Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Foreign Language Film

Sandra Huller in Toni Erdmann, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.

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 leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Foreign Language Film

The nominees are:

Land of Mine
A Man Called Ove
The Salesman
Toni Erdmann

At the core of all these films is forgiveness. Land of Mine asks if we can forgive the most horrific crimes against humanity in order to keep a piece of ours. A Man Called Ove asks if we can forgive a world that has treated us unfairly and snatched away the only thing we cared about. The Salesman asks if we can forgive the man who harmed our family when vengeance is within our grasp. Tanna asks if we can forgive a generations-old grudge and forge a new future with our most hated adversaries. Toni Erdmann asks if we can forgive our parents for their faults and recognize them as just as human as we are.

This is a group of five wonderful films with a lot to say about the world in which we live. Their stories are not only about forgiveness but about sexism, abuse of power, tolerance, prejudice, hope, healing, love, humanity, decency, and so much more. Yet, when one looks at the world today and sees the direction in which things are headed, it perhaps does not seem so bad to focus, just a little extra, on forgiveness. That may be the only way to make it out of these times with our own decency intact.

The Salesman (directed by Asghar Farhadi) – The elephant in the room is that of the Elephant Party and its racist, un-American, and inhumane travel ban. The current presidential administration’s ban on travelers from seven of this world’s nations includes Iranian filmmaker Farhadi, as well as his cast and crew (one of the lead performers in A Man Called Ove also would be banned). The administration deigned to offer the director a waiver to allow him into their country – which is not their country, by the way – but Mr. Farhadi’s dignity is not for sale, and he will not be attending the ceremony. My understanding is the other filmmakers in this category convened to discuss a gesture of support for their absent comrade, and to that I say bravo.

Outside the context of world events, The Salesman is an excellent psychological thriller that refuses ever to do the obvious thing. It zigs where one expects it to zag, and ultimately, the film, which starts off about the quest for vengeance, becomes a parable about the power and necessity of forgiveness. Now put that story in the context of world events and see where you stand.

This is just Iran’s third film to compete in this category and the second by Farhadi, who won this award in 2011 for A Separation. He is not only a great Iranian filmmaker but a master of the form in any language. This would be a deserving winner in any year, but in the political context of this nation, right now, to award a film this universal and this human, I can think of no better protest.

Toni Erdmann (directed by Maren Ade) – The prohibitive frontrunner for this award, Toni Erdmann is an epic built on its smallest moments. Writer-director Ade crafts a film of quiet elegance that is also downright hilarious, exploring the relationship between a woman trying to navigate the world of international business and her prankster father who just wants her to live her life a little. The film has a lot to say in its three-hour runtime about sexism in the workplace, as well as ethically murky business practices, and it takes these subjects very seriously. However, it is also a heartwarming father-daughter comedy punctuated by some of the funniest gags you will see in any movie this year.

The lead performances by Sandra Hüller as the daughter and Peter Simonischek as the father are magnificent, and it is a treat to watch them gingerly navigate a relationship both need but of which both are wary. This is a film that loves its props and visual gags, but apart from being laugh-out-loud funny, those gags serve as a way to chart the relationship between the two characters. I can assure you never before have comedy fake teeth been used to generate more genuine emotion than in this film.

Germany’s Oscar history is muddled by the time a dangerously psychotic world leader built a wall. … I’ll just let that hang there for a moment. … West Germany scored eight nominations in this category, while East Germany was also cited once. Since the reunification, German filmmakers have been nominated another 10 times, bringing the total to 19, which would tie with Spain for third-most all time behind Italy and France. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others was the most recent German winner, and there is a strong chance Ade will be the next.

A Man Called Ove (directed by Hannes Holm) – If any of these films can be called crowd-pleasing, this would be it, and by the standards of this category, it is a blockbuster. With $3.4 million in box-office receipts, it made more than double what the other four nominees have earned combined (at the time of this writing). Though three of the other films remain in theaters, it is likely this will remain top dog from a financial standpoint. When it comes to awards and the Academy in particular, financial success is never a bad thing for two reasons: First, voters like to reward success, and second, it means more people are likely to have seen your movie.

Holm’s direction is crisp and breezy, telling the story of Ove (Rolf Lassgård), who bitterly shuts out the world after the death of his wife but slowly allows himself to be drawn into a community. Like others of its ilk, particularly those films coming out of Sweden, it walks a thin line between comedy and drama, often refusing to distinguish between the two. Like Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence and Felix Herngren’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared – though not so cumbersomely titled – A Man Called Ove finds humor in the tragedy of life and tragedy in the hilarity of it.

