Lifestyle & Belief

What the Oscars missed: That other foreign film


Italian directors Vittorio Taviani (left) and his younger brother Paolo Taviani attend "Cesare deve Morire" ("Caesar Must Die") Portrait Session during the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival on Feb. 12, 2012.


Andreas Rentz

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Editor's note: This year's Oscars foreign film nominees include: Austria's "Amour," Norway's "Kon-Tiki," Chile's "No," Denmark's "A Royal Affair," and Canada's "War Witch." 

What about all those other foreign films? GlobalPost asked correspondents what should have made the cut but didn't. 

From China to Kenya to Brazil, go down this list and around the world without leaving your couch.

1) "Wadjda" (Saudi Arabia)

A country where public cinemas are illegal and women are oppressed seems an unlikely place for a female-directed, Oscar-worthy film. But Saudi Arabia in 2012 produced just that. Haifaa Mansour’s “Wadjda” is a heartfelt, coming-of-age story of a young girl testing the boundaries of her conservative Muslim society as she focuses her energies on owning and riding a gleaming, green bicycle. Her mother is horrified at the idea and forbids her from riding it. In a society where women are not yet allowed to drive, the bike would damage both the girl’s reputation and her virtue.

The film is the first full-length feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, with rare and impressive dun-colored scenes from the kingdom’s conservative capital. It is the nation’s first film by a female director, Haifaa Mansour. Mansour — who was forced to direct scenes from inside a van because she could not be seen in public with the male cast and crew — snagged the Best Film Award in the Arab Feature category at the Dubai International Film Festival in December.

— Erin Cunningham in Cairo

2) "Les Intouchables" (France)

In being overlooked for the foreign language shortlist, at least French film "Les Intouchables" ("The Intouchables") lived up to its name. The movie, a peculiar comedy about a quadriplegic and his caretaker, bears all the hallmarks of a surefire Oscar winner, not least because it has been championed by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. The odd-couple plot sees wheelchair-bound millionaire Philippe strike up an unlikely friendship with immigrant caretaker Driss. The frank and funny exchanges between the two very different men transcend class and race, offering both of them a new lease of life. Despite being steeped in the kind of corn syrup that Academy Awards panelists normally devour for breakfast, its laughs are fresh as well as warm. The film has proved wildly successful in both the French and international markets, more so than France's last Oscar big hitter, "The Artist." But its over-reliance on stereotypes could have prompted judges to wrongly categorize it as a somewhat dubious comedy about race and disability.

— Barry Neild in London

3) "Headshot" (Thailand)

Bangkok theaters are typically overrun with schlocky horror flicks and sickly sweet romance films. But "Headshot," a lurid crime tale by director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, stands out in the world of Thai cinema.

Released in Thailand under the title, "Rain Falls Up Towards the Sky," the film dwells on the futility of fighting corruption through the eyes of a hit man who, after taking a bullet to the skull, sees the world upside down. For much of the film, so does the viewer. This technique, which might come off as a cheap B-movie gimmick if deployed by a lesser director, is used to artfully explore a man's reimagining of the world around him.

Though submitted to the Oscars, it wasn't nominated. But like the last Thai movie to generate international buzz — the otherworldly "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," a 2010 Cannes Palm D'Or winner — cinematography is the film's best quality. Its unique visual approach adds loads of panache and style to an otherwise decent addition to Asian crime noir cinema.

— Patrick Winn in Bangkok

4) "Material" (South Africa)

"Material" is the story of a young Muslim man who works at his father's fabric shop in Johannesburg but dreams of being a stand-up comedian. The film is set in the city's bustling Fordsburg neighborhood, a hub of Indian and Pakistani culture (and good restaurants), and it gives viewers an unusual window into South African life.

But "Material" also has broader universal themes like the tension between family responsibilities, identity and personal ambition. Best of all, it highlights South African comedy, which is currently experiencing a boom, with talented young comics taking on weighty issues such as race and politics while being very, very funny. The film stars Riaad Moosa, who in real life quit being a medical doctor to pursue comedy.

