Moral Morasses in Contention

in 23rd Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Boyd van Hoeij

The Foreign-Language Oscar submissions are always an interesting and heterogeneous bunch, for a variety of reasons. Theoretically, a committee in each country selects the best film of that year and submits it to the Academy, though “best” is a tricky concept. Does best define the film with the most critical praise? The highest box-office receipts? The one that best represents a particular country because of its form and contents? Or the one the Academy is most likely to honour?

Countries such as Turkey (with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”/”Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da”), Iran (“A Separation”/”Jodaeiye Nader az Simin” by Asghar Farhadi) and Hungary (Béla Tarr’s “The Turin Horse”/”A torinói ló”) submitted what was arguably their qualitatively best work. (Only the most accessible of this trio, “A Separation”, has since been shortlisted by the Academy.)

Farhadi’s best film to date is a complex but never complicated look at the fallout of a series of related small mistakes involving a middle-class family in the midst of a divorce and the family of their pious, lower-class housekeeper, who has fallen down the stairs after being pushed by her employer. The film starts in a courthouse for the separation of the title and quickly ends up there again as the situation spins out of control and all certainties come crashing down like a house of cards. Farhadi’s screenplay, which supplely moves from the point of view of one character to that of another as it probes deeper and continuously reveals new narrative stakes that function as new moral roadblocks for the various characters at every turn. The performances of the ensemble cast are equally precise.

Other countries surprised with their entries: France submitted Valérie Donzelli’s “Declaration of War” (“La guerre est déclarée”) a very personal film made on a tiny budget, practically outside the French system. The lively and even humorous account of a couple’s struggle with their son’s potentially fatal illness was a nicely offbeat choice from the country, which has submitted some interesting choices in the past (including the animated “Persepolis”).

Another unusual but inspired choice was Spain’s “Black Bread” (“Pa negre”), a Catalan-language period epic, which contains one of the most harrowing opening scenes of the last years —featuring a horse even worse of than the title character of Tarr’s “The Turin Horse”— and was as strong as any of the contenders. Like “A Separation”, it features a young child surrounded by adults who seem to be making choices that are not always comprehensible or coherent with their teachings, essentially setting the children adrift and, in a circuitous way, on their course towards moral independence and adulthood.

It is worth noting that several countries submitted documentaries and this despite the fact that no documentary has ever been nominated in this category. The highest-profile non-fiction film is no-doubt Germany’s ”Pina”, the 3D documentary from Wim Wenders about legendary Tanztheater great Pina Bausch. Placing the audience where it could never go during a live dance performance, Wenders uses the added dimension of 3D to great effect. While the short snippets of interviews with some of Pina’s dancers are offer little coherence or insight (they sometimes border on hagiography), Wenders’ idea to show his interviewees silently in closeup while we hear them speaking in voice-over is a nice touch, underlining how the dancers’ bodies are their most important tools.

In a nice twist its subject might have approved, Portugal submitted “José and Pilar” (”José e Pilar”), a documentary from Miguel Gonçalves Mendes about the late Portuguese Nobel-Prize winning author José Saramago and his wife, Spanish journalist Pilar del Rio, who also translated Saramago’s novels. Because of a major controversy surrounding his novel “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ”, the notoriously and staunchly atheist Saramago spent the last years of his life in self-imposed exile in Spain. The documentary touches on many subjects but is mainly about “love, loss and literature”. The touching relationship between the ailing writer, putting together his last work, “The Elephant’s Journey”, and his fierce and fiercely intelligent wife is at the heart of this material, filmed over several years. Mendes beautifully uses the possibility offered by the film medium to get some of his points across, such as when we hear the superimposed voice-overs of Saramago reading his own text in Portuguese and del Rio reading her translation of the same text in Spanish, underlining that del Rio has succeeded in translating not only the meaning of Saramago but also the rhythms and musicality of his language.

Last but not least, a lot has been made of the absence of Pedro Almodóvar’s “The Skin I Live In” (”La piel que habito”), which was on Spain’s shortlist. Though finally not selected by his country, Almodóvar’s company El Deseo co-produced the Portuguese entry, “José and Pilar”, and the Spanish arthouse director also has a connection to “Pina”: He used a performance of Bausch’s somnambulist masterpiece ”Café Müller” in his film “Talk to Her” (”Hable con ella”), which also failed to be submitted by the Spanish committee (though it did receive Oscar nominations in the Best Screenplay and Best Director categories). ”Café Müller” is also featured extensively in Wenders’ film.