02/21/2012 12:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Academy Awards 2012: Foreign Language Films

I saw 50 of the 63 films entered in the Best Foreign Language Film category and I am happy to report that this was an exceptionally good year. If there was no single masterpiece that stood out, there were a couple dozen good films that I would recommend for film fans of various tastes. My two favorite entries did not make it to the list of nominees, but I'm not upset because the five that did qualify are all worthy choices. Here are my comments on the five nominees, as well a handful of non-nominees that stood out for me.

Monsieur Lazhar (Canada)
It's sixth-grader Simon's day to deliver milk cartons at school before classes start. But when he arrives, he makes an awful discovery... his teacher has hanged herself inside the classroom. When school officials realize what has happened, they keep the other children away, but Simon's best friend, Alice, slips through and sees the body hanging. To say that they are traumatized is an understatement, particularly because, as we later learn, they share a dark secret about the teacher. Enter Monsieur Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant who volunteers for the unenviable task of taking over as the teacher of the stricken class.

Enter, too, a plot flaw. The school principal hires Bachir Lazhar without checking his references. Okay, she knows it will be hard to find a teacher who is willing to step into such an unpleasant situation, but isn't that exactly why she would take more care? I pointed this out to a couple of other film attendees and each said a variation of the same thing: "It's a movie; so what."

Lazhar's story of having been a teacher back in Algeria for nineteen years is a lie, but because of his own sad history and his natural sensitivity to children, he turns out to be right person for the job after all. Mohamed Fellag is excellent in the role of Bachir Lazhar, and all in all this is a touching and satisfying film.

A Separation (Iran)
A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) has swept awards around the world, including at the Berlin Film Festival and the Golden Globes, so it is the favorite to win the Oscar. At a time when neo-conservatives and weapons manufacturers are drumming up support for the United States or its surrogate, Israel, to attack Iran, it may seem politically controversial for the Academy to honor an Iranian film. The fact is, however, that A Separation is popular because it is a drama about two families in crisis with only a mere dash of politics. The women in Iran may dress differently from those in the U.S., and the Iranian justice system may be different, but at heart couples are couples.

Simin and Nader are a middle-class married couple with a bright 11-year-old daughter, Termeh. They have finally been granted an exit visa and Simin is ready to leave the country, but Nader balks because he feels obligated to care for his father, who has Alzheimer's disease. Exasperated, Simin moves out of their apartment and goes to live with her mother. Nader is forced to hire a pregnant caregiver, Razieh, who keeps the job secret from her husband, Hodjat, a man whose temper prevents him from holding down a job of his own. One day Nader returns home from work and discovers Razieh gone and his father tied to the bed. When Razieh returns, Nader fires her and pushes her out the door. She falls down the stairs and loses her unborn baby. In Iran a fetus is considered a living being, so Nader is charged with murder.

This is an intense crime investigation drama that also shows the culture clash between an educated family and a poorer, uneducated one.

Like Monsieur Lazhar, A Separation has a plot flaw that I found disruptive. But when I mentioned it to others, I got the same reaction (i.e. so what?) so I'm not even going to go into it. A Separation is gripping throughout and deserves the widespread praise it has received.

Footnote (Israel)
You just don't get that many family dramas about Talmudic scholars, but Footnote (Hearat Shulayim) does a great job of filling the gap. Although it deals with a serious conflict between a father and son, it is heavily laced with humorous portrayals. Eliezer Shkolnik is a grumpy, misanthropic scholar who devoted 30 years of meticulous research to deducing the existence of a lost medieval version of the Talmud that would change the entire understanding of Jewish religious history. But just one month before he was finally about to publish the fruit of his life's work, his rival, Yehuda Grossman, announced that he had discovered the actual lost manuscript. So although it turns out that Eliezer was right all along, his 30 years' worth of research is now useless. All he has to show for his labors is a footnote in the work of his late mentor. What Eliezer really wants is to be awarded the ultra-prestigious Israel Prize. Unfortunately, the chairman of the committee that chooses each year's winner is none other than Yehuda Grossman.

Meanwhile, Eliezer's middle-aged son, Uriel, has become a noted scholar himself. But unlike his father, Uriel is amiable, well-liked by his students and his colleagues, and recognized in academia for his treatises on popular subjects. Then, one day, out of the blue, Eliezer receives a call from the Ministry of Education informing him that he has finally been awarded the Israel Prize. Life is good... until the selection committee calls Uriel in for a private meeting and explains that a mistake has been made and that it was he, not his father, who was supposed to receive the call.

At this point, Footnote takes a major change in tone. There are no more laughs and instead we see Eliezer, unaware of the mistake, act like the selfish jerk he has always been.

