Back Row Thoughts – A Foreign Threesome

Get your minds out of the gutter right this instant! And then put them back in, because obviously I chose that headline for the sake of a lame sex joke. If you’ve been following along with any regularity to this point, it’s honestly a wonder I didn’t make such a gag before now.

Anyhoo, we’re a week away from the Academy announcing its shortlists in several categories, including International Feature. They put out the official list of eligible films last week, but the contenders have all been known since the October deadline, and several countries got their entries in as early as August. We’ll see what films make the first cut in a few days, but that doesn’t stop me from seeking out every one that I can in advance of it. As of now, I’ve seen 13 submissions, with one more coming to theatres this weekend, and I have local release dates for five others after the semifinalists are revealed. There are three more that I have access to as online rentals, but I’ll save those in case they make the list. No need to prioritize them over the multitudes of limited theatrical releases.

For now, though, let’s delve into three more entries that I was able to clear off my itinerary over the last week. Like the last trio I reviewed, all of these films have something compelling to offer, and each would be a worthy nominee for one reason or another, though of this group, one film stands head and shoulders above the others in terms of overall quality.

Close

Belgium’s submission comes into the competition with a fair amount of momentum. It tied with Stars at Noon for the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and was named as the Best Foreign Language Film by the National Board of Review. It has also notably already garnered similar nominations for the British Independent Film Awards, The Critics’ Choice Awards, and the Golden Globes. Obviously, I put way less stock in that last one, but as the Globes are still used as a bellwether for the Academy, its inclusion can’t be ignored. The last time Belgium made it to the final nominations was with 2013’s The Broken Circle Breakdown (absolutely brilliant if you haven’t seen it), and they’ve never won the award, so this may represent their best chance in quite a while.

Similar to last year’s entry, the utterly heartbreaking Playground, the main action of Close focuses on the crucible that is the schoolyard, and the trauma that can result from trying to navigate childhood social circles. The major differences here are the ages and relationships of the children involved, and the consequences of perception versus reality.

The film revolves around the friendship between adolescent boys Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav de Waele). Inseparable for as long as they can remember, the two spend nearly every waking moment together, whether they’re working in the fields of their rural community, biking through the countryside, or indulging and encouraging each other in their hobbies (including the oboe for Rémi). They’re so joined at the hip that they often stay at one another’s home for overnight visits, even sleeping in the same bed.

After a glorious and carefree summer, the boys enter high school, and their bond is instantly noticed by all the other students. At lunch, some even outright ask if they’re a couple. They insist that they’re just best friends, and there’s nothing romantic about their relationship, but that doesn’t prevent the rumor mill from churning. Some of the boys tease them, though mostly not in a violent or threatening way, and the girls honestly think it’s kind of cute. Still, even the appearance that they might be gay, and thus singled out, is not something that Léo is prepared to handle. Under the guise of trying to make new friends and expand his horizons, he joins a youth hockey team and starts to push Rémi away, both publicly and privately. He still loves Rémi as close as a brother, but he’s deeply concerned about the optics at this crucial juncture of his life.

Whatever labels get applied to him in this first year are likely to stick with him, both of them, for the rest of their school lives, and as we saw in Playground (and as I’ve experienced firsthand), there are those who will exploit any perceived flaw or weakness to an extreme and traumatic degree. Léo wants to avoid that, but unfortunately doesn’t foresee the consequences of his actions, leading to even worse outcomes, particularly for Rémi’s mother Sophia, played with devastating earnestness by Émilie Dequenne.

Taking place over the course of the school term, the film is equal parts heart-wrenching and dazzling, with rich visual metaphors laced throughout the changing seasons. Léo’s inability to cope with his actions plays out in brutal yet beautiful fashion as his hockey practices feature a lot of slamming into the boards and falling down as he tries to cross over his skates. A concert where Rémi performs his first solo foreshadows his isolation and malaise. The work Léo puts in on the family farm, harvesting and selling brightly-colored flowers, offers imagery of destruction and renewal, becoming a parallel to his own journey.

Between the scenery and the actors (with Dambrine giving one of the best performance by a child actor I’ve seen in years), writer/director Lukas Dhont (who previously turned heads for Girl) has put forth a very strong contender for the top prize. The deftly sensitive manner with which he treats his youthful protagonists is a rare gem that emphasizes a true understanding for the gauntlet that children run as they develop, where even the most pure and innocent of friendships can turn into a catastrophic liability.

Grade: A-

Blanquita

Based on one of the highest profile scandals in Chilean history, Blanquita follows in the same thematic vein as Poland’s 2019 nominee in this category, Corpus Christi, in that it asks the very poignant question of whether or not salvation and divine justice can be meted out through dishonest actions. Shining a spotlight on the worst of humanity, Fernando Guzzoni points an accusatory finger at legal loopholes that protect predators while victims continue to suffer and be held to a much stricter standard of criminal liability.

The story is a fictional account inspired by the early 2000s investigation of Claudio Spiniak, a businessman who was accused (along with six colleagues) of running a child sex trafficking ring out of a luxury gym. Laura López plays the title character, a teenage mother living in a shelter for abused children run by a local priest (Alejandro Goic). Blanca herself is based on one of the key witnesses in the case, whose testimony became the subject of controversy as events played out.

In the film, priest Manuel is tired of seeing the victims in his home constantly denied justice, the latest incident of which involves one boy who is deemed unfit to testify due to the violent outbursts his trauma causes. All the doctors agree that he was raped multiple times, and it’s clear who’s responsible, but the emotional damage has been so severe that his attackers (including a member of the Chilean Senate) essentially get off the hook by hurting him so much that he can’t take the stand in court.

