Year in and year out, this is the hardest category to track down. That’s because of the eligibility cycle and rules that govern this category, which differ from the rest of the field. Right off the bat, there’s no requirement that the films be publicly screened in the United States. Eligible films must be in a language other than English for the majority of the dialogue (though at least one silent film has been nominated), and the film must be produced with controlling interest in a foreign country. As such, the film – judged by the home country to be its best – must only be screened publicly in that country.
This is also one of the only categories – if not the only one – where Academy voters have to attend special screenings in order to have their vote count. Seeing it at home on DVD doesn’t count. Even the release cycle is different. For every other category, the film must be released in the calendar year to be eligible. For Foreign Language, the cycle runs October-September. Strictly speaking, we as the general public have no right to ever see any of the nominees in this group. Thankfully, I live in Los Angeles, and we have plenty of indie theatres that bring foreign films in on a regular basis, and re-release the films when the nominations come out. That combined with Netflix allows for access to the category, but even then, it’s usually one of the last ones to finish.
Like the Documentary Feature category this year, there are some curious choices in the final nominee set with some others that seem oddly left out. A total of 92 countries submitted a film this year, including six first-timers (Haiti, Honduras, Laos, Mozambique, Senegal, and Syria). That list was pared down to a shortlist of nine films, from which the final five nominees were drawn. The four that were left out seem like odd decisions, given their respective accolades to date. Germany’s In the Fade won the Golden Globe in this category. From Israel, Foxtrot won both top honors at the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals. Félicité from newcomer Senegal won the Jury Grand Prix at the Berlin International Film Festival and six awards at the Africa Movie Academy Awards. South Africa’s The Wound screened at several highly-regarded festivals, including Sundance. Hell, Cambodia’s entry, First They Killed My Father was nominated for the Golden Globe, but didn’t even make the Oscar shortlist. Sometimes the selection committee’s choices leave more questions than answers.
And so we’re left with the set we have. European countries have dominated this category since its inception, with three chances to claim another victory here. We also have an entry from Asia – specifically the Middle East, and one from South America.
This year’s nominees for Foreign Language are:
A Fantastic Woman (Chile) – Sebastián Lelio
A young singer named Marina is in love with an older man named Orlando. After Orlando suddenly dies, Marina must weigh her own desire to grieve with the angry wishes of Orlando’s family to leave them in peace. It’s a classic love affair triangle story.
Except, that’s not what this film is. That’s what was advertised in the trailers, but instead we got an identity picture. See, it’s not advertised in the film, but Marina is a transgender woman, as is the actress who plays her, Daniela Vega. It’s a credit to her transition that I never once questioned her gender while seeing the trailers. Even when I learned that the actress was trans, I still thought it was going to be a basic romance film, just with the added novelty of the leading lady having been born male. But again, not so.
See, the trailers showed all the conflicts with Orlando’s family, but that’s a misdirection. He wasn’t having an affair with Marina. They were a legitimate couple, Orlando having divorced his wife years before the events of the film. The real issue is that the family knows who Marina is, and they feel Orlando’s association with her was perversion, and as such they want to keep the “freak” out of their grief. Along with that, every aspect of her life is torn apart by doctors and authorities who want to find some way to associate Marina’s orientation with some sort of foul play in Orlando’s death. At every turn she is abused and embarrassed, even by those who claim to be trying to help her. All she wants is to grieve the loss of her boyfriend and move on as she is.
The film is beautifully shot, with a great lighting scheme. There are a few lame shots where Marina just so happens to walk in front of mirrors and always has to stop for self-reflection, but it’s forgivable. Vega’s performance is strong when it needs to be, and vulnerable at other points. She shows an amazing range. And it should be noted that there’s a certain bravery to doing this film, not only because it centers on her personal issues, but also because she has to do nudity (the state of her genitals left intentionally vague throughout) and show physical femininity despite not being born with the body to do so.
