The 86th annual Academy Awards will be handed out Sunday evening, and this year a record 75 countries entered the category of Best Foreign Language Film. Suzette Grillot and Rebecca Cruise discuss each of the five films submitted by directors from Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.
The Broken Circle Breakdown – Belgium
Belgium’s entry was actually produced by a Flemish director starring Flemish actors, with a story structured around the music of Americana. It traces seven years in the lives of two bluegrass performers, and their marital struggles as they learn their young daughter has leukemia.
Cruise says the film’s soundtrack has garnered attention, with the title not only evoking the most famous song by America’s First Family of Country music, the Carters, but also the director’s unconventional storytelling.
“It's not in any linear sequence, so we're getting pieces that come together,” Cruise says. “The music really sews it and stitches it all into a lovely movie, but a very sad and tragic movie.”
Nell Cattrysse makes a powerful debut as the couple’s young daughter Maybelle.
"I'm always impressed by the young actresses that come out during Oscar season,” Cruise says. “There seems to be one or two that really are highlighted, and so impressive at such a young age."
The Great Beauty – Italy
Critics say the spirit of Federico Fellini is alive and well in Italy’s submission The Great Beauty, which is widely viewed as the front-runner to win the award. Set in Rome, the emotional film follows 40 years of an author’s life after a book makes him famous and he makes it his mission to be invited to every party in Italy.
"I think there's something very human to this, and of course we get to see some of the interesting scenes, the very pretty scenes, as he goes through this very exotic and playboy-esque life,” Cruise says. "I don't think we all get to live such extravagent lives, or have such a lofty goal as to make a party or break a party, but perhaps it’s a good message to think about what's important and what we get out of our short time here.”
The film picks up at the end of his life as he analyzes if his lifestyle was worth it.
“His goal is to be the king of high life, and that he would have the power to make any party or event succeed or fail,” Grillot says. “But at the end, it's very clear that we're all just passing through this place we call Earth.”
The Hunt – Denmark
One of the more disturbing nominees explores how false accusations of child molestation destroy the life of an innocent kindergarten teacher. Mads Mikkelsen, who starred in last year’s nominee A Royal Affair, portrays Lucas, who is charged with exposing himself to a student after she’s embarrassed by her own crush on him.
"There are horrific cases in every country, but there are also situations where people are falsely accused, and we have seen, certainly in this country, the evidence doesn't always matter," Cruise says. "This is such a serious issue that we almost always side with the victim, and some of these accusations and gossip can really lead to hurting someone's life."
The Missing Picture – Cambodia
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge unleashed horrifying brutality on the people of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. Grillot says filmmaker Rithy Panh combines the communist group’s own newsreels with clay figurines to represent himself and his family in the autobiographical story.
Cruise says art and culture often serve as ways for societies to answer questions or analyze issues about dark periods in their history.
“[Panh] obviously came of age during the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, and we're starting to see a number of films come out of Cambodia and other countries dealing with this topic, and I think this is because we have a generation that grew up during that time that experienced that time, and the whole country, with these directors, is trying to come to some resolution and some terms with what happened."
Omar – Palestine
In Omar, three Palestinians kill an Israeli soldier, and after intelligence agents capture the title character for participating, Omar trades his friends for his own freedom.
Grillot says the romantic drama shows lives lost both literally and figuratively through Palestine’s conflict with Israel.
"They've got their hopes and their dreams and their loyalty, and love for one another, and all of that is upset by the war," Grillot says. "It opens them up to being vulnerable, and to betrayal."
Omar is only the second Palestinian film ever to be nominated in the foreign-film category. Director Hany Abu-Assad told NPR’s Weekend Edition the movie is actually about the conflict between a person’s duty and human desire:
And your inner conflict between what you want and what is your duty toward others. Toward your love, toward your friends, your country. And always I find these kinds of conflicts more interesting than the conflict with the outside obstacle — in this case the Occupation — because the Occupation's just the catalyst who makes this relationship more intense.
“[Abu-Assad] made a point of stating that this is really significant that Palestine has been noted in this way,” Cruise says. “This gives a voice to the Palestinian people, and it’s their own voice, and he commented that the more we hear that voice, the more peace will be possible."
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