Tag Archives: Best Foreign Language Picture Winners

Black Orpheus-1959

Black Orpheus-1959

Director-Marcel Camus

Starring-Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn

Reviewed October 8, 2017

Grade: A

Black Orpheus is a 1959 French film, made in Brazil, honored with a win in the coveted Best Foreign Language Film Academy award category in 1960, considered somewhat of a surprise to actually win. The film is adapted from the well known Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, now set in Rio de Janeiro during the festive celebration of Carnaval. Containing a cast of almost all black actors and providing a look at life on the streets of Brazil, Black Orpheus is vivacious, and filled with lively song and dances.

The setting is key to the film as the beauty and merriment is mixed with loss and tragedy- loads of exterior shots of Rio de Janeiro flesh out the film with many shots high atop a hill in a quaint village where all of the characters live-and most in very close proximity to each other. Similar to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the film is romantic and lovely, but the story is also mired in jealousy and drama amid the dancing and many celebrations. Many of the actors, certainly leads Breno Mello and Marpessa Dawn, are non-actors, cast undoubtedly because of their gorgeous, authentic looks, but surprisingly both are phenomenal in their roles, perfectly cast.

Wholesome Eurydice (Dawn) arrives in the city of Rio de Janeiro by way of a trolley driven by Orpheus (Mello), intent on visiting her cousin, Serafina. There is an instant attraction between the young man and woman as he provides directions to her cousins village, which is also his. Orpheus, however, is engaged to be  married to his possessive and demanding fiance, Mira, though he is less than enthused about the impending marriage and would rather fix his guitar than buy Mira an engagement ring.

As the Carnival festivities get underway, Orpheus and Eurydice give in to their mutual attraction and dance the night away while subsequently trying to avoid the wrath of Mira, and avoid a mysterious costumed man who has been stalking Eurydice since  she escaped her village and fled to Rio.  Eurydice is terrified that the man may want to kill her and his motivations are unknown. His character is particularly frightening as he is known as “Death” and dons a tight, skeleton costume.

The tragic conclusion culminating in a wonderful chase scene in Orpheus’s trolley station is fantastic. The morbid ending is unsurprising based on the legendary Greek tale and the Romeo and Juliet comparisons, but is still heartbreaking and difficult to experience, most notably the final scene atop a cliff. As the lovelorn couple topples down a hill together at the hands of another central character, the scene is shocking and difficult to watch. Intertwined in each others arms, the scene is also gorgeous and a confirmation of true love and artistic beauty.

Some accusations of racial stereotypes within this film have abounded over the years, mainly the depiction of Brazil being inhabited by party-going, sex-crazed people, but I find the film a masterpiece and the type of cinematic experience to be enjoyed rather than over-analyzed. Particularly, the almost non-stop musical score created by Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim is to die for and an enormous part of what makes the film so engaging and entertaining.

Perfectly capturing the spirit of a jovial, cultural, environment, Black Orpheus spins an interesting, heartbreaking tale of love amid a musical. Tragedy, art, true love, romance, and death, are all elements captured in this wonderful film.

The Salesman-2016

The Salesman-2016

Director-Asghar Farhadi

Starring-Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti

Reviewed August 2, 2017

Grade: A

The Salesman is the latest film directed by Asghar Farhadi to win the coveted Best Foreign Language film Oscar-2011’s A Separation also won the crown and 2013’s The Past, nestled in between the other films, is nearly as good. All contain mesmerizing and gripping plot elements that leave the audience in good discussion long after the film has concluded- that is what good storytelling is all about.

Rich with empathetic elements and good, crisp writing, Farhadi has quickly become one of my favorite international film-makers as each of his pictures are as powerful in humanity as their counterparts. Along with fellow contemporary Claude Chabrol (admittedly around a lot longer), similarities abound between the two creative maestros in the form of thrills, mystery, and differing character allegiances. I adore how both directors incorporate the same actors into their films.

