This year I managed to see 49 of the 65 films that were entered in the foreign language category for the Academy Awards, including all five of the nominees. This was an unusually strong year, with many films worth recommending. Last year, I thought the five nominees were all good choices. Unfortunately, this year was different, and two of the five nominees were not even in my top ten, much less my top five. Here is a rundown on the nominees, as well as several noteworthy films that were not nominated.
A Prophet (France)
For my money, A Prophet (Un prophète) is not just the best foreign language film of the year; it's the best film, period. Malik, an orphan, has grown up as a petty criminal. But he is now 19 years old and his latest crime, assaulting a policeman, lands him in the Big House for the first time. Life in real prison is controlled by the Corsican mafia, who use their outside contacts to make life better for the bribable guards. But there is also an Arab gang and a group of Arab Islamists. Step by step, Malik is educated in the ways of organized crime until, after six years, he figures out how to take charge.
A Prophet clocks in at 2½ hours, but there is so much action and tension that it never lags. Of all the Academy screenings that I attended, this was the only one that inspired the audience to applaud when the director's name (Jacques Audiard) appeared in the credits. Every aspect of A Prophet is well-done, not just the direction and acting, but the cinematography, the casting and the score. It even won the sound design category at the European Film Awards. Those looking for an American equivalent, think Scarface, although Tahar Rahim's Malik is a less ambitious character than Al Pacino's Tony Montana.
One note of warning: early in the film, there is a horrific and bloody scene that is not for the faint-hearted and, indeed, haunts Malik himself for the rest of the story. Although there are other violent episodes, this is the only one that viewers might find upsetting.
The White Ribbon (Germany)
This is the nominee that would be favored to win the Academy Award if only critics voted. Unlike A Prophet, it is an "artsy" film and has received extensive distribution in the United States on the arthouse circuit. The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte) is beautifully shot in black and white, but its ambiguous plot will leave many viewers unsatisfied. Set in a village on the eve of World War I, a series of increasingly alarming and unsolved occurrences beset the villagers. Like A Prophet, The White Ribbon is long, but it is not aimed at a general audience. Having said that, it does provoke discussion and differing interpretations among its admirers.
The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina)
A thoroughly entertaining murder mystery, The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) stars Ricardo Darín (Nine Queens) as a retired prosecutor who can't let go of a 25-year-old rape and murder that he considers still unsolved, but solvable. He also deals with an alcoholic but heroic sidekick, a beautiful colleague who is too rich for him, a chase at a soccer match and all sorts of plot twists. Director Juan José Campanella was previously nominated for Son of the Bride (2001) and back in the 1990s he won a couple of Daytime Emmys. Presumably, The Secret in Their Eyes will earn general distribution in the U.S., but at the very least, look out for it on DVD.
The Milk of Sorrow (Peru)
Writing in Variety, Boyd Van Hoeij put it well when he described The Milk of Sorrow (La teta asustada) as an "ultra-arthouse item." The heroine, Fausta, is an emotionally crippled young woman who, through breast milk, inherited fears based on the awful experiences of her mother during the government-supported atrocities of the early 1990s. One of the film's supporters, Ed Gonzalez of The Village Voice, calls Fausta's growth "an affront to the neocolonialist forces of imperialism that persist within--and are supported from outside of--Latin America." I'm all for affronting the neocolonialist forces of imperialism, but I doubt that this film will do the trick. By my standards, The Milk of Sorrow just doesn't deserve to be among the nominees. I can think of at least a dozen other entries that are more deserving. The percentage of viewers who find the film a satisfying experience is likely to be extremely low.
What makes the nomination of The Milk of Sorrow particularly bizarre is that three years ago Peru entered a much more interesting film, Madeinusa, by the same director (Claudia Llosa) and starring the same actress (Magaly Solier). I was struck by Madeinusa's unexpected twist ending that turns upside-down the popular, but lame, Hollywood theme of white men coming to save abused non-white women, and I recommended the film to friends and colleagues. However, it got no buzz and was completely overlooked by the Academy. Then along comes the inferior The Milk of Sorrow and it earns a nomination. Go figure.
Ajami is yet another film in which the director seems to think it is artistically meaningful to switch amongst various stories and tell it all out of order. It says a lot that Roger Ebert, as experienced a critic as one could hope for, gets the plot wrong in his review of Ajami.