As a nation, Sweden resides comfortably alongside Italy, France, Japan, and Spain in the top five of most wins, most nominations, and most submissions in the Foreign Language category. From 15 nominations, Swedish filmmakers have picked up this award three times. Actually, strike that. One Swedish filmmaker has picked up this award three times – the great Ingmar Bergman. Bergman is the only Swedish director to earn the gold here, and it is an understandably high bar for any other Swedish filmmaker to clear. Holm has a very real opportunity to do just that this year.

Tanna (directed by Martin Butler and Bentley Dean) – Set against the backdrop of a remote South Pacific Island, lush with rainforest and dominated by an active volcano, Tanna is a classical Shakespearean drama brought to life in a richly detailed, authentically felt new way. Two warring tribes forge a fragile peace and agree to exchange brides. However, one of the girls offered, Wawa (Marie Wawa), runs off with her lover, Dain (Mungau Dain), and the young couple is hunted by both tribes.

The story of the film is ostensibly true, and members of the Yakel tribe, to which Wawa and Dain belong, are asked to tell it in their own words (using the native Nauvhal language). If there are elements of Romeo and Juliet in here, then there, too, are elements of tribal ritual, mysticism, and natural communion. Butler and Dean pull all of these elements together to bring to light a story of tolerance, peace, and forgiveness, the roots of which apply to all peoples the world over.

This is the first Australian film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and the filmmakers deserve credit for not imposing an imperial or western point of view on the film. It may be an Australian production – and kudos to the Australian committee for submitting to the Academy such a beautiful film about an underrepresented population – but this film belongs to the Yakel tribe and the people of Vanuatu who make the story sing. They bring truth, energy, and intensity to a story as old as storytelling itself.

Land of Mine (Martin Zandvliet) – Harrowing is perhaps the only apt descriptor for this film about German POWs forced to remove the landmines from Danish beaches. The beauty of Land of Mine, which Zandvliet wrote and directed, is that it operates on both a purely visceral level and a resolutely intellectual one. It is a nerve-fraying experience to watch young boys uncover and disarm landmines buried in the sand, and Zandvliet rings every ounce of tension out of the situation. However, this is not the filmmaker’s only goal, and had it been, Land of Mine would not be half the movie it is.

The layers of guilt and blame and horror and pain stack one on top of the other throughout this film. There is never a question what we are witnessing is cruel and unusual punishment at least, a war crime at worst.  Make no mistake, these are captured Nazi soldiers, perpetrators and defenders of a system of unspeakable evils, but they are also teenage boys who cry out for their mothers and just want to go home.

Nazism is one of the worst horrors ever visited upon humanity, and to their captors, these boys represent that horror, no matter how small or large a hand they may have played in it. Rightly or wrongly, these boys will pay for their nation’s crimes against humanity, but to do so, their punishers must forfeit their own humanity. Yet I am in no position to judge, and if I am ever called upon to answer for the crimes of my country, I may think it unfair, but I will not be at a loss to understand the motivation.

Denmark has a solid history with the Oscars, scoring three wins from 12 nominations, and its recent history is even better. The Danes have landed a nominee in this category six times in the past 11 years and four of the past five. The most recent winner was Susanne Bier in 2010 for In a Better World. Land of Mine is an unquestionably difficult sit, and as evidenced by its paltry box-office take, it seems audiences are of wary of it. I won’t say they needn’t be, but its virtues are so great and its message so important it demands to be seen anyway.

The final analysis

On general acclaim and critical success, Toni Erdmann seems like the most likely winner. Out of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, it was the talk of the town and remained that way month after month. Ade even picked up a number of Best Director mentions on the critics awards circuit. The film is both entertaining and intelligent and would make a handsome winner.

Here, however, I will go against the consensus. Oscar ballots only reached voters hands in the last week, and the zeitgeist film of the moment is The Salesman, given its relevance to world events. That newsiness will almost certainly put more voters in seats to see the film – whether in theaters or at home on screener – and once they see it, its power will be hard to deny. If you are trying to win an Oscar pool, Toni Erdmann is the safe bet, but my gut tells me the Academy will see fit to honor the Iranian master Farhadi, both for his wonderful film and for what that honor would mean.

Will win: The Salesman
Should win: Land of Mine
Should have been here: The Handmaiden

Tomorrow: Best Live Action Short

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