The 15 shortlisted films vying to become one of the five Best International Feature nominees at the 2021 Academy Awards are a surprising and creatively engaging bunch. Their stories often are drenched in history — much of it tragic and disturbing — and turbulent social and political currents course through any number of them. Just four of the 15 were directed by familiar names so, for the most part, the filmmakers behind these works are in the early stages of their careers, which can only create optimism and excitement about what these up-and-comers will do in the future.
Oscar nominations will be revealed on March 15.
I’ve now seen all of the contenders and must say that it was, for the most part, stimulating to encounter so many fresh voices from some often little-heard-from realms of the cinematic world. Fewer than half of the semi-finalists come from countries typically thought of as regularly representing the cinematic front-rank — France, Iran, Denmark, Mexico, Russia, Czech Republic, Romania — while quite a few turned up from sources seldom heard from even at international festivals: Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Guatemala, Bosnia & Herzegovina. Odds are that you’d be hard-pressed to name any other films made by a dozen of the directors among the contenders this year.
This is all to the good, as international cinema is forever on the lookout for fresh subjects, styles and talent. Watching these 15 films was exciting both for the subjects they embrace — seldom do they resemble the sort of topics that preoccupy conventional Western cinema — and the highly variable ways they tell their stories. Only four of the group are not set in the present, and those mostly deal with specific historical events of the recent past in countries where, for political reasons, one could never have made truth-telling films at the time.
And there were some real surprises as to subject matter and approach: Political thriller, The Man Who Sold His Skin, made by Tunisia’s Kaouther Ben Hania with a fabulous style resembles that of a James Bond film shot by Roger Deakins. While devastating historical dramas from Russia and Bosnia & Herzegovina reveal state-sponsored mass murder of their own citizens not so very long ago? Or, for that matter, two documentaries entering the mix in this category?
Surveying the list of 15 candidates that will shortly be winnowed down to five nominees, two stand head and shoulders above the rest. One is Dear Comrades!, which saw the ever-vigorous 83-year-old Russian master Andrei Konchalovsky reveal and stage the dreadful mass murder by the regime of Soviet citizens in the wake of a workers’ protest that simply could not be tolerated by the communists in 1962. Shot in black-and-white with a feel of great verisimilitude, the film reveals with sober force the extent to which the dominant totalitarian state in the world permitted not the slightest dissent while revealing along the way the lies and corruption that kept the system fortified. Konchalovsky’s family was among the elite at the time, so he knows of what he speaks.
The other real stand-out is the curiously titled A Sun, a contemporary drama from Taiwan that played a number of festivals last year and quickly ended up on Netflix. It begins with a startling act of violence, then proceeds, in a zig-zagging way, to dissect the dynamics of a deeply unfortunate family driven by bad choices, stubbornness and indecision. Every moment in this mighty saga of familial failings and foibles from the hitherto little-known director Chung Mong-hong has an electric current running through it, and the cast in exceptional.
These two films stand notably taller than the rest of the pack, and for either of them not to make the final cut would, in my view, mark a major misstep.
Another top foreign film, Quo Vadis, Aida?, this year put a spotlight another extraordinary historical tragedy of recent times: the murder in 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces of more than 8,000 civilians ostensibly under United Nations supervision in Srebrenica. Director Jasmila Zbanic’s film observes the lead-up to the massive crime with relentless intensity; a double-bill of this and Dear Comrades! would be enough to induce depression about the human condition for an untold period.
Another film that grew out of profound political troubles but takes a very different tack is the above-mentioned The Man Who Sold His Skin, which, like Quo Vadis, Aida?, was directed by a woman, the Tunisian Kaouther Ben Hania. This ultra-stylish piece is rooted in political issues in Syria but spends most of its time in Europe, where the refugee protagonist himself becomes a work of political art and a media sensation when a visa is tattooed on his back and he’s placed in an art gallery. It’s both topically engaging and gorgeous to watch.
By rights the fifth nominee should be Majid Majidi’s Sun Children from Iran, which — customarily for the director — focuses on street children who learn how to deal with life’s challenges from an early age. Despite the potentially depressing milieu, the eyes-wide-open, generous-spirited, undidactic Majidi believes so whole-heartedly in the positive aspects of the human spirit that the good can usually at least slightly outweigh the bad.
