2014 Oscars – Best Foreign Language Film

The Missing Picture

I reviewed The Hunt when it was released. Here’s a look at the other 4 nominees.

The Missing Picture

I can tell you The Missing Picture is an unequaled work of art. But I must also admit that I didn’t really enjoy watching it, and not because the material is difficult or depressing. It’s a personal, handmade documentary by the director, Rithy Panh, and his experiences with the Khmer Rouge. Panh recreates his memories of work camps using puppets he’s carved himself and intercuts them with newsreels and surviving propaganda. He went through hell slaving in fields, starving, and watching loved ones wither away.

It’s a bit like Marwencol, but here the puppets aren’t an escape they’re a substitute for undocumented or forgotten stories. Coupled with Panh’s poetic ruminations, there is a strange beauty to the devastating dioramas. But the lifelessness washed over me. I found myself marveling at the dedication and craft but disengaged. Panh talks about yearning for his childhood and then wanting to be rid of it. The film is him purging and passing it along to us. The film is a success in that regard, but not meant for more, and shouldn’t be either. You should see for yourself.

 

The Great Beauty

thegreatbeauty

Toni Servillo is Jep Gambardella an aging socialite with a taste for the good life. Jep once wrote a beloved novel but has since settled into a lazy life of late nights and plush parties. Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is a restless exploration of, well, everything. The camera glides from scene to scene seemingly aimless and with little attention to plot. It’s a style that was off-putting at first but slowly won me over. The section involving Ramona the stripper didn’t really work for me. Likewise, there are places the film goes that are maybe too pretentious for their own good.

But if you stick with it, there’s an absolutely breathtaking shot, moment, scene, or incisive line of dialogue waiting for you around every corner. A scene where Jep calmly eviscerates a bourgeois boaster is a favorite. The film wants you to consider what has meaning and what is empty, what is life and what is lifestyle, what is artificial and what is real, and where do we find beauty. In one moment we’ll be positive Jep is faking empathy, but then he’ll have genuine tears, and then back to pretending or maybe not. With such grand ambitions, the film sometimes feels like it’s trying to do too much. It doesn’t need to get into religion and other absurdities but it can’t help itself either. If it can find some truth, however fleeting, it tries to capture it.

 

Omar

omar

This is another Palestinian thriller from the writer/director Hany Abu-Assaad (Paradise Now). It’s about a young man, the eponymous Omar, and the repercussions of his decision to partake in the shooting of an Israeli soldier. Omar is arrested and forced to turn informant by a tricky agent. The film then becomes a routine B-movie with sloppy political overtones. Omar desperately navigates both sides while trying to keep his dream of settling down with his best friend’s sister alive.

The movie wants to be a bold statement about the unrest in the region but it loses sight of that goal in favor of a weak love triangle. It’s bad melodrama hurt by so-so actors. It also doesn’t help that the main character is an idiot. He doesn’t make one smart decision and is constantly two steps behind everyone else. The film is strongest when it’s in motion. Two street chases and the momentary bursts of action are obvious highlights. With more brisk excitement and a narrower focus, this could have been great.

 

The Broken Circle Breakdown

TheBrokenCircleBreakdown

In terms of plot, The Broken Circle breakdown is your average weepie. However, the execution is handily above what the genre usually produces. The film is about two people falling in love, their dying child, and their dying relationship. The structure is such that it’s often about those three things all at once. It cuts back and forth between a 7-year period then pulls back even wider to include the bookends. It’s also a bluegrass musical which works surprisingly well.

Juxtaposing the high points with the extreme lows is a staggering way to show how even the pure can’t endure everything. Veerle Baetens gives a raw and relatable performance. She anchors the whole movie. The bluegrass backdrop and the atypical lead characters add personality and enhance the story. There are a few political digressions that aren’t essential but they’re not too distracting. It’s best when writer/director Felix Van Groeningen is delicate and honest. He manipulates, but in a pleasing way.

 

The Hunt is on Netflix Instant and other home viewing. The Great Beauty is on Amazon Instant and The Criterion Collection. The Broken Circle Breakdown is on Amazon Instant and DVD. Omar is in theaters now. The Missing Picture opens in theaters next month.

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