With less than a week to go before the deadline for submissions in the Academy’s foreign-film category, new entries are coming fast and furious. Here’s the latest batch, ranging from lowbrow comedies to gangster pictures to, no surprise, a Holocaust drama.
Belgium: “The Misfortunates”
Variety called director Felix van Groeningen’s film “a visually robust and often hilarious Flemish tragicomedy,” though it deals with a family of drunken lowlifes not ordinarily apt to find a sympathetic audience among Academy voters. The sympathy, though, might go to the film’s protagonist, a13-year-old boy who grows up in the chaotic household.
Adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Dimitri Verhulst, the episodic film jumps back and forth over a few decades, with raucous comedy reportedly giving way to a more bittersweet, emotional tone
Bolivia: “Zona Sur (Southern Zone)”
Set in an upper-class household in La Paz, during a time of social upheaval in Bolivia, “Zona Sur” was envisioned by director Juan Carlos Valdivia as more of a comedy, and then evolved in “a piece of a more thoughtful nature.” It deals with a rich family living in a bubble of comfort in the Southern District of La Paz, with the servants who help them maintain that bubble, and with the forces that eventually, in the words of the film’s official synopsis, “make the bubble burst.”
Valdivia’s film “American Visa” was Bolvia’s official submission in 2006, but did not receive a nomination.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: “Guardians of the Night”
A Sarajevo-set film called “Guardians of the Night” conjures up images of war zones and devastation, but the setting for director Namik Kabil’s film is considerably more prosaic: it’s about a pair of night watchmen who meet after hours in a large department store. One man has odd stomach pains, and thinks he might be pregnant; the other is diet-obsessed and a devotee of self-help tapes. The country’s history of conflict intrudes when a neighbor across the street, a war veteran, keeps triggering the alarm system and summoning the police.
Action is reportedly at a minimum; it’s just a night inside the store with a couple of odd characters who come to a few realizations by their morning coffee. The director calls it “a one night introspection.”
Trailer (not in English, but not much dialogue).
Music video set to scenes from the film.
Brazil: “Salve Geral”
The true events that inspired this film became known as “the Brazilian September 11th,” and that connection with American history was clearly one of the factors that went into the selection of director Sergio Rezende’s $4 million drama. Brazil’s audiovisual secretary, Silvio Da-Rin, told Screen Daily that the choice was made because of the film’s “artistic and technical quality, the sum invested in the budget and the contemporaneity of the subject.” Added the film’s producer, Joaquim Vaz de Carvalho, “We believe the relevance of the them will help us attract the Academy members’ attention.”
“Salve Geral” deals with a wave of attacks a Brazilian criminal organization, the PCC, made on various Sao Paolo targets in 2006, and about life inside a violent prison, and about a mother’s attempt to get her son out of that prison. Last year’s Brazilian entry, Bruno Barreto’s “Last Stop 174,” dealt with another true-crime event, a bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro; it didn’t make the shortlist.
Trailer with amateur English subtitles.
Official website (in Portuguese).
Canada: “I Killed my Mother”
Xavier Dolan, the writer, director and star of “J’ai tue ma mere (I Killed My Mother),” was initially reluctant to make his debut film, the semi-autobiographical story of a young gay man and his dark, troubling relationship with his mother. When the film played in the Directors Fortnight program at Cannes, though, it won three awards and received an eight-minute standing ovation. “Dolan’s sizable maturity and self-assurance as a filmmaker is clear in every frame” of the film," wrote the Canadian, gay-themed website Xtra.ca.
Despite its rapturous reception at Cannes, the film has divided viewers. The Hollywood trades took similar stances: Variety called it “amusing but undisciplined,” while the Hollywood Reporter opted for “uneven but funny.” Screen Daily, meanwhile, enthused that it was “a stunning, semi-autobiographical tour de force” and “a film with the sting of shrewdly observed truth.” As for Dolan, he has given interviews pronouncing himself surprised and intimidated to be competing in the same category with the likes of Germany’s “The White Ribbon” and France’s “A Prophet.”
Official Rezo Films page (includes subtitled trailer).
K-Films Amerique page (French).
Denmark: “Terribly Happy”
It’s a crime story set in a small village in Denmark, it’s been compared to a Coen Brothers movie, it dominated the Danish Bodil Awards with six wins, and an English-language remake is already in the works. The news has been good for director Henrik Ruben Genz, who was nominated for an Oscar for the short “Teis & Nico” more than a decade ago.
