Three Foreign Films

The Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day week-end provided an early opportunity to see three of the films nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

The favorite is “A Separation” from Iran which has received many Best Foreign Film awards and is nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. It also received the top award at the Berlin Film Festival. Director/screenwriter Asghar Farhadi has described his film as “a detective story without any detectives” where the audience solves the puzzles.

“Separation” shows a fascinating view of contemporary urban Iran. Simin wants her husband Nader to leave Iran so their young daughter Termeh can have a better life. When Nader refuses to emigrate because he does not want to abandon his father who suffers from Alzheimer’s, Simin leaves Nader. Their daughter remains with her father. 

Nader hires Razieh, a woman from a lower social class, to take care of his father. In a scene emphasizing her deep religion, Razieh phones a religious authority to see if she would be permitted to change the old man’s soiled clothes.

Deception escalates into anger, class resentment, and violence that threaten the future of two families. “Separation” remains absorbing. The ensemble which shared the Best Actor and Best Actress awards at Berlin is exceptional. The director’s daughter portrays Termeh. At Telluride, Farhadi said he does not judge the people in “A Separation” and that he has never written a negative character.

Asghar Farhadi

There is often an upset for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. This year, films from Poland and Israel have a good chance at Oscar.

“In Darkness” is a powerful film based on a true story of Polish Jews hiding in the sewers under Lvov, Poland. In a scene of feverish intensity a group of Jews climbs down into the sewers to escape deportation by the Nazis. The fugitives are realistically drawn, from different ages and social classes. They include children, a con man, and an adulterer. They encounter Leopold Socha, a Catholic sewer worker and petty thief who is friends with a Ukrainian officer. Leopold takes bribes to avoid revealing the hiding place. Gradually he becomes more protective.

The film is superbly directed by Agnieszka Holland whose previous films set during the Holocaust (“Angry Harvest”, “Europa, Europa”) were nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. Holland, her Production Designer Erwin Prib and Cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska do a masterful job of recreating the tension, claustrophobia and danger of the desperate people in hiding in the dark sewers. They face starvation, rats, and bats. In a particularly harrowing scene the Jews risk drowning as the sewers are flooded while Leopold attends his daughter’s Communion. The cast is strong.

Agnieszka Holland

The visual power and scope and high quality of “In Darkness” could help it get the Foreign Film Oscar.

My choice of the three would be the unique “Footnote” from Israel which received the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival. Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik are father and son professors of religious Talmudic Studies. Eliezer, the father, is uncompromising and resentful that he lacks the success and reputation his son has achieved.

Eliezer receives word that he will receive the Israel Prize, the most valuable honor of scholarship for which he has been passed over for twenty years. The Prize was really meant for his son Uriel who must decide what to tell his father.

Director/Screenwriter Joseph Cedar expertly combines clever comedy with emotional confrontations. He said after hearing stories at the Talmud department of Hebrew University of  “mythological rivalries between scholars (and) stubbornness on an epic scale”, he made them the center of the film. Cedar gives his “Footnote” a visual inventiveness and effective use of close-ups that keep the film engaging.