In Pawel Pawlikowski’s profoundly beautiful, decades-spanning Cold War, the heroine - a stunning, tempestuous singer named Zula - must decide whether to escape from communist Poland to Paris in 1952 with her lover, a pianist named Wiktor. “What will I do there?” she asks him, “Who will I be?” Her personal plea reveals how deeply cultural displacement affects identity, in a scene that is emblematic of the way Cold War and the four other nominees for this year’s best foreign language film Oscar work. Political factors that seem like mere background are actually undeniable forces that shape the vivid individuals on screen.
Blunders and bad ideas have nearly overtaken the Academy Awards this year. One minute there’s a host for the show, the next there is not. A popular film category was announced and quickly withdrawn amidst charges that it was condescending. And who really thinks the mediocre Bohemian Rhapsody deserves its best picture nomination? The Moonlight / La La Land debacle of 2017 is beginning to seem like a tiny mix-up by comparison. Beyond the chaos, the foreign language film category is a relief: all of this year’s nominees are artistically dazzling and exert a strong emotional pull. They all give life and drama to some of the most relevant global issues of our day, from the migrant crisis and its resulting shattered families, to the guilty weight of class and history. In any given year, any one of the five would deserve to win.
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Foreign language nominees often feature topical themes. Last year’s winner, Chile’s A Fantastic Woman, dealt compellingly with transgender rights. But the category usually makes way for apolitical films as well. The Great Beauty, 2014’s winner, is a Fellini-esque immersion in a man’s identity crisis, and Toni Erdmann, the German nominee from 2017, is a goofily comic take on a father-daughter relationship. There is nothing fanciful among this year’s choices. The urgent relevance of the films as a group reflects the sombre tone of our times, in which wars, xenophobia and isolationism seem on the rise. But these films are richer than their messages alone.
The flawless artistry of Cold War, based on Pawlikowski’s own parents’ on-and-off romance, has nothing intrinsically to do with its Cold War setting. Shot in the richest black and white, it has the feel of a classic love story as it sweeps from Poland to Germany and Paris and back again, from 1949 to 1964. Artistic repression in Poland drove Wiktor to escape, separating him for a time from Zula. And he becomes a different man in Paris, more calculating and dissolute. It is impossible to decipher how much of the dissonance in their relationship was driven by their fiery personalities and how much by social forces beyond their control. The love story and the dark political cloud hanging over it are specific to the film’s period yet feel familiar today, when quite different events - from terrorism to street violence - often create a sober sense of the world impinging on ordinary lives.
Although aesthetically Nadine Labaki’s naturalistic Capernaum, from Lebanon, is wildly different from Cold War, it also deals with cultural displacement. Its hero, Zain, is a heartbreakingly adorable boy from an impoverished family, with no birth certificate or legal documents to prove his identity. Other people guess he is about 12 years old, but he looks younger and is forced to act much older.
This year’s Oscar ceremony will strain to prove the awards’ relevance
In sequences of his life on the streets, shot in piercing colours and sharp detail, each quietly eloquent scene adds a layer to the social themes. Zain - played by Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee and non-professional actor, who could not be more believable - runs away from home after his sister is married off, aged 11. He is taken in by Rahil, an Ethiopian migrant who works as a cleaner without legal documents. When Rahil is suddenly taken into custody, Zain is left to care for her toddler son. He has no money but is resourceful. A Syrian girl he meets on the street leads him to a food bank for refugees, where he pretends to be Syrian so he and the boy can eat.
Labaki never presses Capernaum’s obvious social message too hard. Through Zain the film explores the effects of war and migration today, which apply far beyond the Middle East: homelessness, the forced separation of parents from children and the lack of a true place in the world.
