Friends From Abroad
As a non-member of the Academy, never have I been more grateful for not having to vote than for this year’s flag-bearer from somewhere else; no category breaks more hearts than the Best Foreign Language Film. Backstage politics and deals aside, each entry has already been a winner at home, selected from strong contenders, to represent the biggest talents its country can muster. So, by the time it’s been shortlisted in Hollywood, it’s not—as with so many domestic finalists—so much about who did what to whom, or who owes a favor to old friends. It’s safe to say that 2016 has shortlisted an array of foreign talents from first-timers to veterans strong enough to paralyze any attempt to raise one’s hand. And if you are drawn to character-driven films, this is the category in which to find directors, writers and actors united in a single purpose: to create characters (and lives) which remain lodged in memory for decades.
Of course there is Son of Saul, a kind of King of Kings, already crowned with Cannes’ Grand Prix. It is harrowing, disturbing, painful to watch. It is also a work of genius. For one who has seen countless Holocaust films, it rises above even the best of them for its sheer intensity. During a press conference at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, director László Nemes and actor Géza Rӧhrig recounted their five-year odyssey of writing, rewriting, replanning and fundraising made even more difficult by the fact that Nemes had not made a feature-length film (let alone one on such a difficult subject) before; that his co-writer (Clara Royer) was a full-time academic at the Sorbonne; and that Rӧhrig (who described himself as a professional—“a professional poet”) had previously appeared only in two episodes of a Hungarian mini-series. That press conference was enthralling, and unforgettable for the breadth and depth of its discourse, as well as for the civilized wit summoned by it subjects as they answered Gavin Smith’s questions. press conference
No less intelligent, but in an entirely different style and intent, Embrace of the Serpent (director/writer Ciro Guerra) is an original and thrilling marriage of reality and fantasy played out in two 20th-century time frames, magic realism based on the accounts of two European explorers who pierced the Amazon forests, contemplated the natives who had survived brutal exploitation, and did their best to understand both the ecological and spiritual cultures so at odds with their own. The film is hypnotic, full of mystery, and mostly in black and white, which seems to enhance its purpose. http://variety.com/2015/film/festivals/film-review-the-embrace-of-the-serpent-1201510916/.
The sheer energy and courage of the five young women in Mustang capture your heart and your sympathy from the opening scenes at a beach frolic to the arc of their destinies as their family tries to marry them off and control them in the interim. The progressive constraint takes its toll, yet the two youngest and fiercest of the sisters are able to escape bleak lives and create a future with a truly dazzling and intrepid escape. A first-time feature directed and co-written by a woman (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, with co-writer Alice Winocour), Mustang is a soaring tribute to what is possible for those who are determined enough to take chances. The traditions here are definitely worth pushing against.
A War: yes, a man’s film that speaks to women as well, by director/writer Tobias Lindholm, whose style is defined by a pared-down aesthetic without one ounce of fat; it’s all about the story and the characters who tell it. Starring Pilou Asbaek as a Danish soldier in Afghanistan, it is a riveting, intense up-to-the-minute account of an unwinnable war, responsibility, and the effect of trauma and confusion on the soldiers and their families; the consequences do not fade with time and distance. Lindholm has many films to his credit, notably A Hijacking and screenplay credit for The Hunt, and seems to have been born to prove that less is always more.
No matter which contender walks off with the prize tonight, all five films offer a command of filmmaking as art and craft. They remain required viewing for everyone who cares about the medium and for what it can accomplish with imagination, inspiration, commitment, and (to use an overused word) vision strong enough to stay the course
Go forth and see them!