Weighing in on the Foreign Language Film contenders has become a sort of tradition for me at AD. Of course my commendable efforts to try and watch as many of the films as possible pales in comparison to Nathaniel Rogers’ current project/obsession over at The Film Experience, where he’s literally trying to watch all 81 submissions. When I bump into him at TIFF every year, he’s almost guaranteed to tell me that he’s off to see some random country’s Oscar submission. I of course haven’t seen all of them, but I have seen most of the buzz-worthy titles and I do want to thank the people who have helped me with screeners along the way. Such a project would not be possible without all the film festivals. Just recently, Montreal’s Le Festival Du Nouveau Cinema — which ended this past Sunday — helped me find the missing pieces of the puzzle, with screenings of their impeccably well organized program.
This year we hope that the major snubs that happened last year in this category — with Two Days, One Night and Force Majeure not getting nominated — do no repeat themselves. The fact that the Academy lets the countries themselves pick the film is somewhat of a problem and leads to a biased agenda. Iran obviously picked the 171 minute Islamic epic Muhammad: The Messenger of God over imprisoned filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s scathingly brilliant social critique of Iranian society Taxi. Thailand not only didn’t choose Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s masterful Cemetery of Splendour, but in fact banned it from ever showing in the country due to a few “un-patriotic” details shown in the movie. Germany said no to Sebastian Schipper’s incredible 134 minute one take wonder Victoria in favor of safer bait-y fare Labyrinth of Lies, and China decided to choose — huh? — Go Away Mr. Tumor, a romantic comedy based on a webcomic over Jia Zhangke’s heartbreaking dissection of Chinese societal ills Mountains May Depart. I’m only scratching the surface here, but many other countries opted for the safer, non-political route with their films, which makes the category all the more controversial.
Take as an example Cemetery of Splendour. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is quite possibly the most forward thinking, prophetic filmmaker of world cinema today and yet his country treats him like a traitor. So much so that Weerasethakul has recently stated that he will not be making another movie in his native country ever again, instead opting to explore the South American movie scene. It’s their loss, as Weerasethakul is a filmmaker that is considered by many to be the best current director in the world. His films do not follow the conventional narrative and instead opt for dreamy surrealness, popping your eyes out with the most incredible imagery, knocking your senses out with an unabashedly masterful use of sound and luring you in with its haunting storytelling.
Moreover, what kind of political statement would be made if Jafar Panahi’s Taxi was nominated. Panahi has been under house arrest for more than five years now and has been banned from making any kind of movie for the next 20 years. Yet, he remarkably continues to find loopholes and make the most creatively ingenious films imaginable and then finds a way to sneak them out of the country and into film festivals worldwide. Taxi won the Golden Bear this past Fenruary at the Berlin Film Festival. For a lesson in how to make movies with the most dire of constraints infringing on your creativity, just watch any of Panahi’s three post-house arrest movies, especially 2011’s This is Not a Film, the best of the bunch. His situation has not only changed the way he makes movies, but in the process has made him a wholly better filmmaker.
I’ve come up with ten titles that I believe are the standouts in the Foreign Language Film category. With all the complaining I’ve done set aside, most of these titles are actually pretty great movies and represent some of the better parts of world cinema.
Son of Saul
Lazslo Nemes’ Son of Saul. is a holocaust movie shot from the point of view of a concentration camp prisoner forced to burn the bodies of gas chamber victims after leading them to the trap. The movie is an immeasurable accomplishment, with scenes of staggering beauty and incredible pain. Nemes’ masterpiece reinvents the Holocaust movie by focusing more on the psychological nuance of the tragedy rather than just shock. If there was a better, more artistic movie at TIFF 2015, I didn’t see it. The movie opens with Saul finding out that the last group he led to the gas chambers included his 7-year-old son. Saul is a man so persistent in giving his deceased boy a proper burial that he risks his life and the lives of his co-prisoners just to find a proper rabbi for the kiddish ritual. His risk-taking can sometimes be maddening, but there is something to be said about a man who still believes in keeping his tradition and religion intact, even in the face of unspeakable horror. The Jews around him are building up a resistance and are prepared to fight, but Saul seems completely aloof, focusing instead on finding a rabbi and having a burial. Using a hand-held camera can sometimes end up being damaging to the overall narrative of a film, but here it compliments the story and gives it a fresh spin. The fact the first time filmmaker Nemes was just 28 when he wrote and directed this masterpiece speaks volumes about his talent. Some scenes are so deeply realized and profoundly thought out that it feels like you’re in the hands of veteran master. The film uses its camera to find dizzyingly surreal moments for its characters and supplies a uniquely original take on a used up cinematic genre.
