Best Foreign films Academy Awards

Academy Awards 2016--Foreign Language Films

Eighty nations entered films in the Academy Awards Foreign Language category this year. I saw 75 of the 80 films. It was a good year for South America, a strong year for Europe and a weak year for Asia.

There was one recurrent theme that caught my attention. Many of the films include male characters who try to dominate and control their wives, their sisters and/or their children. I counted 19 different films with an overbearing and manipulative male character who bullies his family. There were also three films with equally overbearing and manipulative female characters, but 19 to 3 is not a close contest.

Of the 80 films, only nine were directed by women and another four were co-directed by women. However, one of these female directors, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, was honored with a nomination (for Mustang), which is more than can be said for any women feature film directors in the United States.

I did enjoy getting to question many of the filmmakers after the screenings. I learned that the tribulations of finding funding to make films are universal and that this often takes longer than writing, shooting and editing the film itself.

Here are my comments on the five nominees and several non-nominees that deserve more attention.
The 5 Nominees

Son of Saul (Saul fia) (Hungary)
The Academy is notoriously friendly to Holocaust-related films, giving the Best Picture award to Schindler's List in 1994 and the Foreign Language award to Life is Beautiful in 1999, The Counterfeiters in 2008 and Ida in 2015. You wouldn't think the Academy members would honor a holocaust film two years in a row, but Son of Saul is as powerful as they come.

Saul Ausländer is a prisoner at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944. The Nazis have allowed Saul to be a member of the Sonderkommandos, a work group that allows Jews to extend their lives for a few months by helping the Germans with the task of killing other Jews and disposing of their bodies. Saul, who is understandably deranged, becomes convinced that a young boy, who temporarily survived gassing, is his son, and Saul wants him to have a formal Jewish burial, overseen by a rabbi. Although this is the plot of the film, what makes Son of Saul so effective is that, in matter-of-fact yet gruesome detail, it takes us through the entire Nazi death camp "kill chain, " beginning with the victims' arrival at Auschwitz, their disrobing, their execution, the confiscation and "recycling" of their possessions, the burning of their bodies and the dumping of their ashes in a river. Meanwhile, many of the Sonderkommandos, knowing they will die soon, plot an uprising and escape and also photograph the horrors they are part of because otherwise no one would believe what the Nazis have done.

Some friends of mine have absolutely refused to see Son of Saul because the subject matter is so upsetting. I accept this, but if you want to better understand the reality of the Holocaust, I urge you to watch this film.

A War (Krigen) (Denmark)
Excuse me for repeating a point I have made before, but a common aspect of modern warfare is that no matter how much soldiers who go to war are motivated by patriotism, once the fighting starts, idealism fades and their main concern is protecting their buddies.

Fourteen years into the U.S.-led War in Afghanistan, two-thirds of the coalition soldiers who have died have been Americans. However, the country that has suffered the most deaths per capita is...Denmark.

In A War, Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek), who has left a wife and three children back at home, commands a company of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan. He is just the sort of leader a soldier would want. He is tactically smart, but he is also sincerely concerned about the safely and emotional state of the men he commands. Not only that, but instead of staying at base while his troops go out in harm's way, he goes with them.

However Pedersen makes two critical bad decisions. When the Taliban threaten to kill an Afghan family who cooperated with the Danes, the family seeks refuge at the Danish base. But Pedersen, fearing that their presence will endanger his men, turns them away...and the Taliban massacre the entire family. Then, while out on patrol, Pedersen and his troops come under heavy fire. He calls in air strikes, which put an end to the attack on his men. But it turns out that the air strikes killed eleven civilians, including eight children. Incidents such as this don't garner much attention in the United States, but in Denmark this is considered a war crime, and Pedersen is sent home to stand trial.

The evidence is heavily against Pedersen, but if he can prove that he personally saw an enemy soldier firing from the compound that he ordered to be bombed (he didn't), he will be acquitted.

One sidelight: Pilou Asbaek, the star of A War, has been signed to appear as Euron Greyjoy in season 6 of "Game of Thrones."

Mustang (France)
Although Mustang represents France, it was filmed in Turkish and shot entirely in Turkey. The director, Deniz Gamze Ergüve, was born in Turkey, but has spent most of her life in France. The crew was overwhelmingly French.

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