In clever fashion, Farhadi incorporates classic stage production, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, into the story and the play and the film contain similar themes- humiliation and secrets.  Young and good-looking couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are community theater actors living a happy existence in metropolitan Tehran, Iran. They have a wonderful array of friends and companions and are popular with their close neighbors and theater buddies. Emad, a well-liked high school teacher, and Rana, a housewife, make a perfect couple, but their bond will soon be severely tested.

Forced to move from their crumbling apartment into temporary quarters owned by a theater friend, they are unaware that the former tenant worked as a prostitute and had a bevy of gentleman callers. What they do know is that she left the unit in a hurried way, leaving behind all of her belongings for them to sift through. One night when Rana is home alone, she inadvertently allows a mystery person to enter, which leads to a terrible incident. The film centers around determining what exactly happened between Rana and the intruder. Is she hiding the truth? Can she and Emad get past the implications of the events?

The audience is left  with a powerful and intriguing mystery to absorb and unravel. Throughout most of the film questions are brought to the surface to be thought through. Who was the intruder? Will Emad exact revenge? What happened?

The brilliance of The Salesman is that we, as the audience, never actually see the incident inside Emad and Rana’s apartment take place, so we are baffled by what has transpired. We merely witness the after-effects and the questions the characters (mainly Emad) have. Is Rana being truthful? Did she know the man who entered the apartment? Was it even a man or perhaps the former female tenant? With Farhadi, anything is possible, but rest assured, a startling climax will ensue.

Compelling and the pure genius of the film is how the viewer’s loyalties will not only be divided by character, but will also change within an actual scene. In one tense sequence, a heroic character becomes the villain and slowly returns to being the hero again-talk about a topsy turvy experience! The Salesman is smothered with a roller coaster of emotions and feelings.

In fact, the way that more than one of the central character’s change their motivations is largely the film greatest success. Rana, Emad, and “the Man” are flawed, complex characters, and what a treat it must have been for these actors to sink their teeth into these roles.

A special mention must be given to the other actors involved in the film. The Salesman is fraught with great performances big and small. In addition to the leads (Hosseini and Alidoosti), the supporting cast exudes immeasurable talent. Farid Sajadhosseini as “the Man” is simply astounding in his performance and his family members, appearing largely in the conclusion of the film, deserve much praise. These small characters appear in the most pivotal time of the film and give it the needed acting chops required to pull off the end result.

Asghar Farhadi hits another one out of the park with The Salesman and how deserving is the Oscar win for this man- a director whose films are always sure to be compelling, thought provoking treats. I cannot wait for his next film.

The Secret in Their Eyes-2009

The Secret in Their Eyes-2009

Director-Juan Jose Campanella

Starring-Soledad Villamil, Ricardo Darin

Reviewed June 6, 2010

Grade: A

The Secret in Their Eyes is a wonderful film and one of the best of the year 2009- deservedly it won the Best Foreign Language Film of that year. Argentinian, it is a multi-faceted story with twists and turns, leaving the audience guessing.

The remarkable characteristic of the film is that it crosses genres. It lies somewhere between a thriller and romantic film, and with much depth. The story concerns a criminal investigator who decides to write a memoir of a case that happened twenty-five years ago as he reflects on the present as well as the past. This story angle in itself is highly appealing.

The film contains many flashbacks- a young newlywed was raped and murdered years ago in an unsolved case, and the film is clearly influenced heavily by both Alfred Hitchcock and Dirty Harry. It has a few surprises and twists to the tale, especially as the plot moves along. I adored the use of mirrors, reflections, shadows, and eyeglasses. Hitchcock lovers will know all about that.

I was fortunate to see this film at my local art theater and at close to three hours, it can be slow moving at times, but well worth the pay off. The Secret in Their Eyes is a very, very well made film.

Son of Saul-2015

Son of Saul-2015

Director-Laszlo Nemes

Starring-Geza Rohrig

80057661

Reviewed November 16, 2016

Grade: A

Son of Saul, arguably the deserving winner of the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a grim yet refreshing and inventive look at a subject matter that has been covered in great length in cinema. The topic is a heavy one and to describe the film as a downer is justified, but there is also something brave and even heartwarming about this film, and the central character’s desire to do something decent in the face of death and hatred.