The Taiwanese submission, The Assassin, is Hsiao-Hsien-Hou’s first film since his critically acclaimed Flight of the Red Balloon back in 2008. It justly won him the Best Director prize at Cannes earlier this year, which is the obvious award the film should be getting, as it is truly a master class in directing a movie. Just like his other fantastic movies, the filmmaker takes his time here, making every shot look like a beautifully painted stroke. His martial arts film is not concerned with plot as much as it is about trying to convey indelibly breathtaking imagery: “There are already so many martial arts films with that style, why bother making another one,” he told Film Comment. Tackling the Wuxia martial arts genre, Hsien-Hou’s film is about a female assassin in 7th century China named Nie Yinniang who embarks on a mission to kill the family that abandoned her when she was just a child. Yinniang is played by a beautifully talented actress named Qi Shu who can evoke more feelings and hurt in a single stare than most actors can in words and gestures. The movie isn’t about the fighting, yet when it does occur it is done in such an artful, seductively nasty manner. The way the whole thing is shot looks like something we’ve never seen before, a movie that is almost certainly a work of art and that can have each and every one of its frames frozen in time for us to gasp at its beauty. The Northeastern Chinese sets were built not on soundstages, but outdoors, so that natural light could be used. The cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bing is thus filtered with so much beauty, it’s like looking inside a jewel box. This might not be the Academy’s cup of tea, but the solid reviews it’s been getting will almost certainly make it one of the lasting true contenders for the category.
Dheepan might have won the Palme D’or earlier this May at Cannes, but that wasn’t enough to persuade the French to choose it for the Oscars. Dheepan is a remarkable film, in Sri Lankan with French subtitles, but Mustang — this one is Turkish with French subtitles — is just as remarkable. Opening on November 20th, it’s not only a genuinely infuriating and touching movie, but it might also be one of the very best of its kind, a film about female empowerment in a small society completely lacking in it. The story of the five Turkish girls of Mustang becomes a love poem for, as Brian Tallerico stated, “the millions of women who have looked at the world around them and found they needed more.” The tale of five spirited young sisters imprisoned in their deeply repressive male oriented family home is an unequivocal triumph for its first-time female director Deniz Gamze Erguven. She directed the movie while pregnant: “It was a commando operation. I was exactly halfway through my pregnancy when we wrapped, and we were shooting twelve hours a day, six days a week. It put me in the same position of fragility as the girls, which wasn’t a bad thing since it meant we were all in the same boat.” She shoots her movie like a pro with a primal understanding of the cinematic form and her characters. What’s even more astounding is her work with the young actresses, all of whom more or less have never acted in a movie before. There are shared similarities to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, another female driven, female directed film. Erguyan replied that she “saw The Virgin Suicides when it came out and read Jeffrey Eugenide’s book, but Mustang is not a derivation of it.” Mustang is about teenage angst in a freedom constrained society. “I wanted to talk about what it’s like to be a girl and a woman in modern-day Turkey, where the condition of women is more than ever a major public issue. I frequently left Turkey for France and everytime I’d go back to Turkey I felt a form of constriction that surprised me. Everything that has anything to do with femininity is constantly reduced to sexuality, it’s as if everything a woman or even a young girl does is sexually loaded.” It’s a story that is sadly quite relevant in that part of the world — with arranged marriages, strict dress codes and proper “non-seductive” behavior being prescribed for women.
