I’m sure that many people head to the kitchen for dessert when the Oscar is awarded for Best Foreign Language Film. But that is one of the categories that I pay special attention to. Films that come from other countries and cultures often give us wonderful insights into the what the world is like outside our own cultural bubble. This year’s field of films is very strong. I’ve seen four of the five nominees and would not be disappointed at any of them winning. Of course, I do have my own favorite. I’ll work my way from my least favorite to my choice to win.
First, I should mention the Jordanian film Theeb, the one I haven’t had a chance to see yet. It is set in the Ottoman Empire during World War I and features the interaction of a pair of Bedouin orphan brothers and a British soldier. I am usually very pleased with films from the Middle East, and I expect this is one I’ll like when I get to see it.
Even though Embrace the Serpent is my lowest choice, it is still an excellent film. This black and white film from Columbia follows a shaman as he journeys with a dying ethnologist seeking a healing plant. Then he does the trip again years later with another scholar trying to discover what happened to the first. It is not only a clash of culture, but of scientific reason and the magic of nature. Religion comes into play as well. A beautiful film, even in black and white.
Hungary’s Son of Saul, I think, has the most buzz about winning the Oscar. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes and has picked up several critics’ associations awards, including the National Board of Review and the Golden Globe. It is the story of a Sonderkommando, one of the prisoner/laborers who did the extermination work at Auschwitz. We see all the terrible things, but only on the periphery of the shots. This is a very powerful film of death, survival, and the struggle to do something worthwhile in a setting where everything seems totally evil.
A War from Denmark asks questions about applying morality to decisions made in the heat of battle. A Danish soldier in Afghanistan is brought home to face trial for killing civilians by calling in a rocket attack on a building he believed had enemy soldiers. It is a very personal story that shows the many ways this event colors not only his professional life, but also his family and the wider society.
My choice (and it is a very close race) is the French film Mustang about five Turkish sisters whose lives are turned upside down when a neighbor complains about their “inappropriate” behavior. They are locked away in their house and marriages are being arranged. The youngest daughter longs for freedom and fights against the restrictions. It is a call to consider the plight of women in more repressive cultures. It has a great mix of humor and pathos, and in the end, hope.