Technically this movie wouldn't qualify for the foreign language film category at the Oscars — it's in English. But, eish, those South African accents can be thick!

— Erin Conway-Smith in Johannesburg

5) “The Clown” (Brazil)

"The Clown," a 2011 film by Selton Mello, was Brazil’s official entry this year in the foreign Oscar nominations. It was a worthy choice by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture.

The film is Mello’s second, and in a brilliant casting choice he stars as the main protagonist. It’s not just a beautiful film to watch — poetically shot and paced just right — it also does justice to clowns everywhere by treating the profession as a complex and nuanced metier that explores some of the deepest, oldest questions about why we are here and what we’re supposed to do with ourselves.

The film’s main storyline follows father-and-son duo Benjamin and Valdemar (their clown names are Pangare and Puro Sangue) as they travel the country in a circus troupe. The tension comes from Benjamin’s shattering sense that he is no longer funny. His efforts to come to grips with this fear and his increasing longing for stability are what everyone, not just clowns, can relate to powerfully.

— Marie Doezema in Paris

6) "Mystery" (China)

Debuted at Cannes, this atmospheric thriller was the first film by envelope-pushing director Lou Ye since he received a five-year ban for making a film that depicted incidents at Tiananmen Square.

The film's backstory provides a good part of the interest: During the first cut, China's government censors made Lou eliminate a sex scene and a scene depicting the murder of an indigent with a hammer. Then, shortly before the Cannes debut, Lou was told to make further cuts. He balked, denouncing the censors on social media. At last he complied, but protested the cuts by removing his name from the final version.

“I accept that I'm a film director working in an era of censorship. I just want dialogue, not confrontation,” he said.

Apart from the politics, "Mystery" itself has been well-received: a dark and technically sophisticated, if somewhat overwrought, drama among the contemporary noveaux-riches of smoggy, colossal Wuhan. Lou Ye has marked himself as an outspoken director worth watching.

— Benjamin Carlson in Hong Kong

7) "Caesar Must Die" (Italy)

Italy's choice for the foreign-language Oscar was "Caesar Must Die," a raw docu-drama featuring a troupe of high-security prisoners preparing for a production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." The actors include drug smugglers, murderers and Mafiosi, and the film is shot entirely within the walls of Rome's Rebibbia prison. The result is a claustrophobic classic. It's not easy viewing, but there are surprising dashes of humor. Veteran directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani switch from scenes of the inmates' impassioned interpretation of ancient Roman mayhem to intimate shots of rehearsals within the confines of their cells. Shot mostly in a grainy black and white, the movie grabbed the top prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Salvatore Striano pulls off the standout performance as Brutus. He's now a professional actor, after serving his sentence and turning his back on a career with Naples' Camorra mob. "Caesar Must Die" doesn't shove its redemption-through-art message in your face — the intensity of the performances means it doesn't have to.

— Paul Ames in Brussels

8) "Pieta" (South Korea)

"Pieta," a South Korean film directed by the well-known filmmaker Kim Ki-duk and shown at Cannes, should have made the list. The twisted and churlish flick is a commentary on the Korean underworld, telling the story of a loan shark who dwells in a gritty industrial neighborhood. Residents barter their limbs in exchange for cash. When they don't pay, he cuts off their hands and throws people off buildings. One day, a woman claiming to be his mother shows up at the door, offering her unconditional love — even after he rapes her. The soulless gangster eventually falls under her charm. It's a commentary on the animalistic, and perhaps conflicted, human condition when people are ensconced in suffering.

Some audiences will get nauseous over the bone-grinding and limb-hacking in the first half of the film. But the movie follows a Korean trend of touching on dark themes, which has become especially popular overseas (inside Korea, they love romantic dramas). Think Park Chun-wook's 2005 film "Oldboy," which carries a disturbing incest theme but contributed to the recent global prominence of Korean filmmakers.