The film is Hungarian, and takes place in 1944, where Saul is a prisoner in a Nazi extermination camp. He is given various duties- considered a “glorified” prisoner- as he takes valuables from the belongings of those gassed, and scrubs the floors after the gassing has occurred. He later must dump the dead bodies into a pit to be incinerated. One day, after a group of Jews are gassed, a young boy is miraculously still breathing. Soon after being discovered, the boy is suffocated. Convinced the boy is his son, Saul is determined to bury the boy properly for religious purposes.

I was immediately struck by two aspects of Son of Saul that really separates it from the pack; the camera work, and the coloring of the film.  The character of Saul is immediately shoved in our faces from scene one-allowing us to see things from his point of view. Extreme closeups of Hungarian actor Geza Rhorig overwhelm the viewer as the message of suffocation is apparent. When closeups are not used, we are treated to the camera following Saul around as he performs his duties without emotion- clearly having done them on multiple occasions. The point is we become Saul and experience activities solely as he sees or hears them. This is understated yet compelling.

Secondly, the film contains a rustic, beige color, mixed with sickly greens and yellows- muted almost, which is highly effective given the amount of death involved. Certainly not glossy in the least, the color scheme portrays a sense of ruin and discourse without overwhelming or going for total bleakness. The style is a dusty, smoky variety, nauseating at times. I found this to separate Son of Saul from a myriad of others with the same subject matter, making it quite distinctive.

Clearly not a happy film, neither is the piece a complete downer that will leave one entirely depressed. Saul’s intentions to give his son a decent burial (and it is unclear if the boy actually is Saul’s son or simply hoped to be) is admirable and a small glimmer of goodness in a world that contains evil. Other prisoners aide Saul in his efforts, telling us that their world is not entirely without hope.

Still, despite the goodness of some of the prisoners, a couple of scenes are tough to take. Early on, dozens of people are huddled-naked, into a small room. They are promised coffee and jobs and most importantly- hope. Sadly, the viewer quickly realizes that the intention is to exterminate them, though the film wisely does not visually show this. A brilliant distinction to Son of Saul is the background sound and what is happening in the vicinity of Saul- we hear the gasping, the pleading, and the screaming of the victims, while the camera stays entirely on the character of Saul and his stoic reactions. Sadly, we realize this is a typical day in his life.

Deserving of its accolades in a year of exceptional foreign language films, Son of Saul takes a familiar subject matter and gives new and unique elements to it. The film also departs on a bit of a cliffhanger involving a second young boy- a clever moment in an already superior film.

Amarcord-1974

Amarcord-1974

Director-Federico Fellini

Starring-Bruno Zanin, Magali Noel

Top 100 Films-#81

247784

Reviewed February 13, 2017

Grade: A

Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar and Golden Globe for 1974, is a semi-autobiographical film based on the childhood of the famed director himself. Set in a small Italian village of Borgo San Giuliano, the film features quite an array of weird and eccentric characters inhabiting the village. The plot centers around young Titta, and his coming of age development as he blossoms into a young man- his sexual desires and fantasies are heavily explored in this zany film.

Since the time period is 1930’s and Fascism, led by the tyrannical Mussolini, was rearing its ugly head, Amarcord is not all light-hearted fun and games, despite how it appears on the surface- there is a serious undertone to the entire film. Still, the film lacks any sort of story that is able to be dissected very well, which both pleases and frustrates- the film is simply to be “experienced”. It can either leave your head spinning, scratching your head, or absolutely disliking the film.

That is not to say that I take issue or offence with Amarcord- in fact I adore the film, but it is not an easy watch. Scenes meander about in a dream-like fashion as we follow Titta through his sexual blossoming. In one memorable scene, Titta has a titillating experience with a buxom older female who lives in the village. Some of the other characters we meet are giddy with peculiarities: a blind accordion player and a female nymphomaniac to name but a couple.

