that was difficult to watch.” And she reminded me…”well, it’s called “Loveless” after all.”

This film takes the words Ildiko said to the most extreme. Where “On Body and Soul” is full of subtextual dislike, “Loveless” and its two leads wear their disdain for each other and their lives on their sleeves.

The film depicts two divorcing parents (Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin) who are still stuck in the same apartment although they have each begun relationships with new partners. They have a son, played by Matvey Novikov who neither one seems to want, making little effort to hide the fact from him. The mother seems much more interested in her phone, unless she is having sex with her new lover or screaming at her previous one. I don’t want to give it completely away, but soon after one of the most harrowing shots I have ever seen on film (thanks to young Novikov), the son goes missing. There are incredible moments of acting by both Spivak and Rozin, and the film absolutely lives up to its title even in the end as the parents move on, having really gone nowhere.

Heading into Sebastian Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” I am glad that I knew almost nothing about it other than the fact that Marina is played by (and maybe one day this descriptive will become irrelevant) transgender actress Daniela Vega. It begins as a love story between Marina and Orlando (played by Francisco Reyes). They spend a wonderful night on the town, celebrating Marina’s birthday going back home to make love when tragedy strikes. When Orlando becomes ill the world suddenly becomes her enemy with every possible outside influence attempting to unravel her.

Unlike “On Body and Soul’s” Maria, Marina begins the film in a place of secure self acceptance, even as everyone around her begins taking shots at her, from the cop investigating what happens to Orlando, to his ex wife, to a group of vile men who attack her. All the while Marina continues to fight for her rights. After watching the film I felt exhausted from what seemed on the surface like an onslaught of transgender torture, but if Maria can endure, the audience must as well. Vega portrays Marina with a quiet, but intense determination. She is very human, escaping the pain through casual sex and even fantasy, all culminating in a scene where she must strip everything away in order to fight for what is rightfully hers. Her right to be a woman in grief.

Giving “A Fantastic Woman” a run for the Oscar is Cannes Palm d’Or winner, Ruben Ostlund’s “The Square.” Starring the wonderful Claes Bang, Terry Notary, and Elisabeth Moss, “The Square” is a satirical drama about an art curator and the chaos that ensues when he hires a PR company to help publicize a new art installation.

I had read that the idea for the film came from the idea of the bubble caused by the rise in gated communities in Sweden. When I asked Ruben if that was the case he elaborated this about how a news story translated into a real life art installation that became the inspiration for the film.

“ started out…there was a certain kind of robbery that took place…where really young boys were robbing other young boys. And these robberies happened in the center of the city in a big mall where there were a lot of people around them. And I read through the court files of these events and you could tell that the bystanders……even though adults were like, maybe one or two meters away– they didn’t interact, they didn’t try to stop the robberies, and the kids weren’t even asking for help either, so yeah, me and my friend we came up with the idea that we should create a symbolic place where you were reminded of your role as a fellow human being, and it should be used in a very simple way, a white marked square, and if you need help you can go stand in that square and it’s my obligation if I’m passing by to ask, to address this person standing in the square, how can I help you?

“I think that I’m always interested in when we fail so to speak, to live up to our ideals and our morals. I wanted to try to tell a story where you have an individual that lives in this humanistic ideal–he believes in The Square…the curator of the museum, and at the same time he is challenged on an individual level, he’s challenged when it comes to living up to these ideals.

“So, I was looking for themes and situations I had either experienced myself or a friend of mine had experienced…where I end up in a dilemma with my own morals, so I was collecting a lot of these things for the film, and then I built the film to two parallel levels–one is that they are going to promote The Square, this installation at the museum and the other is that the main character gets robbed of his cell phone and his wallet and which way he is trying to get it back.

Just as “The Square” has the curator, Christian battling with his own morals and ideals, “The Insult” takes a look not only at inner conflict, but also the residual but ever present conflict between the Lebanese Christians and Palestinian refugees post Civil War.

Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult” begins in today’s Beirut with a civilian dispute blown out of proportion which finds Tony (Adel Karam) and Yasser (Kamel El Basha) facing off in court. As the media circus surrounding the case threatens a social explosion in divided Lebanon, Tony and Yasser reconsider their values and beliefs as revelations of trauma complicate their understanding of one another. Ziad created “The Insult” as a way to explore a similar situation that happened in his own life. I asked him why, in his own life he apologized, unlike the characters in the film.

“The answer…the questions contain the dimension of the whole movie. I’m going to try to be as clear in my words as possible to explain how I feel because I still haven’t found the exact wording to explain how I feel. The situation in Lebanon is very precarious. The fine line is so thin between stability and chaos. Words can create a lot of problems for an individual, and I’m not being, you know, metaphoric. I’m talking about something very practical. The words that you use can get you into a lot of problems and can spin out of control. I have grown up with that fear. I had to be, my Dad always to remind me–be careful, be careful how you choose your words. These are very, very loaded words. When you insult someone’s religion or someone’s nationality, people take it at to heart so much, and they can get very, very angry. And the feeling of something spinning out of control, something so silly spinning out of control is something that I’m very familiar with, and it sometimes scares me.

“When I insulted the guy in real life, and I went down to apologize, that was the end of the story, but two days later I realized, I said shit, that thing could have gone so bad. Had people heard it, or people wanted to get involved…I could have gotten into a lot of trouble for it. But I didn’t. But in the story writing, the story telling, while I was writing it, I said this could have happened…The situation that I was writing about is not an imaginary situation. Really it could happen like this, so dramatically speaking it was more interesting to find what happens when a protagonist says something and he cannot control the outcome.”

Going back to Enyedi’s quote…”We are too tough with ourselves. We don’t accept or like each other or ourselves enough,” I believe that there is a light that shines through these films, whether it’s told through satire (“The Square”), through fantasy (“A Fantastic Woman”), hope (“The Insult”) or humor (“On Body and Soul”)

When I mentioned the humor in “On Body and Soul” to Enyedi she said this: “I’m so happy the humor came through, it was a priority because somehow it really opens the connection, the communication, the smile or the laugh. Somehow it makes everybody more understanding, not just towards the film but to themselves as well.”