Director Joseph Cedar was previously nominated for the Academy Award four years ago for Beaufort.

Bullhead (Belgium)
Although it takes place in the murky and ugly world of beef cattle raised with illegal growth hormones, Bullhead (Rundskop) is really a tale of two men of about 30 who are thrown back together many years after a gruesome childhood incident that scarred them both. Actor Matthias Schoenaerts portrays Jacky Vanmarsenille, a brooding bully who can't stop shooting himself up with testosterone. Eventually we learn that there's a good reason why he does so.

Rural Belgium may not seem like a proper setting for a story about organized crime, but where there's money to be made, there are shady people to make it. If cattle can be brought to slaughter size in eight weeks instead of ten, enter the hormone mafia. Jacky is a cattle farmer whose veterinarian partner introduces him to a meat deal that Jacky correctly perceives is bad business. One of the lower principals on the other side turns out to be Diederik, his best friend from childhood, who was there when an insane older boy literally crushed Jacky's future manhood.

As the movie progresses, the criminal story fades into the background and the plot concentrates instead on Jacky's attempt to come to terms not just with Diederik, but with the bully from his past and the demons his childhood trauma activated.

I am not normally a fan of stories with violent anti-heroes and no one to root for, but Bullhead is simply a well-made film.

In Darkness (Poland)
Leopold "Poldek" Socha is a sewer worker in Nazi-occupied Lvov, Poland, who takes advantage of the unsettled times to burgle homes and stash the loot in the sewers. He and his young sidekick, Szczepek, stumble across a group of Jews who are in hiding and hoping to use the sewers to escape. Not one to miss an income opportunity, Poldek agrees to provide the Jews with food and other help as long as they can afford to pay him. But by the time the Jews' money runs out, Poldek has seen the viciousness of the Nazi occupiers and their collaborators, and he has begun to perceive the Jews not just as marks, but as human beings deserving of compassion. His determination to continue aiding them puts Poldek and those around him in increasing danger.

In Darkness is yet another entry in the now established sub-genre of films about gentiles who helped Jews during World War II. Indeed, Leopold Socha was a real person who, along with his wife Magdalena, was later recognized by Israelis as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. There is nothing special about In Darkness, but it never hurts to be reminded that people do occasionally rise above apathy and selfishness to help others just because it's the right thing to do.

Back in 1992, director Agnieszka Holland was nominated for her film Europa, Europa.

There were so many good unnominated films this year, that I hesitant to mention just a few of them. Still, here are four of my favorites.

Le Havre (Finland)
When Aki Kaurismäki's film The Man Without a Pastwas nominated for an Academy Award in 2003, Kaurismäki refused to attend the Oscar festivities because he objected to the fact that George W. Bush was about to invade Iraq for no good reason. In 2006, Finnish cinema authorities submitted another of Kaurismäki's films, Lights in the Dusk, without asking his permission. He vetoed the submission and Finland went without an entry that year. Now, with U.S. combat troops out of Iraq, Kaurismäki has lifted his Oscar boycott, and Le Havre went forward as Finland's entry.

This was one of three European films entered this year that deal with everyday people who decide to help illegal immigrants. The others are Terrafirma from Italy and Morgen from Romania. The former is harsh and more confrontational; the latter is a bit amusing, but undistinguished.

In Le Havre, Kaurismäki regular André Wilms plays Marcel Marx, a former bohemian, now in his sixties, who scraps by shining shoes in an era when fewer and fewer people wear shinable shoes. One day, after his beloved wife has been taken to the hospital, Marx comes upon a pre-teen boy from Gabon who is trying to make his way to England to find his mother. Because all of the other immigrants with whom the boy, Idrissa, was traveling have been arrested, the local constabulary becomes obsessed with capturing him. Marx, emerging from his personal cocoon, makes it his mission to help the boy. Along the way he is aided by a neighborhood of characters reminiscent of the cast of the classic French trilogy from the 1930s, Marius, Fanny and César.

I have read other reviews of Le Havre that grumble about it being "sugar-coated" or a "fairy tale," but it worked for me and was, in fact, my favorite of the 50 foreign language entries I saw. Maybe I was just in the mood for a feel-good story in the midst of troubled times.

Belvedere (Bosnia)
Although the Bosnian War of 1992-1995 is off the radar for Americans (to put it mildly), it is the subject of three noteworthy films produced in the past year. In the Land of Blood and Honey, directed by Angelina Jolie, and As If I'm Not There, this year's entry from Ireland, both deal with the horrific exploitation of women by Bosnian Serb forces. I'm guessing that neither is going to earn significant box office in Serbia. Serbs have complained that In the Land of Blood and Honey is not "balanced" because it doesn't portray atrocities committed by Bosnian Muslims. Jolie has responded "The war was not balanced. I can't understand people who are looking for a balance that did not exist."