“Terribly Happy” deals with a lawman sent to a small Danish town, where, wrote The Gazette when the film played a Quebec film festival, he’s “emeshed in an intricate web of gossip, suspicion and, eventually, murder.” Reviewers have said the camera work is inventive and talked about languid pacing but a tense feel; Variety dubbed it “a blackly comic thriller about the universal nature of compromise and corruption.” If it’s not too black and too twisted, this one might be stylish enough to get some attention from voters who might usually tend toward heftier fare – though the lack of an emotional hook can always be a problem in this category. Oscilloscope has the U.S. rights.
India: “Harishchandrachi Factory”
A couple of big Bollywood hits were in the running to be India’s official Oscar submission, but in the end a slice of Indian film history won out over current favorites. A unanimous choice from the Film Federation of India, “Harishchandrachi Factory” tells the story of director Dadasaheb Phalke and his struggle to make the film “Raja Harishchandra,” a 1913 production that was the country’s first feature film.
The film was made after director Paresh Mokashi conducted extensive research into the methods Phalke used to make his film, and then opted for a “chronological, linear and very basic” approach. He also decided to keep the film light and focus on what he calls “the ‘adventurer’ side of Phalke’s character.” Unlike most of the highest-profile Indian films, Mokashi’s movie was made not in Hindi, but in the regional Marathi language.
Indian TV report on the selection.
Iran: “About Elly”
A young teacher disappears during a trip to the north of Iran. Is she still alive? And can any of the university friends with whom she was traveling be trusted? Variety’s review says that the drama “casts a revealing light on the elaborate culture of deceit that’s part of modern Iranian society with this talky, overlong drama about upper-middle-class Tehranis on a catastrophic seaside holiday.” The Hollywood
Reporter, less concerned with the movie’s two-hour running time, called it “a taut, involving drama” that “confirms director Asghar Farhadi as a major talent in Iranian cinema whose ability to chronicle the middle-class malaise of his society is practically unrivaled.”
The film won the Silver Bear award for best director at the Berlin Film Festival, and also picked up honors at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival and the Brisbane International Film Festival. “Over the past few years,” wrote Kellen Quinn in the Tribeca Film Festival program, “Farhadi has emerged as a preeminent creative force in Iranian cinema and has done so in part by making sophisticated dramas about the oft-overlooked Iranian middle class.”
Trailer (subtitled in French)
World War II … Europe … A young man who deserts rather than fight on the side of the Nazis. So far, it sounds just like what the foreign-language voters are often looking for, although the film, which reportedly took seven years to produce, hasn’t screened much outside of a Luxembourg release and showings at Cannes’ Marche du Film, the market that runs simultaneously with the festival.
Official site (Iris Productions).
Trailer (no English subtitles).
Directort Carlos Carrera has been in the Oscar race before: six years ago, his Mexican blockbuster “The Crime of Father Amaro” won a nomination in this category. His new film deals with a detective investigating the murder of young, female sweatshop workers near the border in Ciudad Juarez. Ana de la Reguera plays the central detective, while Co-star Jimmy Smits gives “Backyard” (“El Traspatio”) one of the most familiar faces to be seen in any of this year’s foreign-film competitors.
Less commercial successful than Carrera’s previous film, “Backyard” has also picked up mixed reviews: Screen Daily called it “an earnest melodrama that exhumes the corpses but never finds the drama to match its horror.” Reel Film Reviews said the film starts out promisingly but turns into “a progressively tedious experience,” which does not bode well for its reception among Oscar voters.
Screen Daily review.
Philippines: “Ded na Si Lolo”
The way in which society deals with death was a potent subject last year for the Japanese film “Departures,” a surprise winner in the foreign film category. “Ded na si Lolo” may have some surface similarities – it focuses on the way families handle the passing of a loved one, and the particular rituals of a specific culture – but the gentle, emotional tone of “Departures” is nowhere in sight in writer/director Soxie Topacio’s broad low-budget comedy.
Siege Malvar, a young-adult novelist in the Philippines, called the film “brilliantly cathartic” and dubbed it “the year’s must-see movie,” though his enthusiasm seems unlikely to transfer to Academy members. If the trailer is a remotely reliable way to get a handle on the film, this one may be way too slapsticky for Oscar voters.
A gay-oriented Filipino website that praises the film’s “edge-of-sanity bombast.”
A trailer – no subtitles, but it’s mostly screaming, fainting and fighting anyway.
