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January 13, 2014


Discussed here;
A Royal Affair
Fill the Void
The Attack
I'm So Excited

With the exception of Pedro Almodóvar's I'm So Excited! and Zad Doueiri's The Attack, every foreign film I saw this year was a 2012 release that only made it to San Antonio in 2013, which is such a pathetic commentary on the United States that I won't even go into it.

France -- Michael Haneke's Amour, the 2012 Foreign Language Film Oscar recipient, is reviewed in my February 2013 post

Denmark -- In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott describes Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair as "an Advanced Placement bodice-ripper." Probably best known for playing James Bond's bête noir Le Chiffre in the 2006 Casino Royale,  Mads Mikkelsen is Johann Friedrich Struensee, a German-born physician and a free-thinker who was brought to the Dutch court to attend to Christian VII, an insufferable spoiled brat whose insecurities Struensee is able to direct to his own ends in an attempt to reform the Danish legal code, which had remained immune to the Enlightenment that had taken place across much of western Europe. Oh, and he also beds the king's neglected young wife. An interesting slice of history, even if overly romanticized. (Nominated for the 2012 Foreign Language Film Oscar.)

Chile -- Pablo Larraín's No, based on the Chilean novelist Antonio Skármeta's play, El Plebiscito, is set in 1968 when Pinochet's repressive government faces a constitutionally mandated referendum to determine whether he will be ousted. In this advertising-conquers-all telling, the agency with whom our central character Rene (Gael García Bernal) is employed develops the "NO" campaign with the slogan: "Chile, happiness is coming." Larraín goes for the feel of a low budget documentary using two rebuilt Sony U-Matic video cameras, which, along with Rene's halfhearted involvement in the campaign specifically and politics generally, prevent the film from saying much about the abuses of power and the will of the people. (Nominated for the 2012 Foreign Language Film Oscar.)

France -- Based on Jacques Renoir's book Le Tableau Amoureux, Gilles Bourdos' Renoir has the look of, well, a Renoir, thanks to Taiwanese Mark Ping Bing Lee's luscious cinematography. Add to the dappled countryside of the Côte d'Azur the hand of convicted art forger Guy Ribes creating the Renoir paintings on-screen and the composition is complete. The aged Renoir himself is brought to life by the great French actor Michel Bouquet. Renoir has just lost his beloved wife, and his two eldest sons, Pierre and Jean, have returned from World War I with battle scars. Henri Matisse has sent over DeeDee, a model whose youth and sensuality keep the painter working despite excruciating arthritic pain. The youngest son seems least tethered to the family and roams the grounds of Les Collettes. Hollywood could never make a film like this -- the pace is of the day to day, the interpersonal conflicts unobtrusive. DeeDee is muse to the father, lover to the son. Her desire to be an actress piques Jean's interest in the cinema, a passing craze, Pierre tells him, that will never catch on.  

Norway -- Thor Heyerdahl's The Kon-Tiki Expedition comes to life on the screen in Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg's Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl sets sail from Peru for Polynesia to bear out his theory that South Americans populated the island. He builds a balsa-wood raft for the journey based on assumptions about the materials and methods pre-Columbian people would have used. Even though I knew how it ends, there were times when the suspense was palpable. (Nominated for the 2012 Foreign Language Film Oscar.)

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;
Let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you,
If I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.

Israel -- Knowing little more than that Rama Burshtein's Fill the Void is set among contemporary Hasidic Jews, and that the story hinges on an arranged marriage, I came to it with some prejudice and preconceived ideas that the film upended. In the first place, marriages are not arranged but facilitated by parents and professional matchmakers within a very close knit community, and the decision to marry is ultimately that of the two people involved. When Shira's sister dies, leaving behind a newborn and a gentle husband named Yochay, the family respond with shock, but as they begin to manage their grief the idea dawns that it would be best for all if Shira and Yochay marry. The arc of the story follows Shira's shifting feelings, the tension she must resolve for herself between her sense of personal destiny and her place in the larger community. Hadas Yaron infuses Shira with a luminous interiority. Playing a children's song on her accordion at the preschool where she works, she unconsciously segues into a powerful dirge unaware that the classroom has fallen silent to stare at the absent young woman. Indeed, the rhythms of their faith and traditional Hasidic music are central to these lives. The music alone is worth the price of admission, and the leitmotif of the soundtrack by Itzhak Azulai, "Eim Eshkachech," taken from verse 137 in the Book of Psalms, will haunt long after you have left the theater.
NYT Critics' Pick 

Palestinian -- Lebanese director Zad Doueiri's The Attack is based on the novel by Yasmina Khadra. An Arab doctor, affluent and assimilated in Tel Aviv, highly respected by his Jewish colleagues and the recipient of many honors and awards, discovers that his wife has committed a suicide bombing when the authorities arrive at his door. As their case moves forward, he searches back to try to understand and come to terms with his life with a person he thought he knew. Especially troubling is the fact that the restaurant she bombed was filled with children celebrating a birthday. The narrative is nuanced, making no judgments and taking no sides.

Spain -- Pedro Almodóvar's I'm So Excited! takes place during a flight that never makes it from Madrid to Mexico City due to a malfunction that keeps it circling above Toledo, a metaphor for the ruts we create that hobble our lives. Sounds deep, but it devolves into nothing much more than a drag show -- without the drag.

France -- Régis Roinsard's Populaire tells the story of a blundering young woman named Rose Pamphyle who can do but one thing well. Having salvaged an old typewriter from her family's basement, she has become a speed typist using only her index fingers. It is post World War II France, and the rage among young ladies in the western world is the dream that the true path to freedom for the single girl is to land a secretarial job. Louis Échard runs an insurance concern and hires Rose, more out of lecherous desires than professional ones. Nevertheless, once he discovers that she has two left feet he thinks of letting her go, just when... he discovers there is to be a local typing contest. He decides to use her as a surrogate through whom he can vicariously compete, brings her to live platonically at his home, and proceeds to develop a rigorous coaching strategy for her. Populaire is a period set piece, a charmingly delightful romantic comedy ala Doris Day and Rock Hudson by way of a French confection.

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