I am glad that In the Land of Blood and Honey and As If I'm Not There were made, but it's the third film on the subject, Belvedere, that made the greatest impression on me. I don't think it is so much because it was actually made by Bosnians, as that it takes place 15 years after the war ended and is an uncommon reminder that the traumas caused by war don't stop the day the shooting and bombing does.

In July 1995, Serbian forces under the command of General Ratko Mladić massacred 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. Fifteen years later, Ruvejda, her brother and sister and other survivors of the war are still living in a refugee camp called Belvedere. Ruvejda accepts the fact that her father, her husband and her children are dead, but she wants to learn the truth about how they were killed, and she wants to find their remains so she can give them a proper burial. It is a bleak existence presented in stark black and white. It is so bleak that her young nephew, Adnan, has had enough and, taking advantage of his skills as an accordion player, he applies for a role in the Serbian version of the reality TV show "Big Brother." A schlumpish, harmless everyman, he is accepted as the token Bosnian.

In a reversal of the 1998 American film Pleasantville, the real world is shown in black and white, while the ridiculous fantasy world of reality TV is shown in color. Juxtaposing the worlds could have been manipulative and contrived, but director and screenwriter Ahmed Imamović makes his points in a dignified manner.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey)
If someone had suggested that I would like a slow 163-minute Turkish film two-thirds of which takes place outdoors at night, I would have been shocked. But to my surprise, I found Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu'd) perhaps not riveting, but at least mesmerizing.

The police know that a murder has been committed and they have the confessed murderer; all they need is the body. So, in the middle of the night, Commissar Naci, Prosecutor Nusret and Doctor Cemal venture out into the countryside with the suspect, his accomplice and a bunch of local officers, in search of the corpse which the suspect can't exactly remember where he buried. Piece by piece we learn about each character and the male human condition. When a female is finally shown, in the form of a beautiful young woman who serves the men during a stopover at the home of a local official, it sets off mostly painful emotions in the main characters, leading eventually to the revelation of the sadness in each of their lives.

As the only "civilian" in the official entourage, Doctor Cemal is the outsider and we tend to see the others from his perspective. Because the storyline deals with the search for evidence, we don't even begin to learn about the murderer and his motivations until quite late in the story.

Although other viewers may be relieved when the body is finally found and the convoy returns to the city -- and daylight -- I was disappointed because I had, without thinking about it, settled into this insular world. Clearly Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is not for everyone, but for those movie fans who are not addicted to action, it is worth the time spent watching.

A Simple Life (Hong Kong)
I admit that I was cynically worried that the Academy would give a nomination to the mediocre entry from China, The Flowers of War, just because it would attract a huge following of the Academy Awards in the growing Chinese market. Thankfully, my fears were unwarranted. However, China is actually allowed to enter two films because Hong Kong, although part of China, is considered a separate entity.

This year's Hong Kong contender, A Simple Life (Tao jie) is the poignant tale of Ah Tao, an elderly servant who has spent her entire life taking care of four generations of a single family. Now, in her declining years, she is responsible for bachelor film producer Roger Leung. When An Tao suffers a stroke, she chooses to retire to an old-age home. Roger, without the slightest resentment, reverses roles and takes responsibility for helping his former servant. But the story is really An Tao's. A curious person despite her limited experience in life, she becomes involved in the lives of the other residents of the home. This could have been a maudlin view of class differences and growing old, but the leads, played by Deannie Yip, who won the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival, and big-time star Andy Lau, act like real people, and director Ann Hui scrupulously avoids excess sentimentality.

I can't leave the subject of this year's foreign language entries without mentioning two of the higher-profile non-nominees, Miss Bala from Mexico and Pina from Germany. I have read some whining online about what an outrage it is that Miss Bala was not nominated. Having seen most of the entries, I think this criticism is unfair. It may be better than In Darkness, but it is not as good as the four I mentioned above. However, it is an excellent exposé of the depth of corruption and tragedy caused by powerful drug cartels and I hope that more people get to see it.

Pina, directed by Wim Wenders, is a documentary about the late choreographer, Pina Bausch. Although it did not gain a foreign language nomination, it was nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category. To put it as politely as I can, Wenders is not one of my favorite filmmakers. However, Pina is a beautiful presentation of Bausch's work and more power to Wenders for having made it. I saw the 3-D version of the film, but it is not necessary to do so to appreciate Bausch's artistry. This is Wenders' second documentary nomination, twelve years after he was given a nod for Buena Vista Social Club.