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02/22/2013 10:12 am ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

Academy Awards 2013: Foreign Language Films

This year a record 71 countries submitted entries in the Best Foreign Language Film category. I managed to see 61 of these films. Although there were many entertaining movies, the overall mood was bleak. As one of my viewing companions put it, it's as if the stories were conceived during the financial crisis of 2008, written in 2009, funded in 2010, produced in 2011 and released in 2012. Here are my comments on the five nominees, as well some non-nominees that I consider noteworthy.

Amour (Austria)

After the initial screenings of the 71 foreign language films, it seemed like the battle for the Oscar would be between Amour and the popular French entry, The Intouchables. However, thanks to its questionable political correctness and to the dubious system by which 30 people choose the five nominees from a short list of nine, The Intouchables didn't even get nominated. That left Amour as the overwhelming favorite, particularly as it was also nominated in four other categories: Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Haneke), Best Original Screenplay (Haneke) and best Actress (Emmanuelle Riva). Riva, who will celebrate her 86th birthday the day of the Oscar ceremony, is the oldest-ever nominee in the Best Actress (or Best Actor) category.

Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant (who is only 82 years old) play Anne and Georges, a married couple who have shared a long and satisfying life performing and teaching classical music. They have a daughter, a beautiful home in Paris, successful and grateful former students and a rich intellectual involvement. Life is good. But one morning Anne has a stroke. An operation doesn't help, so Anne faces an inevitable slow physical and mental deterioration. Georges sticks with her all the way, step by discouraging step. When the lights went up at the screening I attended, I realized that, at age 64, I was younger than most of the audience, the majority of whom were Academy voters. In the lobby, I listened in to people's reactions, expecting the older viewers to have found Amour depressing. But that was not at all the case. The clear consensus, accompanied by shrugs of shoulders, was that the film was an honest, unflinching portrayal of the reality of aging.

My only objection to Amour is that Haneke employs a technique that is one of my pet peeves: betraying the ending in the opening scene. The film begins with firemen, police and the daughter breaking into an apartment, covering their faces to protect against poisonous air until they can throw open the windows, and then discovering a dead body carefully laid out on a bed. Did this scene really make for a better story? I think not. At least it wasn't as bad as Belgium's entry this year,Our Children, in which we learn in the first two minutes that a mother has murdered her four children. Viewers are then subjected to 110 excruciating minutes of background. No thanks.

Michael Haneke's black and white feature The White Ribbon was nominated in the Foreign Language category three years ago. For the record, Riva and Trintignant previously appeared together in the Italian film I Kill, You Kill (Io uccido, tu uccidi)... in 1965.

War Witch (Rebelle) (Canada)

Several years ago, I convinced the editors of Parade magazine to let me write an article about the horrific and largely unknown war for minerals going on in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I called the article "The War at our Fingertips" because one of the exploited products, coltan, is used to create cell phones, laptops and gaming systems. In the end, Parade did not run the piece because none of the refugees I interviewed who had witnessed atrocities would allow me to use their real names for fear it would lead to lethal punishment of family members still in the DRC. So I posted it to my own web site instead.

War Witch deals with the same subject, told from the point of view of Komona (Rachel Mwanda), a 12-year-old girl who is abducted by rebels and forced to become part of their militia. Before they take her away, they force her to kill her own parents. Like all the child soldiers, Komona is fed a hallucinogenic drug. When it develops that she has visions of the presence of government troops before others see them, she is presented to the rebel leader, who designates her his "war witch." Komona is befriended by an equally young soldier, known only as Magicien (Serge Kanyinda) and together they escape. But escaping psychopathic, greedy, drugged rebels is not so easy, and more tragedy ensues.

Unfortunately, killing, rape and forced labor are still commonplace in the eastern DRC, and the world still doesn't consider it newsworthy. Hopefully War Witch will call more attention to this ongoing tragedy.


Kon-Tiki
(Norway)

I grew up in a home with books in every room. Even before my mother taught me to read, I would scan the colorful book covers on the shelves. One of them, embedded in my memories of childhood, was The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Raft Across the South Seas by Thor Heyerdahl. Heyerdahl was a Norwegian anthropologist who developed a theory that the Polynesian islands were peopled from the east by South Americans who arrived by raft, rather than from Asia, which was the prevailing theory. To prove that his idea was possible, he and an adventurous crew of five (four Norwegians and a Swede), constructed a primitive balsa wood raft, the Kon-Tiki, in Peru and attempted to head west, powered by the wind alone.

The Kon-Tiki expedition set off on April 28, 1947. In a world still traumatized by a world war that had ended less than two years earlier, Heyerdahl's adventure caught the public imagination. Thanks to periodic radio communication, The New York Times, for example, carried a map that displayed the boat's daily progress. When the Kon-Tiki crash-landed in the Tuamotu Islands 101 days later, Heyerdahl became an international celebrity. He was clever enough to film the whole experience and edit it into a movie that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1951.