Loveless (Russia) – Andrey Zvyagintsev
Set in 2012, Russia’s Loveless is a film that lives up to its title almost immediately. We get one scene of a young boy named Alexey casually walking home and playing with a ribbon in the woods before everything goes to shit. His parents, Boris and Zhenya, are going through a divorce so nasty it would make War of the Roses seem like The Adventures of Milo and Otis. The two so clearly hate each other, and they very much hate their son as well, not so much Alexey as a person, but the burden he represents to them. The very first night we see them, after that pleasant scene of Alexey in the forest, Boris and Zhenya argue loudly and acrimoniously about custody of the boy – not who gets him, mind you, but who has to take him, like he’s a piece of unwanted furniture.
Both Zhenya and Boris are in other relationships now. Boris has impregnated a young woman in her early 20s, much like he did to Zhenya which led to their broken relationship. Zhenya is dating an older man with a grown child off at college in Portugal, so she can essentially have him all to herself. Zhenya runs a salon and is fairly successful in her own right. Boris works as a salesman in a company with a super Christian owner, who mandates that all his workers be in happy marriages with children. Boris is more concerned over how quickly he can resolve the divorce and marry his new baby-mama to keep his job than he is any actual consequences of his actions.
They’re both horrible people, seemingly incapable of love, and that is put to the test when Alexey goes missing. At first they’re stymied by the police who dismiss it as an everyday runaway. But when the boy doesn’t return, a volunteer group is enlisted to perform an actual search and rescue, forcing the hateful parents to work together for the benefit of their son, who they didn’t even want. This may be one of the most pro-abortion films ever made, knowing how much Boris and Zhenya regret the lives they forged for themselves by keeping Alexey in the first place.
This is a very bleak, tragic film, mostly because of the boy. He’s not a loved child, he’s leverage. By the end of the first act, it’s clear that Boris and Zhenya’s engagement in the search is only to one-up the other and prove the “better” parent by finding him first. It becomes pretty apparent that the larger tragedy wouldn’t be in the child’s death, but in him being found. There are also some fairly strong social overtones on the Russian ideal of law and order, religion, and the family unit, to the point that I’m kind of surprised Vladimir Putin didn’t censor or kibosh the entire production.
The Insult (Lebanon) – Ziad Doueiri
A courtroom drama focusing on a dynamic that we in America don’t normally pay attention to, The Insult is a case study in toxic masculinity and tribalism, built from a moment of weakness into an absurd referendum on bigotry and nationalistic discourse. It’s the best cinematic example I can recall of seeing a mountain being made out of a molehill, and it not being a comedy.
The titular insult arises when Yasser, a Palestinian refugee working as a builder, is tasked with repairing a drainage pipe that isn’t up to code on an apartment patio. That apartment belongs to Tony, a Lebanese Christian who has deep prejudice against Palestinians because of terror attacks on his hometown when he was a child. Regardless of motivation, Tony is clearly in the wrong when he destroys Yasser’s work and tells him to leave his property. After several attempts to simply do his job, Yasser calls Tony a “fucking prick,” and the die is cast.
The foolish pride of these increasingly boorish people leads to further insults, repudiations of nationality, and eventually violence, initially just between Tony and Yasser, and later among those who support both sides, threatening to boil over into full-blown civil unrest. Eventually two trials become the focus of a media circus over who’s to blame in the situation, especially after Tony’s pregnant wife injures herself and gives birth under duress, leaving the child in the NICU struggling for its life.
Eventually, logic and basic human decency win out, but not before things escalate to a dramatically absurd level. It even gets to the point where Tony hires a high-profile attorney to argue on his behalf, only for the lawyer’s daughter to take up Yasser’s case pro bono, lending more family drama to the fringes of everything. Objectively, all of this is silly, but it’s presented in such a well-constructed way that it becomes gripping, and you find yourself searching for a spark of humanity to root for on both sides. Part of that is our grooming as an American audience to expect justice to win out in films. Part of it is just not really understanding the plight of Palestinians and their role in Lebanon’s history, for good and bad. Because of that, what could have been basically a bad soap opera episode turns into compelling drama.
On Body and Soul (Hungary) – Ildikó Enyedi
Alexandra Borbély won the European Actress Award at the European Film Awards for her performance here as Mária, an exacting inspector at a slaughterhouse who has autistic tendencies and great difficulties in socializing. Her supervisor Endre (Géza Morscányi) takes a professional interest in her, and tries to become her friend, even though she’s circumspect as an understatement.
