Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

25 September 2011

So Foreign

Last year I didn't manage to see all five films that were nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. This happens not infrequently, obviously, as many films don't find a release in the United States even if they do manage to snag an Academy Award nomination. So, last night I finally saw the last of the five and I thought I would cover these films briefly.

I rated Biuitiful my favorite film of 2010. I found it deeply moving, with a central performance by Javier Bardem that is simply incredible. This is another of 2010's films about parenting, and like the others (The Kids Are All Right, The Illusionist, Mother and Child) I felt like Biuitiful really connected to me in terms of where  I see myself right now. Biutiful is very similar in tone and style to Alejandro González Iñárritu's other films, but where those films don't quite work all the way, Biutiful works in every way. It has a sense of the mystical about it, the interconnectedness of things on a spiritual plane, but even more importantly – though both part of Iñárritu's project – a sense of the global, that the small choices we make can affect profoundly the lives of others. Biutiful manages to be about Chinese migrant workers and Senegalese migrant workers at the same time as it is about dying of cancer, discovering one's relationship to one's father. It does all of this extremely well. I have heard that this film is hard to sit through for some. I had precisely the opposite experience. I found the entire thing exhilarating.

I am not sure what Dogtooth is about any more than you will be if you get to watch it. It's incredibly violent, but it's also, well, frankly, bizarre. I found it very, very interesting. And if it didn't quite make sense to me in terms of plot or theme or whatever other so-called Aristotelian aspects a narrative is supposed to have, Dogtooth made for compelling viewing and I would definitely watch this again before watching, say, The King's Speech again. I've written more about this movie here, so I'll shut up about it now.

Hors la Loi is a movie by Rachid Bouchareb starring his usual trio of Sami Bouajila, Roschdy Zem, and Jamel Debbouze. I don't think I'm ever going to be very interested in Jamel Debbouze (I guess I'll never get his performance in Amélie out of my head), but Roschdy Zem is great in this and I am a little obsessed with Sami Bouajila. I think he is just brilliant. Hors la Loi is about the fight for Algerian independence on French soil. I didn't know this before the film, but during the Algerian struggle for independence from France, an Algerian party also planned and executed many terrorist attacks on French soil itself. This is what Hors la Loi covers. The trouble is... Bouchareb can't help but make everything sentimental. The movie spends long periods of time attempting to pluck at the heartstrings instead of simply trying to tell the story. The movie wants to be a kind of neo-noir gangster film at many points, and it is here where Hors la Loi works best. But Bouchareb is constantly distracted by a desire to also make an inspiring historical epic that has a giant emotional impact. So he romanticizes and sentimentalizes and by the end of the film I was mostly just frustrated at all of the emotional manipulation the film manages to do. The men creating the revolution aren't sentimental, so why must Bouchareb continually look at them with a sentimental eye?

I thought Incendies was a bit of a fail, as well. It is well acted, and I was with the film for about its first hour. The movie jumps back and forth between Lebanon in the 1970s and Canada in 2009, when a pair of twins is trying to figure out what happened to their mother a quarter of a century earlier. Incendies is based on a novel that I haven't read, but my main thought about this film is that it misses the story of the mother because of its need to include the story of the children. Every bit of the mother's story in Lebanon in the 1970s is utterly fascinating. Every bit of it. And every time the film jumped back to the twenty-first century I felt myself fidget in my seat. Villeneuve also makes the film into a mystery. We do not know what happened, so we must figure it out. But mysteries only work if you hide what happened well enough. Because the film jumps back and forth, we frequently know what happened before the onscreen detectives figure it out. This simply does not work, and I couldn't help but think that there was a really interesting story in here somewhere if only the novel had been adapted differently.

I loved this movie. In Another World is a Danish film by Susanne Bier (she has made at least one English-language movie now), and, like her other films, this film packs a huge emotional wallop. The movie is about violence in Africa and in Denmark both. In Denmark, the film follows the violence of adolescents as they try to figure out how to seek revenge or end a chain of violence. The film asks all kinds of interesting ethical questions about how we train our children, how important it is to be "strong" in front of them, and how best to respond to violence committed against us. This is a film about parenting, too, of course (there I go again), but even more importantly it is a movie about being a responsible citizen of the world - in the same way that Biutiful is, really. In Another World is a real achievement; it's compelling from start to finish; and it manages to unpack all sorts of questions about domestic terrorism, violent impulses, and revenge. Definitely worth seeing.