a theatre, film & pop culture review
Wild Tales was released in NYC and LA tonight, but alas was sold out when I tried to catch it this evening. Ah well. It’s supposed to be great – a darkly comic Argentine anthology – so it’ll be added to the Netflix queue. It has no real buzz to speak of, though, for our purposes here.
It’s surprising that Ida is the frontrunner here, but it probably shouldn’t be. While it lost the Globe, it won the BAFTA, received a much-deserved cinematography nom, and, well, its story is driven by the Holocaust, which as we all know gives it more than an extra push with voters. I don’t mean to sound cynical though – I loved this film. Ida centers on Anna (a stoic Agata Trzebuchowska), a young nun-in-training in 1960s Poland, who, on the verge of taking her vows, discovers she’s a Jew. That’s quite the premise, and when Anna is thrust out into a cold, unforgiving world that she’s not accustomed to, her discomfort is reflected in the cinematography, which pushes her to the corners of its black-and-white frames. Polish-born, British-based writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski’s unsparing and bleak film, is sparse with utilitarian dialogue, but as the offenses and inhumanities pile up, so, too, does our empathy for Anna increase, as we are immersed in, and profoundly moved by, life’s horrors.
Writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is only the second film from sub-Saharan Africa to be nominated for this award. The film begins with a shot of gun-slinging jihadits chasing down a gazelle. They don’t want to kill the animal, though – only to “wear him down.” This opening sets up the theme for the film – and mirrors its heart-stopping final scene in which people replace the gazelles – it’s about killing the spirit, not the body. From there, it settles into a relative calm, as a shepherd (played with warmth and understanding by Ibrahim Ahmed) and his family, who reside in the dunes of Timbuktu, find their quiet lives abruptly disturbed by Jihadists attempting to control their faith. Moments of violence (mostly non-graphic) are interspersed with poetic imagery as Sissako captures a community living with oppression as best they can – mostly keeping their heads down, but sometimes in inspiring defiance. (As a woman suffers her 80 lashes for singing – music is entirely banned – she holds her head high, singing between sobs of pain.) This is uncompromisingly political and humanist filmmaking that proves that threat of terrorism is greatest outside of the Western world.
To everyone’s amazement, Leviathan was selected as Russia’s national entry for the foreign language Oscar, despite its clearly not promoting a patriotic agenda as per government policy. Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film, which centers on a man in a Russian coastal town who – in an effort to save his home – is forced to fight the corrupt mayor, is a blistering attack on the current Russian political system. As in Ida, the horrors pile up here, but all at once, with a final, aggressive punch. This dense, melancholic film has an epic sweep that can lend to self-importance (and heavy-handed imagery), but there’s no denying the powerful significance of its very existence, created in the midst of a reactionary and prohibitive political environment. It won the Golden Globe, and so still has a chance here, though not a great one.
Tangerines, Estonia’s entry, is set in 1992 during the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia which displaced many Estonians living in the area. Among those displaced are two Estonian men who remain in order to harvest the season’s crop of tangerines who get caught in the crossfire between two groups of rival soldiers. Two soldiers – one Chechen mercenary and one Georgian – survive, and each vows to kill the other once he’s well enough. Predictably, during their convalescence, they learn to like each other. This is exactly the type of empathetic nominee that Oscar loves, and Zaza Urushadze’s film works fairly well due to the efforts of its skilled cast of actors. But the winner of this category can’t be counted on to follow Oscar’s sentimental heart; voters have awarded some seemingly unlikely nominees in the past. And remember: Never discount the Holocaust.