Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Foreign Language Film

Embrace of the Serpent is the first Colombian film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Foreign Language Film

The nominees are:

Embrace of the Serpent
Son of Saul
A War

Profile matters as much as anything when it comes to Best Foreign Language Film. If voters hear a movie is good or read high praise from critics, they are more likely to seek it out – as would be true of any of us. So, films that have earned critical accolades, international recognition at film festivals, and some moderate box-office success have a leg up on the competition in this category.

The two highest-profile films in this lineup are Son of Saul and Mustang. Son of Saul has been the presumed frontrunner most of the year, ever since it won four awards, including the Grand Jury Prize, at the Cannes Film Festival. It picked up the lion’s share of critics’ awards and won the Golden Globe for foreign language film. It is also the only film among these to make more than $1 million at the U.S. box office, though two of these just opened in theaters this month.

Mustang also was a prizewinner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, its cast and director have been everywhere promoting the film and its urgent message, and it is second behind Son of Saul in box-office take. It has also been a huge success on the film festival circuit around the world, picking up prizes for its director, its cast, and its singular vision and voice. Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia), Theeb (Jordan), and A War (Denmark) have all enjoyed tremendous success in their home countries, but their U.S. appeal has been limited so far, which means we are likely looking at either Son of Saul or Mustang for the win.

Son of Saul (directed by László Nemes) – With Son of Saul, first-time feature director Nemes has immediately announced himself as a director to watch. Not only is his film emotionally devastating, but it is technically masterful. Told almost entirely from a subjective point of view, it follows a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz as he attempts to give his son a proper burial before a prison break. The camera wizardry puts the viewer directly in the place of Saul as he navigates the physical and mental torture of the Holocaust and tries to complete one final act of good amid the horror.

It is a taxing but rewarding experience, a first-person take on the Holocaust unlike any ever before attempted in fiction. It puts the audience on the ground level of an atrocity, trading on the oft-cited maxim that one death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic. Son of Saul shows us the tragedy of a single death within the context of the unimaginable suffering of untold millions. Star Géza Röhrig gives one of the best leading-man performances of the year with 90 percent of the movie playing out in just a tight close-up on his face. Rarely has so much pain been so viscerally communicated onscreen.

This is just the ninth Hungarian film ever nominated in this category at the Oscars, and four of those previous nominations came by way of director István Szabó. Szabó also directed the only Hungarian film to win this award, Mephisto in 1981. If this film is any indication, though, Hungarian cinema will find its way back to the Oscars, and it will be led by Nemes.

Mustang (directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven) – One of the best films of the year, Mustang is about what happens when we let culture and custom subvert our basic humanity. It tells the story of five sisters in a small Turkish village whose family tries to tame them after the smallest of infractions and how the sisters fight back against their oppressors. That such injustices are allowed to carry on in the civilized world today should infuriate us as there is no room in society for these outdated beliefs.

Apart from the vital storytelling, Ergüven, on her first feature, proves to be a master filmmaker with subtle, inspired direction that draws on a wide range of influences to achieve a wholly unique effect. Ergüven slowly tightens the noose around her protagonists until they must choose whether to be hanged or take up arms and cut the rope. The film walks a fine line between triumph and tragedy, and its bold, brilliant closing passages seem to imply the two are not so far removed from one another.

Despite being set in Turkey and all of the film’s dialogue being spoken in Turkish, Mustang is actually France’s submission to the Oscars this year. Of course, France has a long history in the Foreign Language category. This is the country’s record 39th nomination, and with 12 wins, it trails only Italy (14).

Embrace of the Serpent (directed by Ciro Guerra) – Like an Alejandro Jodorowsky dream filtered through a Werner Herzog nightmare, Embrace of the Serpent is a hallucinatory trip through the Amazon. It stuns with the beauty of its images, but it stays with you because of the strength of its ideas. The film follows somewhat parallel stories of white outsiders coming into the Colombian jungles and seeking a mythical plant the natives believe has healing properties.

Based loosely on the diaries of German scientist and explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg, Embrace of the Serpent is a damning exploration of the destruction European settlers brought down upon the forests. The gorgeous black-and-white photography helps orient the viewer within the denseness of the jungle, while the script never lets the audience get too comfortable in its loyalties. Questions of who is good and who is bad matter little. In the end, it comes down to who respects the natural order of the world and who does not.

This is the first Colombian film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, and it represents a stunning achievement in the national cinema. There has to be a first, but rarely is that first so impressive and so deserving as this.

A War (directed by Tobias Lindholm) – About 80 percent of A War’s nearly two-hour runtime goes by before we get to the central conflict of the story. By the time the film arrives at its main plot, we are so invested in all the characters and so deep in their headspace it becomes devastating to watch them deal with the moral quandary in which they find themselves.

Lindholm’s storytelling patience allows the audience to get involved with the characters in a far more intimate way than we are used to in a more traditional war film. By doing so, the film’s pre-climactic action sequence is more effective than it otherwise would be because the stakes are not based in vaguely defined patriotism but in family ties and personal responsibility. These are people we can relate to in circumstances we could not begin to imagine, and Lindholm carefully outlines what it means to be a soldier and a human being at the same time.

Denmark has had 11 films nominated in the Foreign Language category with three winners. The most recent winner was Susanne Bier’s In a Better World in 2010, while Danish legend Thomas Vinterberg was the most recent nominee in 2013 with The Hunt, which Lindholm actually co-wrote with Vinterberg.

Theeb (directed by Naji Abu Nowar) – Nowar is the third director among this group to have never directed a feature film before. Of the three, this is the one that feels most like a first film from a storytelling perspective. The photography is beautiful, and the setting – the Ottoman Empire during World War I – orients the audience in a highly specific place and time, but the structure is too loose to be totally engaging.

A young Bedouin boy, Theeb (Jacie Eid Al-Hwietat), tags along as his brother leads a British soldier through the desert. Along the way, they encounter bandits, and the mission becomes one of survival. The film’s themes of loyalty, manhood, and pride are all quite striking, but the plot has little forward momentum and gets bogged down in its middle section.

This is the first Jordanian film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and is just the second ever submitted to the Academy. Hopefully, the honor will encourage more development in Jordanian cinema and create more attention for an area of the world that is sadly underrepresented in the film landscape.

The final analysis

I have no good reason to think this other than just a gut feeling, but this category feels ripe for an upset. Son of Saul has won every meaningful precursor – and for that matter, almost every award out there – but it perhaps inspires more appreciation than passion. In that case, Mustang would be the likely beneficiary of an upset. However, experience tells me, with few exceptions – such as 2006 when Pan’s Labyrinth lost out to The Lives of Others – the most likely winner prevails. This year, that means Son of Saul.

Will win: Son of Saul
Should win: Mustang
Should have been here: The Tribe

Tomorrow: Best Animated Feature

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