This is where Blanca comes in, working with the boy to get every detail of his story down pat so that she can testify in his stead. Making a deal with Manuel for enough money to rent a new home for herself and her baby to live in peace (she already works at the shelter in exchange for room and board), the two must navigate the treacherous waters of the Chilean criminal justice system, from prosecutors who are tasked with tearing apart her story to thugs on the powerful politician’s payroll meant to tear apart her will through violent intimidation tactics.

The true downfall of their well-intended scheme, however, comes in the form of another person trying to do right for the wrong reasons. Blanca’s boyfriend, Marco (Nicolás Durán), recently released from prison, has become born again while serving time, and wishes to be an active father to Blanca’s baby, which he firmly believes to be his. In his fervor to do right by God, he fails to see that he may be dooming his daughter to a life without her mother, because bearing false witness is enough to get Blanca herself thrown in jail while the truth of the attackers’ actions is dismissed as pure hearsay. “You can rape but I can’t lie,” Blanca indignantly quips as the walls close in.

The film is at its best when it operates within these compelling shades of grey, conflating hearsay with heresy and positing on whether or not the Almighty would approve of telling lies for a greater good. The profound questions it raises about situational ethics are just as poignant as the clear class divide that separates what form of relief the law provides.

That said, there are a few downer aspects, particularly how unwilling Manuel is – as an agent of the Church – to acknowledge the muddy waters he finds himself in, as well as Marco’s complete inability to see reason within the context of what’s going on, as all he cares about is being acknowledged as the baby’s father, all other consequences – including Blanca’s own legal jeopardy – be damned. Both of these instances seem like narrative roadblocks put in by Guzzoni to artificially make Manuel into a martyr and Marco into an antagonist when it wasn’t really necessary. Similarly, from an expositional standpoint, I think it would have helped to explain exactly why the doctors can’t testify on the young victim’s behalf. Surely a medical professional can present evidence of rape and speak to the boy’s emotional state as a result. If the child is willing to sign an affidavit, that should still be admitted during a trial without calling him to the stand. If there are laws and procedures on the books that make it explicit that none of this would count, then tell us that. It would only enhance the theme of unequal justice that the film carries in its better moments.

Grade: B+

War Sailor

The final entry for this round comes from Norway, which follows up its nomination for The Worst Person in the World with the unique epic War Sailor. Offering a view not often seen in the genre, the film represents the most expensive project in the country’s history (with a budget of about $11 million), with some rather ambitious storytelling, thought it does fall apart a bit in the final third.

In the early days of World War II, Norway was quickly occupied by Nazi Germany, and its government and monarch ruled in exile. Having no significant military or naval fleet, merchant ships made a living in the leadup to the war by running supply lines for other countries. When the war broke out and the SS invaded, all of those ships were consolidated under a single national corporation, and their crews conscripted into working for the Allies.

It is against this backdrop that we see Alfred Garnes (Kristoffer Joner) and his best friend Sigbjørn (Pål Sverre Hagen from Kon-Tiki). Alfred has worked his entire life on boats and docks, and has made a comfortable life for himself in the city of Bergen with his wife Cecilia (Ine Marie Wilmann) and his three children, the youngest still a baby. Assuring his family that he’ll be safe when he takes an 18-month job in the Atlantic in 1938, his world (and Sigbjørn’s, as he promised Cecilia he’d bring him home) is turned upside down when the war begins. Instead of a being a civilian sailor, he’s a soldier in all but name. Instead of a year and a half away from his family, his engagement becomes indefinite, with only the distant hope of peace as a means to get him back to those he loves.

Joner and Hagen both give strong performances as we witness the trials and tribulations of their support roles in the war, and director Gunnar Vikene delivers some truly memorable scenes over the course of the seven years of the main story. A handheld camera follows the crew in, out, and around the narrow passageways of their humble ships as they navigate around maritime bombing zones, putting us right into the thick of the action. A deserting sailor who turned to dance is forced to perform ballet for those who deride his cowardice, the beauty of his movements contrasted with the hardened faces of his erstwhile comrades, interspersed with shots of those very sailors dying at sea days later. In almost all things there’s a firm emphasis on the fact that while the Norwegians were not officially fighting the war, the stakes and consequences were just as high for them as those in uniform.

The only real flaw is in the third act, which takes place after the war has ended. Here there’s a much stronger focus on the aftermath of battle rather than the fight itself. There is extreme uncertainty as to who has survived. Cecilia must cope with the possibility that Alfred has been lost and the prospect of moving on with her life. Those who did make it to the end are denied the wages they were promised for their forced service, and due to their injuries and advancing ages, they can’t get any new work to make up for all they lost. At the screening I attended, Hagen appeared for a Q&A afterwards, and he pointed out that the treatment of the war sailors is one of the most shameful chapters in Norway’s history, as 30,000 men faced career blacklisting and imprisonment if they didn’t risk their lives in an unofficial capacity, and then the very government they helped save did everything in its power to leave them with nothing to show for it.

This is all very compelling, truly, but the way it’s presented on screen, it feels like a completely separate film. When you spend 90 minutes watching men struggle to survive torpedoes and strafing gunfire, it’s a huge tonal shift to then spend another hour picking up the pieces in a largely disjointed manner that repeats the same plot beats as many other stories about veterans getting the short end of the stick. Because of this, the last third of the film really drags, relying too hard on an almost Shakespearean level of tragic falling action without a final catastrophe to cap things off.

This is still a good film, and I’m glad I saw it, because there aren’t too many war movies that focus on civilian service over the frontline combatants. That’s an angle I really enjoyed, as well as learning the backstory of this particular subset of the Greatest Generation. I just wish it was structured slightly better on the back end to maintain the momentum it carried through the first two acts.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you been able to see any international submissions yet? Which ones were your favorites? Which countries do you think will make the shortlist? Let me know!

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