The 84th Academy Awards will be broadcast this coming Sunday, and I’m sure some of you will be sitting at home with friends or family, ballots in hand, keeping track of who can correctly predict the most winners. While categories like Best Actress and Best Picture have gotten a lot of attention this year, smaller but equally important categories have been a little lost in the shuffle. Among these: Best Foreign Language Film. Though less readily available, this year’s list of nominees is impressive and extremely diverse. So, here is an opportunity to familiarize yourself with the nominees, so that, come Sunday, you can wow all your fellow viewers with your knowledge about these outstanding films from all over the world (and maybe even use this as a tool to help with your selections).
Michael R. Roskam marks his directorial debut with Bullhead, a gritty, and oftentimes gruesome, original tale set on a farm in Eastern Belgium. Newcomer Matthias Schoenaerts portrays the films protagonist Jacky, a cattle wrangler who gets embroiled in a shady deal involving the mafia and a variety of contraband growth hormone injections. The childhood victim of a vicious bully’s anger, Jacky was left permanently handicapped, and consequently has to take daily injections of his own to maintain his “manhood”. As Jacky is drawn deeper into the world of crime at the urging of his longtime best friend, his life becomes increasingly complicated: a federal officer gets murdered, and the opportunity presents itself for Jacky to not only exact revenge for his childhood torment, but to impress the girl he’s always loved. The film, with its explicit sequences and grisly storyline, is not for the faint of heart, but, as the New York Observer puts it “take a chance and you will be rewarded with a work of nightmarish force that is unforgettable”.
Canadian submission Monsieur Lazhar is directed by Phillippe Falardeau and adapted from a play, which documents the emotional and intellectual impact of a teacher on his students. The film begins when a Montreal- based classroom is shaken by the suicide of their beloved teacher. Enter Monsieur Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant seeking asylum in Canada, who is hired as the substitute instructor. As he attempts to help the students through their grieving, what the class does not know is that Monsieur Lazhar himself is dealing with personal demons. He is in recovery after the death of his wife and children, who were killed in an arson attack planned as revenge for an incendiary book his wife wrote on the state of Algeria. Poignant and smart, according to the Sundance Film Festival, “With Falardeau’s gentle humor and elegant touch, Monsieur Lazhar tells a gorgeous story about a man who transcends his own grief and tragedy to help his young students process death and loss in their lives”.
A Separation, an Iranian film from director Asghar Farhadi, was the winner at the 69th Golden Globes for Best Foreign Language film, and is favored by many “in the know” to take home this year’s Oscar. The film tells the story of an Iranian couple living in Tehran who, after 14 years of marriage, decide to separate because Simin, the wife, desires to leave the country, while Nader, the husband, is bent on staying to care for his elderly father who suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. While the two are separated, Nader employs the services of Razieh, a young woman with a delicate family situation of her own, to care for Nader’s ailing father. However, when Nader comes home early to find his father left alone in his apartment, he becomes enraged, and deals Razieh a blow that sends her falling down a set of stairs. Razieh soon suffers a miscarriage, and accusations fly that Nader was the cause. The film deals with the way that this uncertainty affects Nader and Simin as well as Razieh and her own marriage and family, ultimately leaving many questions unanswered and forcing the viewer to ponder the subjects of morality and family.
Footnote, is this year’s selection from Israel, and is directed by Joseph Cedar. The plot of the film centers on a father and son pair, Uriel and Eliezer, who also happen to be competing professors, both esteemed scholars in the realm of Talmudic Studies. Their relationship becomes particularly complicated, however, when the highest award in the field is accidentally bestowed upon the father when it was intended for the son, leaving son Eliezer struggling with how to break the news to the more senior professor. Tragiocomic in tone, the film has been received well by critics, and does boast a win for Best Screenplay at Cannes, making Footnote a definite contender to watch come Oscar night.
In Darkness is a Polish film helmed by Agnieszka Holland, previously nominated in 1990 for Europa, Europa. In Darkness is based on the book In the Sewers of Lvov, written in 1990 by Robert Marshall. Both tell the true story of a brave group of Jews in German-occupied Poland, who hid from the Nazis in the town of Lviv by taking cover in the sewer system. In the film their concealment is facilitated by sewer worker Leopold Socha, who guides them through the below ground tunnel where they seek refuge. Socha, a small time crook, is initially inspired to aid the refugees because they offer to pay him, but, as the film progresses, he undergoes a personal transformation that will shake him to the core and change his worldview for the better. The film has garnered the praise of not only critics, but also the sole survivor of this true life incident in Lvov, who, according to CTV News, reacted to a screening of the film by saying “that’s how it really was”.
Don’t forget to tune in on Sunday, 26 February on ABC at 7.00pm EST for the Oscar ceremony to see who goes home with the prize, and best of luck to all those category counters out there.