These five would decisively be my choices as nominees for Best International Feature Film of the year. But there certainly are some other good ones among the other candidates. Filippo Meneghetti’s Two of Us from France is an appealingly low-key, uncontrived look at the lives of two old neighbor ladies who have long lived in adjoining apartments so that their long-term intimate relationship is not even suspected by their closest family members until, that is, things finally change.
Considerably more rambunctious and crowd-pleasing, and a film I imagine is already a front-runner and could conceivably (if undeservedly) win in this category, is Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round. The central premise — that carefully administered small amounts of alcohol consumed all day long can serve to benefit human performance and mental acumen — is indisputably novel, and the film becomes the sort of celebration of life that tends to sweep audiences up.
One of two documentaries to be found in this international category is Alexander Nanau’s Collective, which delivers a blistering picture of Romania’s thoroughly corrupt medical system through the terrible case of a fire at a musical venue that killed many young people, which then morphs into sheer accumulation of dizzyingly rampant corruption throughout the country’s medical field. It’s endlessly depressing from beginning to end. Cinematically, it’s as raw and unaesthetic as a film can be — one can imagine hundreds or even thousands of hours of verité material being whittled down to what we see. And if you’re ever in Romania and need a doctor, having seen this you’ll be on notice to get over to Austria (the Romanians here continually sing the praises of its medical system) or virtually anywhere else, at once.
Medically inflected in a very different manner is the protean Agnieszka Holland’s Charlatan, a sturdy Czech film about a real country doctor in the first half of the last century who used highly unconventional techniques to cure people of all manner of ailments. The film skips over too many aspects of the man’s long life for it to be truly satisfying, but it’s still an intriguing look at a true real-life eccentric.
Illness and its treatment are also the subjects of Hope, Norway’s hopeful in the Oscar race. Director Maria Sodahl came down with cancer after making her first film a decade ago and this follow-up details her against-the-odds battle to survive, supported by her husband and six kids between them. It’s conventionally constructed and a certain respectable decorum is maintained, but it’s also intelligent, sober-minded and well-acted.
Hong Kong is represented by Better Days, which is what all the high school students herein hope to have once they’ve completed their National College Entrance Exams. But much more onerous for the 18-year-old heroine is the abuse dished out by her school’s rich, snooty and murderous bad-girl clique. This is partly YA fiction stuff, but its turbulent emotional undercurrents are ever-present.
Philippe Lacote’s Night of the Kings takes you into a very particular, and particularly scary, heart of darkness, a prison full of rough customers in Ivory Coast where tradition has it that one prisoner will be chosen to recite a story all night long to the others, with the failure to do so supposedly amounting to a death sentence. This unusual setting provides a vital, scary and novel world utterly unto itself. But as arresting as it is, there are elements that dramatically just don’t add up or that perhaps are simply not properly explained or justified.
Mystifying in different ways at times is La Llorona, the first film from Guatemala ever shortlisted for an Oscar. This is a mysterious tale in which the terrible legacy of an ousted strongman dictator is challenged, nay haunted by the titular crying woman of legend via a maid in his household’s employ. It’s a small, intently focused film suffused in local history and the ever-lingering spectres of cruelty and tragedy.
The Mexican entry I’m No Longer Here from young director Fernando Frias is tasty and evocative as long as it stays in Mexico but doesn’t go anywhere interesting dramatically or physically when it ventures to New York, where the young central character is stranded for far too long. What remain most in the mind are the music and the extraordinary costumes and head gear employed by the film’s street inhabitants.
Finally, I have to admit that Maite Alberti’s widely acclaimed Chilean “documentary,” The Mole Agent, left me completely unconvinced and outside the film. Centered on a nice old man who’s hired to move into a senior citizen’s living facility to investigate possible elder abuse therein, the film is positioned as a revelatory documentary. But the whole thing seems like a disingenuous set-up in which the rules of the game are neatly hidden behind a veneer of trendy advocacy.
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