This year a record 71 countries submitted entries in the Best Foreign Language Film category. I managed to see 61 of these films. Although there were many entertaining movies, the overall mood was bleak. As one of my viewing companions put it, it's as if the stories were conceived during the financial crisis of 2008, written in 2009, funded in 2010, produced in 2011 and released in 2012. Here are my comments on the five nominees, as well some non-nominees that I consider noteworthy.
After the initial screenings of the 71 foreign language films, it seemed like the battle for the Oscar would be between Amour and the popular French entry, The Intouchables. However, thanks to its questionable political correctness and to the dubious system by which 30 people choose the five nominees from a short list of nine, The Intouchables didn't even get nominated. That left Amour as the overwhelming favorite, particularly as it was also nominated in four other categories: Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Haneke), Best Original Screenplay (Haneke) and best Actress (Emmanuelle Riva). Riva, who will celebrate her 86th birthday the day of the Oscar ceremony, is the oldest-ever nominee in the Best Actress (or Best Actor) category.
Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant (who is only 82 years old) play Anne and Georges, a married couple who have shared a long and satisfying life performing and teaching classical music. They have a daughter, a beautiful home in Paris, successful and grateful former students and a rich intellectual involvement. Life is good. But one morning Anne has a stroke. An operation doesn't help, so Anne faces an inevitable slow physical and mental deterioration. Georges sticks with her all the way, step by discouraging step. When the lights went up at the screening I attended, I realized that, at age 64, I was younger than most of the audience, the majority of whom were Academy voters. In the lobby, I listened in to people's reactions, expecting the older viewers to have found Amour depressing. But that was not at all the case. The clear consensus, accompanied by shrugs of shoulders, was that the film was an honest, unflinching portrayal of the reality of aging.
My only objection to Amour is that Haneke employs a technique that is one of my pet peeves: betraying the ending in the opening scene. The film begins with firemen, police and the daughter breaking into an apartment, covering their faces to protect against poisonous air until they can throw open the windows, and then discovering a dead body carefully laid out on a bed. Did this scene really make for a better story? I think not. At least it wasn't as bad as Belgium's entry this year, Our Children, in which we learn in the first two minutes that a mother has murdered her four children. Viewers are then subjected to 110 excruciating minutes of background. No thanks.
Michael Haneke's black and white feature The White Ribbon was nominated in the Foreign Language category three years ago. For the record, Riva and Trintignant previously appeared together in the Italian film I Kill, You Kill (Io uccido, tu uccidi)... in 1965.
War Witch (Rebelle) (Canada)
Several years ago, I convinced the editors of Parade magazine to let me write an article about the horrific and largely unknown war for minerals going on in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I called the article "The War at our Fingertips" because one of the exploited products, coltan, is used to create cell phones, laptops and gaming systems. In the end, Parade did not run the piece because none of the refugees I interviewed who had witnessed atrocities would allow me to use their real names for fear it would lead to lethal punishment of family members still in the DRC. So I to my own web site instead.
War Witch deals with the same subject, told from the point of view of Komona (Rachel Mwanda), a 12-year-old girl who is abducted by rebels and forced to become part of their militia. Before they take her away, they force her to kill her own parents. Like all the child soldiers, Komona is fed a hallucinogenic drug. When it develops that she has visions of the presence of government troops before others see them, she is presented to the rebel leader, who designates her his "war witch." Komona is befriended by an equally young soldier, known only as Magicien (Serge Kanyinda) and together they escape. But escaping psychopathic, greedy, drugged rebels is not so easy, and more tragedy ensues.
Unfortunately, killing, rape and forced labor are still commonplace in the eastern DRC, and the world still doesn't consider it newsworthy. Hopefully War Witch will call more attention to this ongoing tragedy.
I grew up in a home with books in every room. Even before my mother taught me to read, I would scan the colorful book covers on the shelves. One of them, embedded in my memories of childhood, was The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Raft Across the South Seas by Thor Heyerdahl. Heyerdahl was a Norwegian anthropologist who developed a theory that the Polynesian islands were peopled from the east by South Americans who arrived by raft, rather than from Asia, which was the prevailing theory. To prove that his idea was possible, he and an adventurous crew of five (four Norwegians and a Swede), constructed a primitive balsa wood raft, the Kon-Tiki, in Peru and attempted to head west, powered by the wind alone.