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FP’s Guide to the Oscars’ Foreign Film Nominees

From Argentina to Mali to Russia, this year's crop of Academy Award contenders provide a reality check on life abroad.

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Among the pomp and glitz of the annual Academy Awards — the 87th of which will be held Sunday — nominees for the best foreign film provide a reality check of how life abroad may veer into the dismal, occasionally absurd, and also heart-wrenchingly beautiful. This year’s nominees are a wonderful collection of movies. One offers a portrait of revenge and the fallout from Islamist rule in Mali. Another, Leviathan, enters the competition surrounded in controversy: Authorities in Moscow aren’t too pleased that this dark portrait of life in Putin’s Russia is getting honored at film’s glitziest award show. And Ida is less overtly political in tone, but is dealing with issues of historical memory still haunting the European continent.

So without further ado, this is FP’s guide to this year’s foreign film nominees.

Ida

In Ida, Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski’s presents a portrait of young novitiate about to take her vows in 1960s Poland. But before she receives her nun’s habit, the head of her convent informs Ida — sensitively played by Agata Trzebuchowska, who was discovered in a cafe by a friend of the director — that she comes from a family of Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Ida arrived at the convent as an infant and grew up there.

Before she can take her vows, she must reckon with her past, guided by her aunt, who survived World War II to become a state prosecutor responsible for carrying out show trials in Stalinist Poland. Together with her alcoholic, acerbic aunt, Ida goes to find her parents’ grave.

Beautifully shot in black and white — the film is also nominated for a cinematography Oscar — the film is a tale of self-discovery, a meditation on life in Communist Poland, a look at the intertwining of music and love, and an examination of religious identity that delights in creating a buddy comedy from Ida and her aunt’s unlikely friendship.

Leviathan

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a poetic and elegantly executed punch to the gut. Inspired by the case of Colorado’s Marvin Heemeyer and the Bible’s the Book of Job, Leviathan tells the tragic tale of Kolya, a mechanic living with his wife and son along the Barents Sea and who becomes embroiled in a property dispute with the town’s corrupt mayor.

Coming in to Oscar season, the Russian film has plenty of buzz, winning a slew of awards, including Best Screenplay at Cannes and Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes. At home, however, Leviathan has been deeply criticized by Russia’s culture minister, who took issue with the copious amounts of vodka consumed in the film and its less than flattering portrayal of the Russian government and the Orthodox Church. Leviathan finally received a Russian release date on Feb. 5, although it was censored to comply with a recent Kremlin law against swearing in the arts.

Leviathan is harrowing and tragic, but too honest to avoid, both a dark exposé of life in Putin’s Russia and a universal story of loss, life, and the struggle for truth.

Timbuktu

For 10 months, starting in the spring of 2012, a group of jihadist rebels seized control of the northern half of Mail – and its most famous city, the legendary Timbuktu. Now director Abderrahmane Sissako has turned this experience into an extraordinary film.

Sissako shows how the overwhelmingly Muslim inhabitants of the town struggled to cope with the occupier’s harsh and unfamiliar interpretation of sharia law. The film depicts this clash of cultures as a series of often surreal vignettes – as when a group of boys, responding to the ban on soccer, resort to playing a game with an imaginary ball. Yet the interlopers’ attempt to impose their own puritanical code through medieval punishments ultimately leads to tragedy.

Despite its grim and newsworthy subject matter – some of the scenes in the film could come straight from footage of recent atrocities committed by Islamic State – Sissako’s film succeeds in creating a powerful parable of humanity’s determination to resist its own worst urges.

Tangerines

Shot on a shoestring budget of 650,000 euros, Tangerines is a poignant anti-war film set around the 1992 Abkhaz-Georgian conflict. The film’s two protagonists, Ivo and Margus, are stubborn holdouts of the Caucasus’ ethnic Estonian community. Instead of returning to Estonia after the fall of the Soviet Union, they stay for the annual tangerine harvest. The fighting eventually approaches the two men’s rural hideout and Ivo takes in two survivors — each from opposite sides of the war.

Writer-director Zaza Urushadze, who shot in western Georgia, uses the region’s beautiful landscapes as a contrasting tool. In this epic landscape caught in a pointless, bloody war, the two rehabilitating enemies learn to see one another as human while taking shelter under Ivo’s roof.

Tangerines’ reflection on the futility of war has gripped audiences, and the film has won a series of awards at film festivals across Asia and Eastern Europe. Going into Sunday, Estonia’s first-ever Oscar nominated film is an underdog to win the award.

Wild Tales

Filmmaker Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales is exactly what it sounds like — a collection of six absurd stories about revenge and Argentine society. Produced by Pedro Almodóvar, the Argentine film is both funny and a little disturbing, using cartoonish violence to push the boundaries of human behavior.

In the film’s opening sequence, the passengers on a commercial airplane all realize they have slighted the same man, and what happens next is, well, why you should see the film. In another story, a towing company torments a man who’s a demolitions expert, who, in turn, tries to get back at his bureaucratic overlords. Another story — “Road to Hell” — takes on road rage. The film’s last installment is a mad tale of a bride using her wedding party to get back at her philandering husband.

Wild Tales functions both as an examination of human psychology and revenge, but also as a critique of Argentine society — its rickety bureaucracies and the conservative institution of marriage.

Photo courtesy of Music Box Films

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