This year 63 nations entered films in the foreign language category. I managed to see 49 of these films, including all five of the nominees. One evening between showings at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, an Academy member told me, "So many of the people here are so intent on finding a great film that they're missing the fact that we're seeing a lot of really good films." I agree. So, after giving a description of the nominees, I have added mention of some of the most noteworthy non-nominees.
Although the Academy is notoriously sympathetic to Jewish-themed films, Beaufort (Israel) does not fit the mold. It portrays the members of an Israeli army unit as they are under periodic attack by Hezbollah while waiting to be sent home in 2000 at the end of Israel's 18-year occupation of Lebanon. Although the film is more a character study than a political statement, the soldiers express a range of views, and right-wing American Jews of the AIPAC variety might squirm or be confused. By the way, Beaufort is not the best Israeli film of the year. That honor goes to The Band's Visit, which did not qualify for entry because too much of its dialogue is in English. Too bad, because it presents a wonderful meeting of cultures when an underfunded travelling Egyptian military band finds itself spending the night in the wrong, dead-end Israeli village.
The Counterfeiters (Austria) is inspired by the true story of Salomon Sorowitsch, a World War II-era Jewish counterfeiter who, after five years in a concentration camp, is recruited by the Nazis to create British pounds and US dollars. He and his compatriots know that if they do not cooperate they will be killed, but if they do cooperate they will be greatly helping the Nazi cause. Austrian television actor Karl Markovics gives a superb performance as Sorowitsch. Like the best of Holocaust films, the threat of violence and sudden death is never far away. The Counterfeiters earns the role of favorite to win the Oscar.
When the Academy gave director Andrzej Wajda an honorary award in 2000, they probably did so because they assumed that, at age 74, his creative career was over. But, surprise, Wajda, now 81, has produced another memorable film. I recently read 25 Polish novels (in translation) and I must say that the opening scene of Katyń sums up Polish history as succinctly as anything I read. On a bridge, a group of Poles fleeing the German army runs into another group of Poles heading in the opposite direction because they are fleeing the Soviet army. In 1940, in the Katyń forest, the Soviets massacred several thousand Polish military officers. Because the Soviets won the war and occupied Poland, when the mass graves were discovered, the Soviet authorities blamed this war crime on the Nazis. Wajda's film deals with the massacre, but concentrates on the cover-up.
The real oddity in this year's group of nominees is Mongol from Kazakhstan. Directed by a Russian, Sergei Bodrov, who was previously nominated in 1996 for Prisoner of the Mountains, it is a big-screen epic about a 12th century warrior who suffers humiliation and slavery but, driven by love for his wife, defeats the bad guys and unites his nation. Sounds normal, right? But there's a catch: the hero is Genghis Khan, who holds the world record for having conquered more square miles than anyone else in history and who, outside of Mongolia, has a reputation as a brutal tyrant who executed enemies by pouring molten silver in their eyes and ears. I doubt that Mongol will be well-received in China, Iran or Central Asia, to which Genghis Khan laid waste, but at least it was admired by many of the voters of the Academy's foreign language committee. Maybe 800 years from now, someone will make a sympathetic film about the youthful travails of Adolf Hitler.
Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, who earned an Academy Award in 1995 for Burnt by the Sun, 12 (Russia) is a riveting remake of the 1957 American classic jury room drama 12 Angry Men. In this decidedly Russian version, a young Chechen is accused of murdering his adoptive Russian father. Each of the twelve jurors takes his turn telling a story and, although the film is 2 ½ hours long, it never drags.
The Best of the Non-Nominees
This was a good year for French cinema: three different French films earned Academy Award nominations. Unfortunately, none of the nominations was in the foreign language category. La Vie en Rose was nominated for best actress, makeup and costume design; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly for best director, adapted screenplay, cinematography and film editing; and Persepolis for animated feature. Had the French chosen La Vie en Rose or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as their foreign language entry, they almost certainly would have earned a nomination. Instead, they chose Persepolis. It was an unfortunate choice. However, Persepolis happens to be a really good film anyway. Based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, it follows Satrapi's life growing up in Iran and then moving to Vienna. The sections set in Teheran are eye-opening portrayals of life under the repressive regime that seized control of Iran in 1979 and still holds power.
In The Trap (Serbia), an engineer named Maden and his teacher wife find themselves unable to come up with the money to pay for a life-saving operation for their 10-year-old son. After his wife puts an ad in a newspaper appealing for help, Maden is contacted by a gangster who offers to give him the money if Maden will commit a murder.
I Just Didn't Do It (Japan) is a startling expose of the Japanese legal system, in which, unexpectedly for a democratic nation, almost everyone who is arrested is convicted. In this case, a young man is falsely accused of groping a schoolgirl on the subway. Advised to plead guilty and get it over with, he refuses. Each stage of the legal process that follows is meticulously explored. Although the film is 2 hours 23 minutes long, I found it completely engaging.
In A Man's Fear of God (Turkey), a simple and devoutly religious man is exploited by the leaders of the Sufi sect of which he is a member, and turned into a rent collector. Thrust into a position of importance despite his total lack of ambition, the hero, played brilliantly by Erkan Can, is forced to confront the fact that his moral values and those of his religious superiors might not be the same.
The Most Talked-About Film
Silent Light (Mexico) is one bizarre film. To begin with, it is not in Spanish. Instead, the characters speak Plautdietsch. That's because they are members of a modern-day Mennonite community living in rural Mexico. In fact, the actors are all non-professionals. The protagonist, Johan, is a married farmer who falls in love with another woman and confronts a spiritual crisis. You don't get a lot of films about adultery among Mennonites. What makes this one particularly surprising is that Johan's lover, Marianne, is not a sexy hussy, but a normal, almost homely woman, which makes their mutual attraction even more elemental. I would recommend Silent Light were it not for one major flaw: it is unbelievably slow-paced. I actually fell asleep in the middle of the showing. When I woke up 15 minutes later, it turned out that I hadn't missed anything. There is one scene early in the film when Johan drives his truck down a dirt road on his way to an assignation with Marianne. For most directors, a few seconds of the truck moving past the camera would have sufficed. But not Silent Light's director, Carlos Reygadas. Instead, we watch as the truck goes on and on...and then turns right and goes on some more until it disappears from view. But still Reygadas does not end the scene. Instead, we have to endure watching the dust settle...every single speck of it. This film is probably worth watching at home, with thumb poised over the fast forward button.
One More Unusual Entry
Belle Toujours (Portugal) was directed by Manoel de Oliveira when he was only 97 years old. (He has since directed another feature and a couple of shorts.) An homage to Luis Buñuel and his screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carriere, it is an imagined sequel to Buñuel's 1967 controversial classic Belle de Jour, in which Catherine Deneuve plays Severine, a bored, upper-class housewife who works as a prostitute during the day. Thirty-nine years after the original, Michel Piccoli reprises his role as Severine's husband's friend, who discovers Severine's secret life. There is no point in seeing this film unless you are already a fan of Belle de Jour, and some viewers found it tedious, even with its short running time of only 68 minutes. However, those Buñuel aficionados who manage to track this one down will be pleased to know that the mysterious lacquer box that buzzes makes a return appearance.