The new feature film based on the Kon-Tiki expedition deals with Heyerdahl's frustrating attempts to prove to skeptics that his project is worth financing. However the bulk of the story takes place on the raft during the difficult early weeks of the voyage as the crew faces storms, sharks, doubts and that bane of early sailors -- lack of wind. It's an exciting story, well-presented.

Kon-Tiki is directed by childhood friends Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. I was fortunate to attend a public screening of Kon-Tiki, after which Rønning and Sandberg, along with screenwriter Petter Skavlan and star Pål Sverre Hagen, answered questions from the audience. One audience member asked how it was possible that they were able to make such a spectacular film for only $16 million. The directors looked at each other sheepishly and then one responded, "Actually it was the most expensive film ever made in our country. We do things differently in Norway."

As a side note, Thor Heyerdahl, when he was older, looked remarkably like Joe Biden.

No (Chile)

In September 1973, the Chilean military, with the support of the administration of President Richard Nixon and the CIA, overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende. At the head of the new regime was General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet's dictatorship was characterized by the brutal suppression of political opponents, including the torture of 28,000 people and the execution or disappearance of at least 3,200. Under pressure from Americans and others who were investing in his regime, Pinochet agreed in 1988 to hold a referendum to approve an eight-year extension to his rule.

No tells the sometimes frightening, often amusing struggle of the opposition campaign to convince potential voters that as stacked as the deck is in the election, it is still worth voting "no." The protagonist of the story is René Saavedra (played by the popular Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal), a hotshot young advertising executive who is recruited to create a "no" campaign that will appeal to the masses. When that campaign begins to click, the generals hire Saavedra's boss to take charge of their advertising campaign. During work hours the two collaborate to pitch soft drinks and an insipid TV series, but afterhours they are engaged in a high-level political battle.

Although the story includes romance and political violence, it is also a clever and entertaining satire about the selling of candidates and ideas as if they were products, which, let's face it, is relevant outside of Chile as well.

A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære) (Denmark)

A Royal Affair is based on a brief period in Danish history that has captured the imagination of Scandinavians and Germans in particular for 340 years. At a time when Denmark was a European power, Christian VII ascended to the nation's throne. He was 16 years old and, although intelligent, was clearly mentally imbalanced. Princess Caroline Matilde, the 15-year-old younger sister of King George III of the United Kingdom, was sent to Denmark to marry Christian, not realizing that he was mentally ill. A Royal Affair tells the story from Caroline's point-of-view.

Christian was enthusiastic about sexual pleasures... but not with his queen. After successfully fathering an heir, he left for an eight-month tour of Europe. When he returned to Copenhagen, he brought with him a German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, who became Christian's official physician. Struensee and Caroline began a love affair, which adds spice to the story, but from an historical perspective, what the two of them did was to bring Voltaire-inspired reforms to Danish society. Taking advantage of Christian's increasing isolation from the real world, they convinced him to stand up to the old court powers or at least to stand aside and let Struensee do so. Between December 1770 and January 1772, Struensee abolished torture and press censorship, banned the slave trade, fought against bribery, corruption and the privileges of the aristocracy, and gave land to the peasants.

The story of Christian, Caroline and Struensee has been the subject of at least six novels, most notably The Royal Physician's Visit by Per Olof Enquist. A Royal Affair, which appears to be the fourth cinematic version of the tale, is a colorful and engaging historical drama. Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Struensee, starred in In a Better World, which won the Academy Award in 2011, as well as After the Wedding, which was nominated in 2007.

Many of the 66 non-nominees are worthy of recommendation. Here are a few of my favorites.

Life without Principle (Dyut meng gam) (Hong Kong)

At first I thought Life without Principle was just another entry in the overworked genre of films in which a number of unrelated characters are brought together by a common incident (i.e. Amores Perros, Crash, insert your favorite). But this underrated entry has a special bite to it because it is also a critique of the current financial downturn. The three main characters are a cop whose wife is pressuring him to fork out money for a better apartment, an amiable small-time gangster who tries to please his boss and everyone else he deals with, and, most notably, an investment banker, Teresa Chan (Denise Ho).

Chan is in trouble. Not only is the world economy collapsing, but she is underperforming in comparison with her colleagues. If she doesn't sell more product -- financial investments being pushed by the bank for which she works -- she will soon be out of a job. One day one of her clients, a sleazy loan shark, leaves $1 million in cash in her office for safekeeping, and then goes downstairs, where he is murdered in the parking lot. What should Chan do about that million dollars in cash that no one but her knows exists? Hmmm. What I like most about Life without Principle is that it makes the point that there is only a fine line between gangsters and banksters.

