This year 67 countries entered films in the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category. I managed to see 50 of the entries, including all five of the final nominees. The five finalists are a strong group, but two of them stand out as the favorites. Here are brief descriptions of the nominees, followed by mention of some noteworthy non-nominees. I have also included trailers for all of the films, but be warned that three of them do not have subtitles in English.
The Class (France)
The Class is about a middle-school teacher in the inner-city who tries to inspire his mixed-race students. Sound familiar? Don't worry. The Class bears little resemblance to Hollywood's well-worn take on the subject. There are no murders or rapes or gang fights or drug dealing; no bullies, no victims and no physical violence between races. Instead, what we see are teachers and students whose actions, speeches and attitudes are so realistic that in the lobby after the Academy screening, I heard one woman ask her companion if the film was a documentary. The Class is in fact based on an autobiographical novel by a teacher, François Begaudeau, who also plays the teacher in the film. My sons attended middle school in France, and they were most impressed by the extremely realistic banter amongst the students. Although some aspects of the story are specific to the French school system, the cast of classroom characters is recognizable by anyone in almost any country. This is an exceptionally good film, and it would probably be a shoo-in to win the Oscar were it not for the presence of another film....
Waltz with Bashir (Israel)
Academy voters are unusually sympathetic to Jewish-themed films in the foreign language category. The last ten years have seen three such winners: Life is Beautiful (1998), Nowhere in Africa (2002), and The Counterfeiters (2007). But unlike these three, Waltz with Bashir does not take place during World War II. Like last year's Israeli entry, Beaufort, which also earned a nomination, it deals instead with the Israeli occupation of Lebanon; in this case, the 1982 Sabra and Chatila Massacres and their aftermath. One month after the 9/11 attacks, I wrote a piece called Why Do They Hate Us?, in which I proposed that if we wanted to combat the spread of anti-American Islamist terrorism, we needed to understand the answer to this question. President Bush told the American people that "They hate our freedoms." He was wrong. I presented six possible real reasons, one of which was "Sabra and Chatila."
Beginning on September 16, 1982, Israeli soldiers stood by while Christian Phalangist militia, over a period of 40 hours, entered two Palestinian refugee camps and massacred hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinian non-combatants, including children. In Waltz with Bashir, director Ari Foreman, who was a 19-year-old Israeli soldier in Lebanon at the time, visits other Lebanon veterans 24 years later to try to understand why he has blotted out all memory of his actions during those 40 hours. This a powerful film, and it is admirable that Foreman and other Israelis want to come to terms with what is one of the most shameful episodes in Israeli history. I am Jewish and it pains me to realize how many of my fellow Jewish-Americans blindly support anything that the Israeli government does. Thank goodness the Israelis themselves--or at least some of them--are more discerning than their American cousins.
By the way, in case you haven't heard, Waltz with Bashir is an animated film. If a plurality of Academy voters can overcome the oddity of voting for an animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir could beat out The Class for the Oscar.
The Other Nominees
The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Germany)
In emphasizing the two favorites, I do not mean to belittle the other three nominees. The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a big-budget action flick filled with explosions, shootings, nudity and violent confrontations. Anyone familiar with the true story of the Baader-Meinhof Gang knows that this portrayal is by no means an exaggeration. The Baader-Meinhofs, who actually went by the name Red Army Faction (RAF), were a group of Communist terrorists who committed several acts of violence until they were captured in 1972. More terrorists, inspired by the "first generation" of the RAF, engaged in even more violent attacks in 1977. Although we see clearly what inspired the terrorists, the film does not depict them in a sympathetic light. Yet just showing them as human beings at all appears to have made some Americans uncomfortable, as the film, despite its popularity in Europe, does not have a U.S. distributor.
Daigo, the protagonist of Departures, is an unemployed cellist who, with his wife, retreats to his rural hometown and takes a job as a mortician's assistant, preparing bodies for cremation. He soon comes to appreciate that his eccentric boss views the task as an art, and the scenes in which they ritually perform their work, with family members of the deceased in attendance, are wonderful to behold...and not without their humorous moments.
In Revanche, a prostitute and her boyfriend, Alex, who is the boss's flunky, try to fund their escape to a better life by staging a bank robbery in a rural area. But it all goes terribly wrong, and Alex has to hole up at the farm of his recently widowed grandfather. Alex discovers that the neighbor woman who takes his grandfather to church is married to the policeman Alex (while masked) confronted during the robbery. This is a fascinating series of character studies with the threat of murder lurking in the dark.
Everlasting Moments (Sweden) seemed an obvious favorite for a nomination, and it did make the shortlist of nine. But something funny happened in the final selection and somehow it lost out to The Baader-Meinhof Complex, Departures and Revanche. Directed by Jan Troell, who was previously nominated (in 1973) for The Emigrants, Everlasting Moments is inspired by the true story of a woman in the early 20th century who wins a camera in a lottery and uses it to make a living, while learning about herself and the world. Unfortunately, when her drunkard husband finds out, he beats her.
Not exactly Academy Award fare, Masquerades (Algeria) nonetheless earned a nice amount of lobby buzz after its showing because it was a simple and entertaining romantic comedy. Hero Mounir wants respect in his village, but is hampered by the fact that his sister is narcoleptic and falls asleep at amusingly inappropriate times. One night Mounir gets drunk, and in the middle of the village square, screams out that his sister is engaged to a rich man. Immediately, Mounir gets the respect he seeks. Unfortunately, there is no such suitor.
An extremely rare feature film from Jordan, Captain Abu Raed is a touching tale of an airport janitor who allows the children in his neighborhood to believe he is a pilot. This charade is exposed early, but he continues to try to help the children, in particular the boy who exposed him.
Initially, I was put off by the disappointing ending of Nuits d'Arabie (Luxembourg), but as time passed, it grew on me. Georges is a ticket collector on a commuter train. He is happily married, plays in the town orchestra, is the goalie for the local soccer team, and generally lives a pleasant, upstanding life. But one evening he meets Yamina, an Algerian immigrant who is hiding out from mysterious assailants. At first, Georges just wants to help her, but step-by-step his world is turned upside-down.