The Oscars are over for another year. Polish movie, Ida took the top gong for a foreign movie and it got some of us thinking about our favourite movies to have won the Best Foreign Movie Oscar.
Sara (A Redhead at the Movies): A Separation (2011)
A Separation is one of those films that broke me and left me utterly shaken, but it also had me in awe of its effortless ability to do so. This Iranian feature from director Asghar Farhadi is beyond emotionally draining, never failing to involve you in the real, everyday suspense these characters are living through. It makes for one riveting and suspenseful viewing experience. It tells the story of a marriage in decline – a microcosm of drama and dread that sheds a delicate light on modern Iranian society. Simin wants to leave Iran with her husband, Nader and daughter, Termeh, but pursues a divorce when Nader refuses to leave the country in favor of staying to take care of his father, who has Alzheimer’s. Things steadily get more dire and unpleasant when Nader hires a caretaker to help in Simin’s absence. The film has this remarkable way of presenting us with a tricky, intense push and pull between these characters’ stubbornness and other shortcomings, and everyday attempts at heroism (whether they fail or succeed isn’t quite as interesting). It is a film not just about the dissolution of a family, but of a society as well to some degree. It is a subdued critique that draws from its very human core, creating an intimate portrait of lies and hopes and sacrifices, and the way this portrait fractures and shifts throughout the film is truly equivalent to watching a work of art morph and move before our very eyes. We are changed by the end of the whole ordeal, too. This was a well-deserved Oscar win for a country whose cinema has so often tested boundaries and bloomed within and despite them, and a fine example of a work that is both rooted in its home country’s artistic and literal politics but also undeniably well-constructed and consistently deeply affecting.
Natalie Stendall: Through A Glass Darkly (1961)
The second of three Best Foreign Language Film winners for Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, Through A Glass Darkly was released just six months after his win for The Virgin Spring at the 33rd Academy Awards.
Rarely has the contemplative and the philosophical been blended so successfully with the sharp pang of emotion – it’s what makes Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly so special. Much goes unsaid between the characters in this film about mental illness and family relationships, but the stunning performances (combined with long takes and lingering close-ups) deliver potent intimacy. The film focuses on just four characters and their relationship with Karin (Harriet Andersson), who has returned to the family home from a mental hospital where she’s undergone electroshock therapy. Her illness is incurable and her mental state rapidly unravels throughout the film. Set on a remote Swedish island, Bergman’s mastery of shadows and darkness (which he uses to emphasise the despair and internal torment of his characters) make Through A Glass Darkly a haunting experience that probes humanity’s deep-seated fears about God.
Sean Fallon: Life is Beautiful (1997)
Life is Beautiful is a watershed movie for me as it was the first subtitled movie I saw in the cinema. It had won the Oscar a few days before, and my parents took me and two of my friends to see it for a bit of culture. And that was how a trio of thirteen-year-olds ended up crying our eyes out in the cinema while trying to hide it.
Life is Beautiful is that rarest of creatures: a Holocaust comedy. Roberto Benigni, the movie’s star, writer, and director, manages to tap dance on the line between slap stick fun for all the family and grimmer-than-grim depiction of life in the camps during the Holocaust. Somehow, it works. The movie, especially the first half, is very, very funny. There is wordplay, pratfalls, long jokes that take a while to pay off, and some very sweet romance. The second half in the camps is less humorous, and yet some of the scenes (i.e. the translation scene) manage to be very entertaining even in such a grim setting. Other scenes are quick to remind us of the evils that Benigni is using comedy and games to try and shield his son from. The movie is heavy-handed in parts and silly in others, and yet it hits a real sweet spot in the midst of the horror of its setting.
Whit Denton: Cinema Paradiso (1989)
Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 Best Foriegn Film winner is comprised wholly of nostalgia covered in a sentimental glaze of wistful longing. Under the wrong hands, it could have turned into a sickeningly schmaltzy piece of garbage designed simply to tug on the heartstrings. Luckily, Tornatore’s intentions go far beyond simply reflecting on the “good ol’ days” of a filmmaker’s youth in Italy. It all begins in a quaint seaside town bustling with characters that seem as if they could not make their home anywhere else in the world. The local cinema projectionist, a censorship-loving priest, and many grumbling old men pass through the frame, making small but distinct impressions on young Salvatore’s life. These townsfolk seem humorous and simple at first, like classic film characters. Yet, as time goes on they are revealed to be depressive and haunted people, stuck in a town they will never escape from. Reality comes crashing in. Routine and death are all that await them. Alfredo, the projectionist and friend to Salvatore, warns him of this, telling him to get out while he can and never come back. “Life isn’t like in the movies” he says “Life is much…harder.” Thus begins the journey, filled with moments of wonder and heartache. Cinema Paradiso is a beautiful, somewhat Fellini-esque, look at childhood and regret. A classic.
David Shreve: La Strada (1956)
In my mind, this is a case of the first always being the best. Frederico Fellini’s 1956 Best Foreign Language Film win was the first outright winner against a field of competitors (the award had been honorary in years preceding). La Strada tells the story of massive strong man Zampano (played by Anthony Quinn) and Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) who is sold into his company. The story of the massive traveling strong man performer swings from simplistic, to realist, to sentimental, but every step of the way it measures rhythms of the human existence, the soul’s longing and loneliness, and artistic disposition. La Strada is certainly the most accessible of the higher Fellini films and while some may not consider it an equal to masterpieces La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, it’s indisputably sewn of the same skillful fabric. The tumultuous (and even abusive) relationship between Zampano amd Gelsomina, the agony of Quinn’s submerged performance, and Masina’s round, starry-eyed face and free spirit all work to carve out the film’s historical place.
Featured Image: La Strada, Trans Lux Inc.