A boy with a makeshift family in a makeshift home is also at the centre of the Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters. Shota lives with his father and mother, aunt and grandmother - a family of strays, cramped together and surviving by petty theft, whose tentative connections are gradually revealed. They take in a small girl who has been neglected, an adopted sister Shota protects as fiercely as Zain did his own sister and the toddler in his care. Kore-eda’s tone, unsentimental and non-judgmental, only strengthens the film’s power as it deftly entices viewers into Shota’s world, where the father teaches the boy how to steal. Shoplifters is not overtly political, but then pilfering for survival is a social comment in itself.
Like Shoplifters, all the foreign language film nominees are concerned with family. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma deserves the extravagant praise it has already received for its emotional story, based on the director’s memories of his boyhood in Mexico in the early 1970s. The heroine is the nanny and maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, another non-professional actor, who has earned an Oscar nomination for the role). Politics is not the most obvious element in this extraordinary film, shot in wide-screen, grey-toned black and white, and from a neutral perspective that allows us to observe events as if they were memories of our own. But social upheavals and class divisions are inseparable from the story.
Cuarón delicately outlines the dynamics between the middle-class employers and their servant. She watches television with the family in the evening, until she is asked to bring the father some tea.
Political unrest simmers in the background. A paramilitary band marches on the street. That political layer explodes in a sequence in which the grandmother of the family takes the pregnant Cleo to buy a cot, another indication of their attitude toward her: affection with a hint of noblesse oblige.
From the window of the furniture shop, on the street below, the women see a demonstration now known as the Corpus Christi massacre, in which right-wing militia shot and killed pro-democracy student demonstrators. One of the gunmen chases a protestor into the furniture store, shooting him as Cleo and the grandmother watch, a shock that sends Cleo into labour.
Roma’s triumph would be another indication that foreign language films are now speaking to a global audience
Cuarón himself has acknowledged how important the political layer of Roma is, telling The Hollywood Reporter that he saw a newspaper clipping about the massacre when he was 10 years old. “My little middle-class bubble burst,” he said. In the film, "I wanted to explore the wounds that shape me, both personal and wounds that I share collectively with a country and with the world… This society has not changed."
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ambitious, elegantly realised Never Look Away examines how the dark political forces of Nazism shaped personal lives and art, and how those wounds of history reach into the present. The film is based loosely on the life of the artist Gerhard Richter, but it is nothing like a potted biopic. At the start the hero, Kurt, is a small boy in the 1930s, taken by his beloved aunt to the Nazi’s Degenerate Art exhibition (where work by innovative artists including Kandinsky and Chagall were shown as examples of decadence).
With epic range, sumptuous visuals, and a captivating story, Never Look Away follows Kurt’s life and progress as an artist through to West Berlin in the 1960s. His aunt, emotionally unstable and considered defective by the Nazis, is put to death. As a young man at art school, Kurt falls in love with Ellie, whose father is a doctor trying to hide his Nazi past. The film spans a changing society, in scenes of wartime bombing and of post-war middle-class ease. And it richly includes many styles of art, vibrantly captured by the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Rejecting the social realism forced on him in post-war East Germany, Kurt and Ellie escape to West Berlin, where he can create original art, from abstraction to photorealism. Like the couple in Cold War, Kurt and Ellie’s love and lives are shadowed by political forces.
Von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, about the Stasi’s surveillance of artists in the 1980s, won the best foreign language film Oscar in 2007. It may resonate even more strongly now, when the possibilities for intrusions into privacy are on the rise. Similarly, Never Look Away sends a chill from the past that applies to any hint of artistic repression today, and any recent outbreak of neo-Nazism.
This weekend’s Oscar ceremony will strain to prove the awards’ relevance, assuming that this will be signalled by higher ratings for the show or blockbusters in the best picture category. A genuine sign of relevance though, is tucked away in these foreign language films, which speak so brilliantly to the world’s most pressing problems, while depicting timeless romances and family bonds.
Roma is heavily favoured to break out of the foreign category and take best picture, making history as the first non-English-language winner of the biggest prize. If it does - as it should - that triumph would be another indication that foreign language films are now speaking to a global audience. The world may be fraught with divisions, but these five films are transcendent.
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