Talking Movies: The year’s most overlooked foreign films

In a mid-career interview with Swedish television, Ingmar Bergman was asked about how a filmmaker should treat his or her audience. He responds by telling a sort of morality tale about a Chinese wood carver during the Middle Ages who is asked to sculpt a wooden bell stand for a local temple. The carver makes three attempts, all of which fail. During each of these attempts, Bergman tells us, the carver is focused on a different motive for his carving: first on money, then on love, then on achieving artistic immortality. During the creation of the final version of the carving, which is ultimately successful and a work of extreme beauty, the carver has but one thought in his mind: to carve a bell stand.

With the awards season recently completed, one may hope that all the filmmakers not taking home an Oscar or Palm d’Or hold a similarly stoic attitude toward the lack of honors their films received, though we might also guess this was an easier perspective for a filmmaker with three Oscars for best foreign language film on his bookshelf in Faro. Nowhere is the field of high-quality also-rans as deep as the foreign film category at this month’s Academy Awards, a situation that is both cause for optimism for American filmgoers, and that may also suggest some problems in the Academy’s selection process.

This year’s best foreign film category received the most entries in the history of the award: 76 total, representing 40 percent of the countries on Earth currently recognized by the United Nations. The quantity of entries, however, may highlight one of the fundamental problems with the award: While the overall best picture award pool includes as many as 10 American films (or at least English-language films, usually produced by American companies), the best foreign film category is limited to five nominees from literally every other country on the planet. It is also limited to a single film from each country, thus shortchanging countries with several potential winners. The most obvious victim in this year’s Oscars being Japan, which submitted The Great Passage in an apparent attempt to get more notoriety for its younger generation of directors instead of Hirakazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son. Neither film made the short list of finalists for the Oscar.

In addition to Koreeda’s Cannes-decorated film, Gloria and Heli are terrific films that failed to make the final five in contention for best foreign language film at the recent Academy Awards. Their directors were probably focused only on making really awesome bell stands.

Like Father, Like Son

Hirakazu Koreeda (Japan)

Nothing makes you question your parenting skills like finding out that your son was switched at birth in the hospital. Successful executive Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) must face precisely this dilemma in the most recent film from the director of Nobody Knows (2004). Beyond the predictable themes of nature vs. nurture and the question of what family truly is, Koreeda’s poignant film gets at questions of social class in contemporary Japan and the nature of paternal identity in one of the most traditionally paternalistic societies in the modern world.


Sebastián Lelio (Chile) — Opening March 14 at FilmScene

Gloria’s absence from the best foreign film category may most suggest the need for changes in the Academy’s nomination process. This Chilean film is about a Gloria (Paulina García) feisty 58-year-old woman who is not letting middle age slow her down. The film deals with her relationship with a former naval officer whom she meets at a dance club and the burdens of a new relationship at a time when the title character is more concerned with living for herself. Sebastián Lelio’s film is also a subtle commentary on the role of the past within the consciousness of modern Chileans and images of femininity within a traditionally paternalistic culture. It is one of the many exciting films coming out of the burgeoning Latin American cinema.


Amat Escalante (Mexico)


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Optimists among us may feel that the recent capture of Shorty Guzman marks a turning point in Mexico’s drug war. Amat Escalante’s film will beg to disagree with that assessment. Similar in both tone and construction with Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar (which made the cut), Heli is a fractured love story constrained by the asphyxiating world of the Mexican drug cartels—a world in which any question of disloyalty is necessarily one of life and death. Escalante does an excellent job of highlighting the effect of drug violence on the more remote parts of Mexico that don’t receive coverage on the U.S. evening news, and he accentuates how even simple acts of human kindness, generosity and love are politicized within the tense and oppressive climate in which the cartels potentially control most aspects of life, even for ordinary Mexicans.

Warren Sprouse teaches in Cedar Rapids. He is incessantly listening to Robbie Fulks until baseball season starts.

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