Poland: “Rewers (Reverse)”
Shot in black and white, “Reverse” is the narrative feature debut of director Borys Lankosz, who became known as a director of documentaries. The film is set in 1952; its central character, Sabina, played by Agata Buzek, is a 30-year-old woman who works for a publisher, and whose relatives are constantly trying to find an appropriate suitor for her. A rough-hewn young man enters her life and transforms things for Sabina, her mother, and her grandmother. (Photo: Anna Polony, Agata Buzek and Krystyna Janda in “Reverse”)
The film’s page at the recent Polish Film Festival, where it won the top jury prize.
Serbia: “St. George Shoots the Dragon”
Serbia’s original submission in this category, “Here and There,” was a lighter film set partly in New York City; when the amount of English dialogue in that film could have proved problematic, the country pulled it and went with this lavish war film, one of the most expensive ever made in Serbia. Set in a small village near the Austria-Hungary border in the years prior to World War I, the film deals with a love triangle, and with tensions between able-bodied young men and wounded war veterans.
The Times BFI London Film Festival described it as “an ambitious, swaggering blend of Zhivago-esque historical romance and Kusturica-style rural grotesque,” which could all be good things: Ambition, scale, emotion and war often play well with Oscar voters. Still, the film was not especially well received upon its release earlier this year. “The film’s potential of being a Griffith-like historical melodrama and spectacle – with the heart breaking love story placed against a turbulent and magnificent historical era … is almost completely missed,” wrote Nevena Dakovic at the University of Arts, Belgrade.
A six-minute subtitled trailer, so overheated and replete with sex, violence and dramatic choral music that it almost plays like parody.
The official site (English version).
Slovakia: “Broken Promise”
World War II, the Holocaust, a true coming-of-age story … Slovakia’s entry sounds tailor-made to appeal to the Academy’s foreign-language voters, though whether it’ll be distinctive enough to stand out in a field full of wartime dramas remains to be seen. The film is based on the story of Martin Friedmann, a young Slovak Jew whose life changes dramatically when his country makes an alliance with Nazi Germany.
Director Jiri Chumsky, says Robert Hawk of FILMHAWK.com, “offers a virtually singular experience: a Holocaust film without one scene in a death camp.” The film won the “best narrative feature” award at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival in April, and has played a handful of other festivals.
A review from Jweekly.com, covering the film’s showing at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
A fact sheet from the film’s North American distributor, Picture This Entertainment.
Trailer (no subtitles).
The big winner at the 2009 Swiss Film Prizes, this French-language family drama was dubbed “a road movie sans travel” by Variety. Isabelle Huppert stars as the matriarch of a family fighting to stay in their home as a new expressway goes up nearby. “I wanted to mix tones and genres, jumping from a dramatic scene to another one that’s a bit more burlesque,” director Ursula Meier told Cineuropa. She also said she thinks of the central conceit – a road that brings the noisy, dirty world to the door of people who wanted to stay safely at home – as a metaphor for Switzerland.
A British reviewers for Channel 4 called the film “surreal” and concluded, “Meier’s increasingly unhinged vision is the very definition of unsettling.” Alan Diment added phrases like “imaginative and sinister” and “downright unnerving.” Oscar voters, be prepared.
Cineuropa interview with Meier.
A wonderful trailer, which doesn’t need English because it’s got Nina Simone.
Thailand: “Best in Time”
From the looks of things a lighthearted, sentimental film about love and memory, director Yongyuth Torngkorngtun’s movie intertwines two stories. In one, a young man runs into his first love when she brings her dog into the clinic where he works; he pretends not to know her, and she genuinely doesn’t remember him. Two senior citizens, meanwhile, try to kindle a new romance against the wishes of her family. The small amount that’s been written about the film in English describe it as a romantic comedy, a feel-good movie – not normally what voters look for in this category, though a little heart can sometimes go a long way.
Official website (not in English).
Trailer: bouncy, pretty, perky, no subtitles.
Turkey: “Gunesi Gordum (I Saw the Sun) ”
Last year’s submission from Turkey, “Three Monkeys,” didn’t get a nomination – but it did make the Oscar shortlist of nine, where it was seen as a sign that the foreign-language selections were becoming more adventurous. This year’s selection, from writer-director Mahsun Kirmizigul, looks grander and less daring than its predecessor.
Set in a remote mountain village in Turkey, the film spans 25 years and deals with forced migration policies that push three families out of the homes they’ve known for generations. Two of the families travel to Istanbul and stay there; the third travels all the way to Norway. “It is a film that condemns all of discrimination or otherization,” says Kirmizigul, “and argues that war, fighting and contempt for anyone unlike oneself are the very problem itself.”