However, an investigation into some stolen company property sends their fortunes on a somewhat magical path. After a series of interviews from a psychologist aiding the investigation, they learn that they’ve been living in the same dream every night, where they are two deer in the woods, sharing a companionship bordering on romance. They begin a tepid relationship, seeing the potential of something they didn’t think possible. Mária is broken mentally, given her tics and hangups. Endre is broken physically, one of his arms mangled in an industrial accident, and he’s past his prime, feeling he is no longer worthy of love.
The story is very beautifully told. The juxtaposition of magical realism and a nature-based romance with characters who work in meat packing is an expert visual, and the performances are spectacular. Borbély’s wide eyes convey so much hope and vulnerability that every setback is heartbreaking. Her melancholy eventually leads to a suicide attempt, which is tragic, but also kind of odd. Between this and In the Fade, that’s two films vying for this award that featured women slitting their wrists in a bathtub and being saved by a phone call just before bleeding out.
But yeah, this is a wonderfully offbeat love story with tremendous performances and visual beauty. It won the Golden Bear at Berlin, so it has a somewhat realistic chance of winning, but that doesn’t really matter to me. It was just nice to smile for a couple hours. It’s on Netflix if you can’t get to the theatres to see it. I highly recommend it.
The Square (Sweden) – Ruben Östlund
The surprise winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, The Square is an exercise in modern art farce. Claes Bang (noted Danish actor who looks a bit like Colin Farrell) plays Christian, a curator at a modern art museum where every exhibit we can see looks like a visual gag, from a room filled with piles of gravel lit by neon lights that read, “You Have Nothing,” to a precarious stack of children’s school desks. The latest exhibit is the titular square, simply a 16 square meter border in the courtyard lit by a white strip, where conceptually, anyone who steps in it must be helped if they ask for it. Part of Christian’s job is to figure out a marketing campaign for the exhibit, as the museum has trouble drawing anyone besides old donors (and even then he has to court them with rehearsed speeches where he actually practices going off script – an early indicator of his frail ego). The PR firm they’ve hired is focused on “going viral” with something, which already signals bad news, and the campaign they come up with succeeds in its intent while backfiring spectacularly in its poor taste. The whole plot thread is a prime example of social media bullshit mixed with outrage culture.
Christian’s life is essentially a Swedish version of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Early in the film, his wallet gets stolen, leading to an ill-advised scheme to coax the thief into returning his possessions. And then there are Christian’s romantic travails. He is interviewed in the opening scene by a nervous American journalist named Anne played by Elizabeth Moss. At a rave party held at the museum later, they hook up, leading to some of the most passive-aggressive scenes I’ve ever witnessed, when first Anne tries to dispose of Christian’s condom for him but he fears giving it up because he thinks she’ll intentionally impregnate herself. Also, she randomly has an ape in her apartment. There’s a sort of high-pitched scat melody that’s used as a scene transition throughout the film, an oddly ominous warning, like the oranges in The Godfather, letting us know that every time that little “do-do-da-loo-do” pokes its way in, something humiliating is about to happen.
And then, of course, there’s the infamous “performance art” scene, where Terry Notary (out of his usual Planet of the Apes mo-cap suit) howls and growls with a party crowd. What begins as playful turns predatory and violent in a hurry, as entertainment becomes a referendum on complacency, where there is no right answer in how to proceed, and all outcomes are at best uncomfortable. That may be the central satire of the entire film, that art is in its own way a form of assault. The whole thing is a bit too weird for my tastes, but I certainly see the appeal.
1) On Body and Soul
2) The Insult
4) A Fantastic Woman
5) The Square
Next up: It’s the final technical category of the ceremony, as we look at Cinematography. This year we have our first ever female nominee, and Roger Deakins tries for the 14th time to get his first win!
Join the conversation in the comments below! How many of this year’s nominees have you seen? Is there a foreign film that should supplant the entire field? What is it about Terry Notary that gets him typecast as an ape? Let me know!