War, alcohol, music, literature, disease, religion and pinball – they all figure into the latest batch of entries I've seen from the Academy's Best Foreign-Language Film category.
Thanks to relaxed campaign rules, the contenders – 63 of them this year – are screening much more aggressively outside of the Academy's own voting screenings than in years past. I've caught up with 26 so far, 18 of which I included in my first two batches of reviews surveying the category.
Also read: Reviewing Oscar's Foreign-Language Contenders: Sure Things & Longshots (Brazil, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Poland)
Also read: Gems and Longshots in Oscar's Foreign-Language Race (Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland)
Before I give my opinions of eight more of this year's contenders, a note: I was told by an Oscar voter that last Saturday's Academy screening of Wim Wenders' documentary "Pina" was met by a lot of walkouts. That's distressing enough, since the bold and beautiful 3D film is one of my favorites of the year – but the member also reported that while waiting for the second half of Saturday's foreign-language double feature to begin, he heard many of the early exiters bad-mouthing "Pina" for, among other things, double-dipping in the Foreign-Language and Documentary Feature categories.
I'm sorry, but that's ridiculous – and it's why the foreign-language executive committee instituted a new system that took some of the power to nominate out of the hands of the general committee. The category isn't Best Foreign-Language Narrative Film, or Best Foreign-Language Film That Was Exactly What We Expected – it's Best Foreign-Language Film, period. And if a country submits a movie that's eligible in other categories, there's no reason to hold that against the film.
I can understand growing impatient with "Pina" if you're not a fan of modern dance – but to downgrade it because the documentary branch was smart enough to shortlist it for their award is inexcusable.
And with that rant out of the way, here's my take on another batch of contenders.
Note: I've also inserted capsule reviews into my master list of the 63 entries.
Bulgaria: "Tilt"(photo above)
Director: Viktor Chouchkov
Forbidden love gets mixed up with the collapse of socialism in Bulgaria in "Tilt," one of a couple of entries set around the tumultuous events of the late '80s and early '90s in Eastern Europe. It's "Romeo and Juliet," plus politics: A kid who gets by as a penny-ante black market dealer falls for a girl whose father is a colonel. The dad doesn't approve, the kid flees, and as the old system collapses, an equally brutal and corrupt one fills the vacuum.
The young lovers (Yavor Baharov and Radina Kardjilova) have a spark, and the setting gives the familiar story a relatively fresh spin, though it remains more serviceable than exceptional. With its gang of skateboarders and its hip-hop/indie-rock soundtrack, "Tilt" is unlikely to prove appealing enough to Oscar voters to make the shortlist.
Chile: "Violeta Went to Heaven"
Director: Andres Wood
"Creation is a bird without a flight plan," says Chilean singer and artist Violeta Parra in the impressionistic biopic "Violeta Went to Heaven." And if the iconic artist took those words to heart, so does director Wood, whose deliberately disorienting film jumps between scenes from Parra's childhood and her life and career, interspersed with musical performances and a television interview in which she evades most of the questions she's asked.
The result is provocative if scattershot, with a central figure who certainly earns the audience's respect but seldom has its sympathy. "Violeta" may well be true to the contradictions of a woman whose most famous song was "Gracias a la Vida" ("Thanks to Life"), but who committed suicide at the age of 49 – and it’s probably fitting that her signature song isn't even included in the movie. It’s a difficult film about a difficult person.
Colombia: "The Colors of the Mountain"
Director: Carlos Cesar Arbelaez
"The Colors of the Mountain" is set in a remote village in Colombia, but the bucolic landscape is deceptive: This is a film about a town – and particularly its children – caught in a deadly struggle between guerillas and the military. The young boys on which the movie focuses want nothing more than to play soccer in a makeshift field – but when the ball goes out of bounds, it ends up in a minefield.
Viewing conflict through the eyes of children is not the freshest conceit, and the soccer field not the subtlest metaphor; "Colors" may have trouble standing out in such a large field of entries. But Arbelaez manages to make his story affecting, despite a static shooting style and acting that ranges from understated to amateurish. A couple of adults, one the father of the central character and one an optimistic new schoolteacher, help bring home the gravity of the situation.
