Oscars 2012: Best Foreign Language Films Offer Wordly Perspective
The Academy Awards may be a paparazzo’s dream event, chock full of glitz, glamour and tabloid fodder galore to celebrate the year in Hollywood movies. Beyond the relentless flashbulbs, red carpet and often shallow celebrity worship, however, lies an appreciation for film’s impact as an art form and how the medium speaks to audiences across the globe. The five movies nominated for Best Foreign Language Film this year were honored over the weekend during pre-Oscar festivities in Los Angeles and the directors, actors, producers and writers of these works helped showcase an inspiring aspect of the entertainment industry that often gets buried underneath our society’s obsession with fame.
After a brief press junket outside the Kodak Theater on Friday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted a more formal symposium at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills on Saturday where reporters and Academy members alike were treated to clips of all five nominated films and a panel discussion with each movie’s director. Oscar-winning and Emmy-nominated producer Mark Johnson (Rain Man, Breaking Bad) moderated the event and allowed ample time for each auteur to explain the process, torture and joy of having their respective visions come to life.
For Michael Roskam, director of Belgium’s Bullhead, his desire to tell the story of organized crime within the cattle farming industry derived from both a passion for the specific, unique narrative and the aesthetic influence of his favorite film genres, particularly noir. Citing both the Coen brothers and Michael Mann as professional inspirations, Roskam stated that proper noir films “need two things: a great crime scene, and a real tragedy.” The film focuses on the journey of central character Jacky, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, as he descends into unraveling darkness in the face of a shady business deal and a painful past. Schoenarts gained 60 pounds of muscle to play the steroid-ridden role believably, and discussed how the physical dedication helped him prepare for the emotional upheaval of the part.
“The preparation of course had a huge influence on my spirit and I could feel what it was doing to me and feel things happening,” Schoenaerts began. “You cultivate [those feelings] and push them in a certain direction in order to get closer to the universe of your character … The physical state of being has such an enormous impact on how you think and how you feel.”
When asked about his reaction to the Oscar attention for his first feature-length film, Roskam explained with a simple metaphor most people can relate to. “I like sports analogies, so it’s like going to the world championship of cinema,” he began. “And when you win the Oscar, you get the rainbow jersey [smiles]. That’s how it feels.”
While Roskam is the only director enjoying this level of success for his maiden film, most of his colleagues are also Oscar neophytes despite having more experience in the industry. Poland’s Agnieszka Holland, however, has had a storied career that includes a Best Screenplay nod in 1990 for Europa Europa and now her film In Darkness is up for Best Foreign Language Film. The Holocaust tale centers on Leopold Socha, a sewer worker who moonlights as a petty thief during WWII and discovers a Jewish family living underground. He hides their secret from his boss and wife, and the experience ignites an important transformation from his formerly self-serving instincts to those of compassion. Holland discussed how the film’s signature tone, focusing on the claustrophobic, sightless stretches of the Polish sewer system and the voices hiding within, actually helps illustrate her objective to keep the story revolved around the characters instead of their circumstances. According to Holland, the surroundings speak for themselves.
“It was about the people, and not the mechanics of the war,” she explained, adding that she and her team were “crying for authenticity” while analyzing the script and its source material, a book by Robert Marshall. Interestingly, the screenplay for In Darkness was initially written in English and then re-translated back to Polish, a notion Holland said she thinks certainly doesn’t happen often, if ever before.
Compelling Holocaust dramas, particularly ones that focus on the individuals and not the minutiae of the horrific events, often do well at the Oscars. Holland’s tale of redemption and survival in the face of one of history’s most significant genocides will likely stake its claim among prestigious company regardless of the outcome on Oscar Sunday.
Two more of the Best Foreign Film nominees, Iranian frontrunner A Separation and Israel’s Footnote, pare down the heavy historical background, despite modern political tensions in both countries, and instead zoom in on the relationships between each movie’s central two characters. In Footnote, a father and son grapple with a growing tension as they both vie for adulation within their similar careers as Talmudic researchers. When the father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), is up for Israel’s highest academic honor, the competitive nature between the two men reaches a high and their interpersonal dynamic begins to suffer in ways far deeper than ever before. Director and writer Joseph Cedar derived the story’s core much from his own relationship with his father, biochemist and Israel Prize winner Howard Cedar, and the pressure to live up to high expectations.
In A Separation, a husband and wife clash over plans to flee Iran and build a better life for their daughter and themselves when another family member’s illness becomes an overwhelming cause for concern. Simin (Leila Hatami) is adamant she and Nader (Peyman Moadi) make good on their initial intentions to raise their daughter outside Iran’s oppressive environment, but with only 40 days left on their visa and Nader’s father suffering from intensifying Alzheimer’s, the couple faces both a difficult decision and deeply conflicting ideas about the proper solution. In the clip shown to reporters on Saturday, Simin and Nader approach a judge about their divorce options and are told summarily to take care of their “small problem.” A Separation director Asghar Farhadi explained how the focus on this marriage within the larger framework of a troubled Iranian society helps convey his idea that even the smallest of problems often provide the biggest amount of trouble.
“I believe larger problems can be solved easier than big problems,” Farhadi began. “The problem with small problems is that you often can’t see them,” he continued, adding that larger issues in one’s life, and often in a couple’s, are more “identifiable” as thus mended more quickly. Instead of involving the grand scheme of Iran’s national troubles into the thematic framework, Farhadi chose to put Simin and Nader up front and let their environment serve as a supplemental backdrop to their personal strife, allowing the narrative to transcend cultural boundaries and speak on a universal level. Judging from the overwhelming response to A Separation and Farhadi’s story, the message has been received loud and clear, particularly by the Academy.
The final film up for a coveted statuette is Canada’s Monsieur Lazhar, a classroom drama based upon a play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere. The stage production is decidedly sparse, spanning one act and involving a solitary actor who plays the title character. Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is an Algerian immigrant who replaces a beloved schoolteacher after she unexpectedly and tragically commits suicide. His interaction with the students and observation of their confusion, shock and grief in light of the awful circumstances helps shed a light on his own inner turmoil, and the film captures the duality of the resulting healing process. Cheneliere said she had no problem authorizing director Philippe Falardeau with the rights to her play, saying, “I knew his work, so I knew my work was in good hands because he’s very delicate. I think this story really needed a very subtle way to show it and to tell it, [without] becoming too sentimental.”
Expanding the student-free play to include a classroom full of onscreen children sounds like a situation ripe for schmaltz, but Falardeau assured that his method of approaching the material from an unusual perspective helped keep the film’s primary goals in mind.
“Usually, we adjust children to the adult world” when it comes to making movies, Falardeau said. With Monsieur Lazhar, however, he admitted he “had to adjust to the children’s world.” This proved no simple feat, considering the idea that the movie’s ultimate tone and narrative had to ideally follow a decidedly adult progression.
“One of the tricky parts for us was making sure it was positioned as an adult film, because there’s a lot of children present but it’s not a movie for kids,” producer Luc Dery affirmed. “There’s mature themes and that’s the audience we were making the film for, adults.”
Despite the presence and involvement of children within the grim subject matter and thematic explorations, Monsieur Lazhar ultimately succeeds because of the recognition of one important fact that can also serve as a possible reason why all five of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees were able to garner international acclaim.
“Everybody has been a child and a student,” Cheneliere declared. With more thought provoking foreign films entering the scope of Academy-recognized repertoire year by year, it looks as though audiences will only continue to learn from other cinematic cultures.
What foreign films spoke to you this year?
Don’t miss the Oscars Sunday, February 26 at 7 p.m. EST on ABC
Images courtesy of Erin Biglow for Poptimal