Thursday, September 1, 2016

Short Takes: Catching Up on the 2015 Foreign Language Film Oscar Nominees

The 88th Academy Awards were handed out over half a year ago, but there's no reason we can't keep talking about them! I recently completed viewing the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, so below you'll find capsule reviews of all five films along with how I would have ranked them if I had a ballot. I'll post ballots for the eight major categories (Picture, Director, Acting, and Writing) at a later date.

Son of Saul (dir. Laśzló Nemes, Hungary)

It's no surprise that this harrowing Holocaust feature won the Oscar. The film is the story of a Hungarian prisoner (Géza Röhrig) assigned to the Sonderkommando (charged with burning bodies) at Auschwitz who believes one of the bodies may belong to his son. Nemes films Saul's efforts to provide a proper Jewish burial in tight close-ups, with the camera rarely leaving its position just over Saul's shoulder. It's a terrific directorial trick: by keeping the literal focus on Saul, the film avoids the easy exploitation of the horrors of the concentration camps that so many other Holocaust films traffic in. Instead, Saul's dangerous plight and his emotional journey is the heart of the film, and it's no less distressing. Though Saul remains something of a cypher throughout, the film itself stands as a powerful and unique entry into the Holocaust film canon. A

The other four nominees after the jump.

Mustang (dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, France)

Five orphaned girls (Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, and Ilayda Akdogan), innocently joined by some local boys, play on the beach near their home in rural Turkey. Their conservative guardians respond by confining them to the house and arranging marriages for each of them, even though the youngest is barely a preteen. Ergüven's film is defiant without being overtly political, criticizing the cultural conservatism that forces the young women into lives chosen for them but keeping the focus on the women themselves and how they handle their situation. Sisterhood is the prevailing interest of the film, from the way the girls band together in rebellion to the way they support and entertain each other in smaller moments. More than anything, it feels like an organic glimpse into the lives of these characters, reveling in little wonders just as much as big ideas. Ergüven's next film can't come soon enough. A

A War (dir. Tobias Lindholm, Denmark)

Commander Claus Michael Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) is regarded as a paragon of military professionalism, both by the men under his command in Afghanistan and by his family at home in Denmark. When an ambush firefight results in civilian deaths, however, Pedersen is charged with committing war crimes and threatened with imprisonment at home. Lindholm's film aims to a morally-complicated blend of war film, family drama, and courtroom drama, but fails to strike a proper balance between them. The film is at its best in the Afghanistan scenes, where the toll the war is taking on Pedersen and his men is most vivid. The family aspect never feels completely developed, and the courtroom scenes too often spell out Lindholm's themes explicitly. Despite these structural issues, the film does benefit from Asbæk's terrific performance; his face and body language convey more than the sometimes-clunky dialogue ever does. B

Theeb (dir. Naji Abu Nowar, Jordan)

In many ways, Theeb feels like a throwback to the kind of wartime adventure film that were popular in early Hollywood and lovingly recreated by the Indiana Jones films. Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), a young Bedouin boy, leads a British soldier (Jack Fox) to his secret meeting point in WWI-era Ottoman Empire, risking his life to assist the stranger in a race against another malevolent stranger (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh). Nowar excels in creating a sense of adventure, especially in balancing Theeb's conflicting desires to be part of the action and flee for safety. The film does stumble at times; the characterizations never fully develop beyond a few traits, and though he has an easy presence, Al-Hwietat struggles to carry the film through his performance. Still, as throwbacks go, the film is enjoyable and watchable. B+

Embrace of the Serpent (dir. Ciro Guerra, Colombia)

Guerra's beguiling feature follows two parallel narratives: the first is a German ethnographer's (Jan Bijvoet) journey into the Amazon at the turn of the 20th century, while the second is an American botanist's (Brionne Davis) similar expedition three decades later. The connective tissue between the two narratives is Karamakate (Nilbio Torres in the first, Antonio Bolivar in the second), a shaman who is the last survivor of his tribe. The film's partitioned structure lends it a sense of mystery, and the black-and-white photography provides a haunting visual touch. The first narrative stands out more only because Torres and Bijvoet deliver fantastic performances, each of them playing the uneasy notes of first contact and a trust that's never complete. There are statements here about the destruction of indigenous populations by European visitors, but the film seems just as interested in how these characters understand each other and the world of Amazonian Colombia. It's the kind of film that improves with each viewing. A-

My final ballot:

1. Mustang (France)
2. Son of Saul (Hungary)
3. Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia)
4. Theeb (Jordan)
5. A War (Denmark)

1 comment:

Shane Slater said...

Such a strong crop this was, right? The Academy picked well. These would have been my Top 5 (give or take 'The Second Mother'). One of the best foreign language Oscar lineups in recent memory.