The Second Mother
Two particularly interesting films about motherhood are vying for a nomination this year. They couldn’t be more different from each other. Director Anna Muylaer’s The Second Mother tackles the generational and class divides happening in her native Brazil. Actors Regina Casé and Camila Márdila shared the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting at Sundance and the film won the Audience Award at Berlin. This is the story of a Sao Paulo nanny named Val who has to live with the guilt of having left her daughter Jessica until she re-enters the picture and decides to crash at Val’s workplace, When Jessica arrives, cohabitation is not easy and has Val pondering the past and re-envisioning her own future. Everyone will be affected by the personality and candor of Jessica with Val finding herself right in the middle of it. Muylaer’s film is trying to show the dividing class structure in Brazil and how it’s being -rightfully so- destroyed by the next generation. Jessica doesn’t understand why her mother gets treated so poorly, especially by the matriarch of the family who seems to have her values and nose stuck up in 21st century bourgeouis-ism. The story is also a touching ruminification on mother-daughter relations. Regina Case’s performance as the mother is eccentric, neurotic, but ultimately moving Muyaler’s direction is passionately laid out. When it comes to female directors “if your film is doing well, it’s because of us.” she told AD. Look for a great interview by Jazz this week with the star and filmmaker of this great movie.
The mother in Goodnight Mommy couldn’t be more different than Val – in directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s film she has come back from a mysterious accident with her face bandaged up due to plastic surgery and an overall newly found aggressive behavior. Her two sons start to suspect the worst, Is this really their mother? After all, she wasn’t this brutally honest and frank with them before. The notion that an imposter has taken over the matriarchal role seems somewhat preposterous at first, but the hysterical behavior the mother starts to impose on her children starts to worry both the children and the viewers themselves. The rest of the movie is too spoiler-filled to really go in-depth, but the surprise ending is one of the few welcome “twists” in recent cinema. This is a hard, tough watch that doesn’t give us any easy answers, but the filmmaking is breathtakingly, horrific imposing an almost Freudian aspect to the mother and son genre. Audience response has been warm to Goodnight Mommy, but can older more conservative voters respond the same way film geeks/fanboys have online? One thing’s for sure: Franz and Fiala impose tough, controlling, obsessively detailed frames to their movie and make something disturbingly special.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Roy Andersson’s films resist definition. As one critic pointed out: ‘Why would you write about a Roy Andersson film? You might as well dance about a cake.’ Don’t pay attention to the pretentious title, this Swedish film is actually quite an amazing miracle. The 2014 Golden Lion winner at Venice is an episodic, deadpan dramedy from Andersson’s brilliant, twisted psyche. The conclusive piece of his “living” trilogy that started with 2000s Songs From the Second Floor shows us the abyss of human existence and the pointlessness of some human lives. A knowledge of Kafka’s works might help, I was also reminded of Waiting for Godot in this seemingly modern tale of two unsuccessful and troubled travelling salesmen – it all feels like a metaphor for something otherwordly that cannot be comprehended. There’s nothing conventional or familiar about it. Roy Andersson’s movies are like that. You better brace yourself for a sequence of images, scenes and characters that may or may not fit together but are guaranteed to surprise, amuse and shock you. Andersson tackles death here, but tries to give it a twisty irrevocably deadpan style. sometimes you’re not sure what his point is but that’s part of the charm. I’ve heard some people say that they were bored to tears by the film, but then again this isn’t a film for short attention spans. As we stand it’s one of the bigger titles of the race, with much critical baggage on its back, and a respectable box office intake, but will voters adhere to its rebellious narrative?