Arab teenagers are thrust into a world of tragedy as a result of a gang-related blood feud and cocaine dealing. Along the way, everyone suffers: Muslims, Jews and Christians. If this film had been about ethnic conflict in any part of the world other than Israel and Palestine, it never would have been nominated. Like The Milk of Sorrow, Ajami is a film made for critics more than for a general audience.
You don't often get an entry in the foreign language category that has no subtitles, but Kelin needs no subtitles because it has no dialogue. The protagonist is a young woman in 200 A.D. who is in love with one young man, but is sold into marriage to another man who outbids her sweetheart. Life with her new husband, her mother-in-law and her horny adolescent brother-in-law turns out to be not so bad, and she particularly takes a liking to the joys of sex. However, her true love does not give up so easily. Kelin is a reminder that a good story can be told with action and engaging characters, even if all they do is grunt and groan.
This was an exceptionally good year for Latin Americans films. In addition to the two nominees, there are three more that are especially worthy of note, particularly for their political content.
Backyard (El traspatio) deals with an unpleasant and shocking fact: in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, a thousand young women have been killed and the murders have not stopped. The heroine of Backyard is a police detective who wants to believe (like the rest of us) that if she can just arrest one serial killer, just break up one gang, the problem will be solved. Unfortunately, the police department is so corrupt that men are drawn to Juárez because they know they can kill women there and get away with it.
Southern District (Bolivia)
It takes some understanding of the current political and economic upheaval taking place in Bolivia to fully appreciate Southern District (Zona sur). On the surface this is the story of a wealthy family on the decline. The divorced mother runs a business that is losing clients. Her teenage son is spoiled and addicted to gambling, and her teenage daughter has a lesbian lover who comes from a lower-class background. Her third child is an innocent little boy who enjoys hanging out with the family's two native servants, in particular, Wilson, who has been with the missus for 25 years. Although the story, which only leaves the family house once, is self-contained, it is really a human manifestation of the social revolution launched by the 2006 election of Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president.
Dawson Island #10 (Chile)
Another film from Chile, The Maid, has attracted a lot of attention, including a Golden Globe nomination, and many observers were surprised that it wasn't chosen as the nation's entry for the Academy Award. However, Dawson Island #10 (Dawson Isla 10) clearly means more to Chileans. Even those few Americans who know about the CIA-supported overthrow of Chile's elected president, Salvador Allende, in 1973, don't know that the military junta that took charge of the country rounded up his cabinet ministers and other leading officials and imprisoned them on a cold and bleak island in Patagonia. This is their story, apparently told realistically. Gradually it becomes clear that many of the soldiers guarding them themselves feel like prisoners, isolated from their families and performing a task with which they don't feel comfortable.
Winter in Wartime (Netherlands)
Fourteen-year-old Michiel is the son of the mayor of a Nazi-occupied village, and is ashamed of his father's friendships with the hated occupiers. On the other hand, he admires his uncle who is a supporter of the Resistance. Michiel becomes involved in the struggle himself when he tries to help a British pilot who was shot down and is hiding in a nearby forest. Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter) takes some unexpected turns, as Michiel learns bitter lessons in what he hoped would be an exciting and meaningful adventure.
Based on the true story of Martin Friedman-Petrásek, Broken Promise (Nedodrzaný slub) follows a Jewish teenager who, through perseverance and sheer luck, survives the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia that takes the lives of most of the members of his family. Along the way, he is saved from the extermination camps because he is such a good soccer player. Eventually, he escapes into the hills and joins the anti-Nazi partisans, only to discover that they too hate the Jews.
Landscape #2 (Slovenia)
I don't normally like gory films, but there is something compelling about Landscape #2 (Pokrajina St.2), the tale of a happy-go-lucky fellow who unwittingly manages to cause the death of every single person who cares for him. Sergey has two girlfriends, a stable fiancé who adores him and a rich girl with whom he has wild sex. He also has an older mentor named Polde, who breaks into the homes of elderly Slovenians who sided with the Nazis and steals artwork that they pillaged during the war and trades them for ransom. At the beginning of the story, Polde takes Sergey with him on one of these heists and warns him not to touch anything other than the painting they are after. But Sergey, fool that he is, can't resist taking money from a wall safe...and a document the significance of which he, tragically, fails to understand.