Titta and his family are featured heavily as they eat together, fight together, and live together. When one day the family treks to visit their Uncle Teo, who is confined to an insane asylum, they take him out for a day in the country, where he climbs a tree and refuses to come down. A dwarf nun and two orderlies finally arrive and coax him down- he obediently returns to the asylum. It is a bizarre sequence, but one that sums up Amarcord perfectly.

Amarcord contains one wacky scene after another, but many of the scenes are not just to showcase outlandish behavior nor are created as fluff. Fellini has a distinct message to the film and several scenes mock Christianity or Mussolini’s crazy political ideas. The film is larger than life, but also encrusted with the fear of 1930’s Fascism and the fear that the Italians felt during this time period.

The film is also sweet and Fellini successfully adds a nostalgic feel to it- everyone feels cozy in a large sprawling town with unique characters, shenanigans, and a celebratory theme, but seriousness lurks beneath. Amarcord is a zest for life throughout a tumultuous time and Fellini successfully creates a hybrid of the two creating one fantastic film in the process.

The Virgin Spring-1960

The Virgin Spring-1960

Director-Ingmar Bergman

Starring-Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg

60011418

Reviewed May 15, 2015

Grade: A

The Virgin Spring is a quiet masterpiece by director Ingmar Bergman. A Swedish language film, it won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1960, surprising for such a dark film. I have heard about this film for years, but it had alluded me up until this point, and I am finally glad that I viewed it. It is breathtaking and mesmerizing. A unique film for many reasons, it inspired “revenge” films to follow, specifically The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, which are horror films, yes, while The Virgin Spring is interestingly an art film. The film also questions morals and the main characters religious beliefs and reflections of guilt.

Filming is in black and white and the first point that struck me about the film is its gorgeous cinematography and lighting. The brilliant deep contrast of black and white with the illumination of a characters face while the background is death black is very brazen and reminiscent of Citizen Kane. It gives the film a warmth and glow that contrasts perfectly with the bleak subject matter.

The story of The Virgin Spring is a tragedy, yet the filming is so magnificent that it was not until the film concluded and I pondered the actual story that I realized just how horrific it truly is. And that is was Bergman was going for-provoking thought. This is not a film to kick back and be entertained while munching a tub of popcorn. It is a film meant to make one think.

An affluent Swedish couple, who owns a farm, lives a peaceful, quiet existence. They are stellar members of their community and church. They are humble, but they can afford to have servants. They have a beautiful and pampered young daughter named Karin, who is sent to deliver candles to their church one sunny day. Karin is a trusting, virginal, and proper girl. She comes upon a trio of males- two adults and a young boy. At first gleefully sharing food with them and enjoying her new found friends, they soon turn on her and she is viciously raped, robbed, beaten, and murdered. The look of surprise, pain, and horror on Karin’s face is monumental. As this occurs, a pregnant and spiteful servant, Ingeri, watches in horror from a hiding place. A rival of Karin’s, Ingeri wanted misfortune thrust upon Karin, but as she watches in horror, the expressions on her face portray regret.

As the family hope and pray that they can find the missing Karin, the men and boy show up at the farmhouse in need of food and shelter. Unbeknownst to the family, they are Karin’s rapists and killers, and once the truth is known, the once sweet parents are out for brutal revenge. The young boy of the trio is guilt ridden and physically sick from the circumstances. Is the families revenge justified or should they (as good Christians) forgive? This is the moral point of the story.

The conclusion of the film is powerful as the father begs god for forgiveness. He questions his actions. But is he a changed man? Bergman uniquely and intelligently shoots these scenes with only the fathers back in view as he throws his hands to go. We, the viewer, become one with the father in these moments, which makes for powerful storytelling.

Influential to many subsequent films, The Virgin Spring is a powerful tale, reminiscent of a fairy tale, that makes the viewer think upon the ending. Subdued yet horrifying, it is meant to be viewed and analyzed.