Croatia: "72 Days"
Director: Danilo Serbedzija
For what it's worth, a large percentage of the Eastern European submissions tend to focus on characters who face dark situations by drinking a lot. The (homemade) alcohol flows freely in "72 Days," which is distinguished from many other films from the region by the blackly comic tone with which Serbedzija tells the story of a rural family that lives on the American pension that goes to an aunt whose late husband was killed while working as a cook for U.S. troops.
Led by a drunken, violent lout who'll do anything to keep from having to work for a living (a juicy role played by the director's father, Rade Serbedzija), the family functions as an appropriate vehicle for black comedy for a while – but as deceit and violence escalate, the film does turn into an unpleasant slog. The ending regains the comic tone that had been lost for the final stretch of the movie, and it's probably responsible for the audience awards it won at film festivals … but it probably won't be near enough to draw a favorable reaction from Oscar voters.
France: "Declaration of War"
Director: Valerie Donzelli
A surprise selection by France's selection committee, actress and director Donzelli's film is extraordinarily personal: It tells the story of a toddler who contracts a rare form of cancer, with Donzelli and her real-life former partner Jeremie Elkaim starring in roles based on their life. (Their son, who recovered, even makes an appearance late in the film.)
"Declaration of War" takes a distinctly un-Hollywood tack toward a story about a young child's serious illness, backing away from the details of the cancer and treatment to focus on its impact on the parents' relationship. Remarkably, given subject matter that could be unbearably grim, Donzelli manages to keep a certain lightness in tone, helped by a canny and moving use of music.
Her deft touch in handling difficult material reportedly played well at its Academy screening, and many of the voters I've spoken to were very impressed. This one appears to be a strong candidate for the shortlist.
Portugal: "Jose & Pilar"
Director: Miguel Goncalves Mendes
Like Germany did with "Pina," Portugal submitted a documentary about an artist: novelist Jose Saramago, the country's first Nobel Prize winner and an author whose politics and views on religion (he's a communist and an atheist) made him an object of controversy. Obviously, the work of a writer is less engaging onscreen than that of a choreographer, so Mendes spent years following Saramago to craft an intimate portrait of his life, the creation of his book "The Elephant's Journey" and, in particular, his relationship with his wife, Pilar del Rio.
Saramago, who died after the film was completed, is an intriguing character, but one who isn't fully served by the film. We get a lot of musings about mortality and religion, but far too much of the film focuses on Saramago's promotional chores: interviews he doesn't want to do, trips he doesn't want to make, books he doesn't want to sign, letters he doesn't want to answer. As Mendes spends so much time making Saramago's life look as if it's a chore to live, he also makes his deliberately-paced chronicle a chore to watch, turning the film into a missed opportunity.
South Korea: "The Front Line"
Director: Jang Hoon
An epic war film that starts with a soldier who's sent to investigate a single death on the Eastern front of the Korean War, "The Front Line" ends up being not about that one death, but about the senselessness and futility of conflict in general. A large-scale action epic rife with expertly rendered battle scenes, it focuses on a single hill near the 38th parallel that changes hands between North and South Korean soldiers with bloody regularity.
At its best, "The Front Line" uses that battleground to draw unexpected connections between enemy combatants in a war of attrition where peace talks go on for years, and where soldiers lose track of which of their comrades have died and which are still alive. But as the war drags on, so does the movie. In a way, this is the point: Even the truce that ended the Korean War didn't take effect for 12 hours after its signing, leaving time for one last round of brutal fighting.
But while the battle scenes are impressive and some characters nicely drawn, we get the point (i.e., "war is hell," more or less) long before the film draws to a close. "The Front Line" doesn’t really tell us anything that countless other war movies haven't told us before.
Director: Pernilla August
A veteran of Ingmar Bergman films including "Fanny and Alexander," and a stage actress known for her work doing Ibsen, Chekov and Strindberg, Pernilla August has clearly learned how to craft a dysfunctional family drama with grace and gravity. "Beyond" is remarkably assured for a first feature, and Noomi Rapace, the star of the original "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" films, delivers a wrenching performance as a woman nearly paralyzed by memories of the alcoholism and abuse that destroyed her childhood, but forced to revisit those days when she learns that her mother is dying. (Tehilla Blad, who plays her character in flashbacks, is terrific as well.)
The film, which is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Susanna Alakoski, has its share of lovely and lyrical moments. In its final stretch, though, it circles down into a pit of despair from which it's hard for either characters or viewers to recover. Some small, hard-earned and crucial grace notes at the end might help audiences embrace a stunning directorial debut.