THE FOREIGN FILMS
The foreign films offer a window into each country of origin
The foreign film contenders rarely have good things to say about their native lands.
Perhaps mindful of last year's win by "The Lives of Others," the nominating countries have selected movies such as Brazil's "Last Stop 174," a harrowing account of children growing up on the streets of Rio, and Italy's "Gomorrah," a grimy portrait of a crumbling city overrun by organized crime.
"The Baader Meinhof Complex," from Germany, takes stock of what director Uli Edel calls "the biggest tragedy we had after the Second World War." Edel, who has worked in the U.S. for more than two decades, returned to his native country to tell the story of the Red Army Faction, the infamous group of 1960s radicals who graduated from bombing buildings to slaughtering innocents in the name of fomenting anti-imperialist revolution.
Although Edel had been considering a movie on the subject for years, the RAF was not officially disbanded until 1998, so any attempt to sum up their existence felt premature. But with his sons now the same age he was when the RAF first appeared, Edel felt the time was right. "It was just natural for me to tell them the story," he says, "and they should know, especially having grown up in the States and not knowing anything about it."
Ari Folman waited nearly a quarter-century to make "Waltz With Bashir," which deals with the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese militiamen under the watchful eyes of the Israeli army. "Sabra and Shatila is really a very big turning point in the history of Israel," Folman says. "It's the first time that Israel went into a war that was not defensive. This was planned war. That was really the breakup of the leadership, and it was never fixed again."
Laurent Cantet's "The Class," which in May became the first French film to win the top prize at Cannes in more than 20 years, takes a more contemporary tack. Set in an inner-city high school, the movie serves as a microcosm of French society, with racial and cultural tensions playing out inside classroom walls. Arguments over soccer teams become battles about national identity, and a young Chinese student expresses distaste for his classmates' "shameless" behavior.
"What interested me in that part of life is that it's exactly when you begin to think of yourself in society," Cantet said. "You have a concentration of issues that also arise in society, but you can't avoid them, which is not always the case in adult life."
Not all the submissions take on national crises. "Revanche," from Austria, is a rigorous and elegantly composed story of a petty criminal's attempt to avenge the accidental death of his stripper girlfriend at the hands of a nervous cop, and Chile's "Tony Manero" is a portrait of a thoroughly disgusting -- and murderous -- John Travolta imitator.
Although its central character is a budding photographer struggling with poverty and an abusive husband in turn-of-the-century Sweden, Jan Troell's "Everlasting Moments" is imbued with a deep sense of longing for the past. Its lustrous, sepia-toned frames evoke a time when photographic images were rare and precious.
"I have a digital camera, and I take more pictures in one year than [I had] in the rest of my life," Troell says. "What do I do with the pictures? They're just lying somewhere on a disc, in a computer. I almost never look at them. In a way, I feel sorry for young people today, who miss the mystery of that kind of photography, and the expectations that build when you have to wait for the result."
Adams is a freelance writer.
(Photos: "The Class" courtesy Pierre Miolon / Sony Pictures Classics; "Everlasting Moments" courtesy Nille Leander / IFC Films)
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