Ida-2014

Ida-2014

Director-Pawel Pawlikowsi

Starring-Agata Kulesza

70293721

Reviewed April 24, 2015

Grade: A

Ida, winner of a number of Best Foreign Language statuettes, including the first ever Best Foreign Language Oscar for Poland, is a black and white film, containing beautiful cinematography, with a fascinating story that is both moving, sad, and very character driven and centers around not one, but two compelling characters. Certainly, ravages and after-effects of war have been explored in film before, but Ida brings a fresh spin to the subject matter.

The film takes place sometime in the 1960’s, years after the ravages of World War II and the brutality of the holocaust occurred, but the film explores the long lasting pain and sadness that the incredible time in history left on the survivors, both mentally and physically. The stories focus is on Anna, a young nun about to take her coveted vows and begin a life serving the Lord. Quite beautiful, she was left as a toddler at a convent. Before she takes her vows she is instructed to spend time with her only known relative, her Aunt Wanda. Wanda is a former judge who battles depression and alcoholism. Her brother, Anna’s father, was murdered along with Wanda’s young son, so she is a tortured soul. As Anna (real name Ida and actually Jewish) and Wanda begin a road trip to find the whereabouts of their deceased family’s bodies, they both face personal demons.

What struck me most about Ida is the cinematography- the black and white is lovely, beautiful, and especially when Ida and Wanda travel across the Polish countryside, exquisite to look at. The farms, land, and roads are so crisp and perfectly lit that it is easy to fall in love with. Many scenes resemble paintings giving the film an artistic quality. Ida is simply elegant and peaceful in style.

The story itself of Ida is wonderful. Ida- the title character young nun is torn. She knows no other life than the church that, presumably, literally saved her life. But she is a gorgeous young woman filled with desires. She sees her promiscuous aunt flaunt over men and dress to the nines in flashy outfits and makeup. Ida, almost always dressed in her nuns garb, secretly dresses in Wanda’s dresses and makeup and is transformed. When she meets a handsome saxophone player, her desires begin to brim over and her conflict increases especially as the truth about her heritage unfolds.

As interesting a character study as Ida is, the character of Wanda is equally, if not moreso, interesting. Damaged, hurt, and depressed she needs men to feel good about herself. Clearly an alcoholic she has not gotten over the death of her young son and has become a bitter woman. In a way, Ida is about loss.

Visually and creatively enticing, Ida is as good as they get. It deserves the many awards that were bestowed upon it.

The Great Beauty-2013

The Great Beauty-2013

Director-Paolo Sorrentino

Starring-Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone

70275597

Reviewed June 17, 2014

Grade: A

The Great Beauty is an Italian film and winner of the 2013 Best Foreign Language Oscar and, in my opinion, well deserved. The film is hardly conventional- it is thoughtful, character driven, and quite Fellini influenced.

It takes some time to get into- the first 30 minutes is mostly people dancing and partying wildly. Set in present day Rome, it tells the story of a successful 65 year old journalist who reflects on his life, past and present. The themes of loss and loneliness are explored, and while cynical, is not a downer. Quite the contrary, as one party after another is thrown and the nightlife and excesses of Rome are the centerpiece of the film.

A main aspect of The Great Beauty is that all the money and success in the world does not measure happiness- an aspect many people forget. The main character loses people close to him and many of his wealthy friends are bored and alone. This film is about life and the complexities of it. It left me thinking long after the credits rolled and that is a huge testament to its power. It’s rare that a film like this comes along any longer. I felt like I was watching a masterpiece.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie-1972

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie-1972

Director-Luis Bunuel

Starring-Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur

60001469

Reviewed May 20, 2014

Grade: A-

This film is a wonderful satire by Director Luis Bunuel. The movie is very strange- 3 well-to-do couples meander from dinner party to dinner party and, due to circumstances beyond their control (an incorrect date, a mysterious corpse, a military raid) never end up sitting down and enjoying a meal together.

How the individuals are wealthy is a bit vague; though there is mention of drug smuggling. It’s unclear who is matched up with whom since frolicking amongst them is commonplace. Several of them experience odd fantasy/dream sequences throughout and oftentimes are seen walking aimlessly down the road.

The entire film is tongue in cheek and pokes fun at the wealthy class. It’s offbeat, but highly enjoyable.