— Geoffrey Cain in Seoul

9) "Gangs of Wasseypur" (India)

How India goes about selecting films to enter into the Oscars is beyond me. This year, the selectors chose a low-wattage, campy tearjerker about the relationship between a deaf-mute boy and an autistic girl called, appropriately, “Barfi!” (Okay, it means something different in Hindi). Meanwhile, the real masterpiece was Anurag Kashyap's marathon “Gangs of Wasseypur” — which received a standing ovation when it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. At a whopping 318-minutes long, the two-part, cow-belt crime noir uses the disputes among three rural criminal empires to address the legacy of British colonialism, Hindu-Muslim conflict, the grim reality of India's coal industry, Indira Gandhi-style socialism and the breakneck scramble for wealth that began with liberalization in 1991. All with a wit and verve that prompted comparisons to Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Leone and Francis Ford-Coppola. (See also Kashyap's “Gulaal” (2009) and “Dev D” (2009) — both of which might have done India proud, as well.)

— Jason Overdorf in New Delhi

10) "Barbara" (Germany)

Germany’s submission for the Oscars this year dealt with a complicated theme not unfamiliar to the panel’s voters: life in the GDR, or East Germany. “Barbara,” director Christian Petzold’s foray into the subject, has been well-received at home and abroad — most notably in France — and won its director the Silver Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

“Barbara” is about an East German doctor, banished from her post at East Berlin’s largest hospital to a small provincial position near the Baltic Sea. Her world is one of mistrust and disappointment, with an undercurrent of danger as she secretly meets her West German boyfriend and helps a young pregnant prisoner. The tension is often expressed through silence, and the characters are complex and flawed.

The last German film to win the Oscar for best foreign-language film was “The Lives of Others,” a thriller exploring the role of the Stasi, or East German secret police. That movie, which won in 2006, was much more dramatic in its approach, said Fritz Goettler, a film critic for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. “I like Petzold’s film, but because it was so still, so focused, maybe it was not as accessible,” said Goettler.

Petzold told the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel that, for him, the Oscar seemed more distant than Atlantis, and he admitted that he had never watched the awards ceremony on TV. “As a child, I got up to watch Muhammad Ali box on TV, or to see the astronauts land on the moon. But to watch the Oscars?”

— Mary Beth Warner in Berlin

11) "After Lucia" (Mexico)

Winning the coveted Un Certain Regard prize — intended for highly original films — at Cannes last May, Mexican film "After Lucia" certainly had the critical credentials for a possible nod in the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year.

Writer-director Michel Franco’s eloquent but hard-hitting exploration of high-school bullying tells the story of teenager Alejandra, played by Tessa Ia, as she is victimized by her peers after a cellphone video of a drunken sexual escapade is anonymously emailed to her classmates.

The Lucia of the title is Alejandra’s recently deceased mother. The bullying saga plays out against the backdrop of the bereaved daughter’s tense relationship with her grieving father, Roberto, played by Hernan Mendoza.

While Chilean movie "No" is nominated, Latin American film has been booming in recent years and two nominations from the region for best foreign language film would certainly not have been excessive this year.

But the brooding atmosphere, not to mention camerawork reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s dogma school of headache-inducing shaky cam, may have been more than the Academy, in its pursuit of lighter viewing, could stomach.

— Simeon Tegel in Lima

12) "Nairobi Half Life" (Kenya)

David Tosh Gitonga’s film, “Nairobi Half Life,” tells a familiar story of rags to riches in a developing country. The movie, Gitonga’s first, focuses on the life of an aspiring actor who leaves his village with huge hopes and little money. He goes to Nairobi, where he quickly falls into a circle of criminals and struggles to pursue his thespian dreams.

It could be sugary, it could be cliche, it could be all too familiar. Happily, it’s not. Though the film tells a well-worn story and, generally, explores the human condition, Gitonga manages to do so in ways that are fresh, challenging and witty.

"Nairobi Half Life" is also a pleasure to watch, tightly edited and impeccably shot. The soundtrack keeps the film moving, and the end result is innovative but not rushed, smooth without being too slick.

The film, in English and Swahili with English subtitles, is the result of a partner project between DW-Akademie, One Fine Day Films and Ginger Ink. Tom Tykwer acted as supervising director through his One Fine Day Film Workshop, a program that sponsors one African film per year.

— Marie Doezema in Paris