White Tiger (Belyy tigr) (Russia)

I admit that the reason I liked White Tiger is that it is weird and deals with Fortean phenomena. (Charles Fort was a New York-based writer who researched unexplained and anomalous phenomena.) Sgt. Nayenov inexplicably recovers quickly from receiving burns to 90 percent of his body after a tank battle against the Germans in 1943. When he returns to full consciousness, he can't remember anything about his personal background, but he does recall all of his tank driving skills, and he is convinced that the Germans have a mysterious monster tank that destroys all it faces and then disappears into thin air. Of course his superiors think he's crazy... until others confirm his suspicions. A sympathetic officer believes Nayenov, orders the building a Soviet super-tank and puts Nayenov in charge of the pursuit of the German tank. Although White Tiger is primarily a metaphysical rumination on the nature of warfare, it is action-packed and includes two tank battle scenes that reveal the appalling nature of tank warfare (such as getting burned alive inside your tank).

Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire) (Italy)

Every year, Fabio Cavalli directs plays inside a maximum-security prison in Rome, starring murderers, drug traffickers and Mafia lowlife. The directors of Caesar Must Die, brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, record one such production, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. But the film isn't actually a documentary because much of the action is staged and one of the actors, although once an inmate, is now a professional actor. This mixing of genres seems to have upset some reviewers, but it didn't bother me. The portrayal of the personalities of the confined prisoners is, for me, merely a supplement to the fact that Julius Caesar is just one great play.

The Deep (Djúpið) (Iceland)

The Deep is based on a 1984 incident, famous in Iceland, in which a fishing boat sank in icy waters leaving all of the crew dead... except for one man, Gulli, who miraculously managed to swim to shore. There are a couple factors that make The Deep stand out from other disaster survival movies. To begin with, Gulli isn't a particularly heroic type. He is overweight, drinks too much and is pretty much a normal guy. In addition, breaking the rules of the genre, Gulli reaches shore midway through the film, a plot point usually reserved for the climax. We then follow Gulli as he deals with survivor guilt and with the curiosity of scientists who can't figure out what it is about him that kept him alive.

Bwakaw (Philippines)

The poignant story of an elderly gay man who discovers too late that it is alright to be who he is, Bwakaw is highlighted by some excellent scenes of comic relief. My favorite comes when Rene (played by then-82-year-old Eddie Garcia) is called into the local mortuary and told that because it is going out of business he must take home the coffin he purchased during a summer discount sale. Rene is afraid that his nosy neighbor will find out, so he has it delivered at midnight. Once it is inside his house, he tries it out... and falls asleep. It isn't hard to guess what happens next, but it's still funny. Rene has prepared so carefully for his own death that he has already packed up most of his possessions with labels telling who they go to, and he makes frequent visits to the local priest, using the confessional to officially alter the terms of his will. Bwakaw, by the way, is the name of Rene's beloved dog.

Mushrooming (Seenelkäik) (Estonia)

Amid the slew of earnest and well-made but depressing foreign language entries this year, Mushrooming was a refreshing satiric comedy. We meet legislator Aadu who, on the advice of his publicity advisor, appears on a ridiculous TV game show because it will help the common electorate bond with him. Sad to say, the advisor is right. Just as a scandal is about to break, relating to a vacation to Machu Picchu he billed to the taxpayers, Aadu and his wife, Viivi, go mushroom-picking in the forest. They are accompanied by dissolute local rock star Zak, who stays in the car. Aadu and Viivi become lost, but eventually refind Zak, and the three of them are pursued in Deliverance fashion by a crazed forest dweller. But this is a comedy, so the supposed villain is merely a misfit who is convinced that society is controlled by a conspiracy of people who appear on television. "When you're on TV, they give you free food, don't they? Don't they?!" Estonia is a small country, but the cults of celebrity and political celebrity work pretty much the same way they do in any other country.

The Intouchables (Intouchables) (France)

Hugely popular worldwide, The Intouchables has grossed a staggering $400 million+ at the box office. It is inspired by the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, a wealthy aristocrat who became a quadriplegic as the result of a 1993 paragliding accident. In the film, Philippe lives an isolated life on his estate, rapidly tiring of each nursing caretaker he hires. Along comes Driss, a Senegalese ex-con robber who shows up for an interview so that he can get a signature on a piece of paper proving that he is seeking employment. Much to everyone's surprise, Philippe hires him.

The rest of the plot is pretty standard, as the African teaches the rich white guy to enjoy life and the rich white guy introduces the African to the beauty of Western culture. The Intouchables has been much-criticized for being predictable and for promoting racial stereotypes, a charge that is particularly relevant when one considers that the caretaker in real life was not black African, but Arab. Perhaps it is this uncomfortable portrayal that kept the film from earning a nomination. Nonetheless, it is easy to see why the film is so popular: both Philippe and Driss are likable characters and there is enough humor to make The Intouchables an engaging watch.

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