The Club is Pablo Larrain’s latest provocation. It just won another Best Film award, this time at Montreal’s Le Festival Du Nouveau Cinema, which concludes a year where the film won prizes left and right including the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in February. After directing the excellent No, he sets his eyes out on the controversial sex abuse scandals of the church that happened in his home country. If Tom Mccarthy’s Spotlight didn’t show the perpetrators or the victims of these horrendous crimes then Larrain doesn’t shy away from doing so. The Club is about the evil men that committed the abuse and the isolated, small town house they live in for penance. It’s also about the victims, in particular one disturbed victim that seeks revenge. There are four men, a nun -whom has comitted a different kind of sin- and an overall gloomy atmosphere to the whole thing. To make matters worse a fellow priest who has just joined the house shoots himself in the head, a Church head comes to visit to inspect and possibly close down the house. Rage follows, but so does the fact that what is supposed to be prison for these men is actually a retreat, filled with recreational activities and a free pass they do not deserve. Larrain meticulously crafts the film with the eye of a proven filmmaker, he doesn’t shoot the film as much as live in it by trying to understand his characters and their motivations “I try to love my characters as well, even though they could be the meanest person in the world, and have done things that you could consider immoral or wrong.” the director told IndieWire earlier this year. The formula works wonders with The Club.
Pablo Trapero’s The Clan owes a lot of its narrative style to Martin Scorsese’s crime movies, with a rock and roll soundtrack, frenetic long takes and absurdly violent crime scenes. Trapero won the Silver Lion for direction this past September for this harrowing Argentian true story of the Puccio Clan, a family who kidnapped and killed in the 80s. It is all rendered with such horrific grittiness onscreen that it’s not hard to look away in some scenes. Trapero has taken the route of forcing us to identify with his heinous main characters, which makes this film more closely related to a Rob Zombie movie like The Devil’s Rejects than it does to any other crime film. It is however a little more restrained than the aforementioned filmmaker’s twisted visions, but nevertheless we are given the task of watching a family patriarch -deviously played The Secret in Their Eyes’ Guillermo Francella- embark in the most disturbing kidnappings, for political reasons, all in the meantime having his family abide and become more than just passive accomplices. Some of the victims are kept in the downstairs basement, where the screams can be heard from the upstairs family kitchen. The family doesn’t say a word, adhering to the father’s twisted agenda – yet the only one with a moral compass is his oldest son Alex, who starts to rebel against his old dad. The director has said that “What’s interesting for me was to tell the story of the relation between a father and his son and this is universal” . The film has become a phenomenon in his native country, breaking opening weekend box office records and having been seen by more than 2 million people in its first month of release alone.
Labyrinth of Lies
Of course, any World War II film about justice has to be part of the discussion. Giulio Ricciarelli’s film Labyrinth of Lies is about the conspiracy by the German government to cover up many of the crimes committed by Nazis during the second world war. It takes place in 1958 and has a young prosecutor investigating the case. His efforts are, however, obstructed by the powers that be who’d rather not be reminded of the past. In a particularly flabbergasting scene, the prosecutor asks his young colleagues what the word Auschwitz means to them. None of them come up with an answer. Unlike the other pictures on this list, Labyrinth of Lies does not enter the Oscar race with any prestigious Film Festival awards or critical acclaim on its belt, just look at its metacritic score 62, instead this is the kind of film that will have audiences saying it is a great movie. A potent crowd pleaser. Most pundits think this will get nominated. It is a safe, sometimes meandering, but often interesting story that only seems to be scratching the surface of the harsher truths at stake here. Ricciarelli directs it with all kinds of prestige-picture flair, but this isn’t even close to being the best German film of 2015.
Fresh off winning the top prize this year with Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, Grimur Hakonarson’s Icelandic film Rams was high atop my must see list for this article. Taking place in a secluded part of Iceland the film is about two sheep herding brothers who are so good at what they do that they are rewarded for their prized rams. Yet all is not well with this pair of siblings as they don’t talk to each other anymore nor do they even try to make eye contact. Tragedy strikes the small town when it is discovered that a brain and spinal eating disease has rummaged the village’s sheep and that the villagers must kill off their entire herds. This of course doesn’t sit very well with our two brothers who somehow try to take matters into their own hands, with both comic and tragic results. The brothers must fight together by putting aside their own egos aside and taking extraordinary measures to save the remaining sheep. This means breaking a 40 year silence between them, with one brother saying to the other, “No sheep – just the two of us.” Rams is about a deeply rooted culture threatened by extinction, it is about famillial ties that cannot be broken, but most importantly it is about a heritage that is very dear to the Icelandic people and that seems to bring people together in times of crisis.