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Film Review

Three Great Foreign Language Films

Ordinarily, I only review films that I really love and will still be playing for at least another two weeks. But I want to make an exception because I have seen three tremendous films last month, only one of which will be playing by the time you read this, but they are so good that they are worth traveling a bit (i.e. the Rafael or the Shattuck) or watching through Netflix. (Did I really write that?) But better to watch something good on a home screen than not to see it at all.

Foreign language film screenings here are becoming more difficult to watch because often the less heralded films only screen for a few weeks. Typically the distributors cannot afford real advertising money, so many of these films end up under the radar. Sometimes the Rafael, the Shattuck and the Roxie carry films after they have left Landmarks or the Kabuki, so it is worth following their schedules. The three films that you should know about are Rams, A War, and The Club. All were nominated for the Oscars by their respective counties. However only A War made the final list. (Son of Saul, recently reviewed here, won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language film, as it should have, but these three are very strong contenders.) All are subtitled of course, but for those who avoid subtitled films, consider that foreign films typically have far less dialogue than American films.

The first film, Rams, from Iceland, tells the story of two brothers, both sheep ranchers, living side by side in a small isolated community of other sheep ranchers, but estranged for many years. The two brothers, Gummi and Kiddi, have not spoken to each other for 40 years. Neither has ever married. With their unruly white beards each has an Old Testament appearance. Although they ignore each other, their farms are adjacent and their houses very close. Each cannot but help see and hear the other. There is a rivalry over who has the best sheep. The film opens with a wide shot of a few sheep grazing in a large dramatic sweeping treeless valley under overcast skies. One brother, Gummi, in classic Icelandic sweater, is petting and checking his sheep. His affection for them is obvious, as intense a love as any family would lavish on their children. Inspecting a fence line he notices a break, and discovers a dead ewe with her bleating lamb. He picks the lamb and carries it into a barn. The scene shifts to a gathering of locals in a small building, which turns out to be a annual ram judging contest. These are not unskilled farmers; all have updated buildings and sophisticated equipment that in some scenes seem like a character in the film. But at the contest, Gummi discovers something that will change the lives of the community. Rams gathers momentum and soon takes an unexpected turn. This is a very powerful, accomplished film with memorable scenes. Screening time: 93 minutes.

In A War, Denmark's submission, a Danish contingent in a small outpost in Afghanistan is attempting to push the Taliban back and help protect the villages. The going is tough: classic guerrilla warfare, with the enemy largely unseen and frequent casualties from mines and IED's. The other side of the story is at the home of the company commander, whose wife is struggling to raise their 3 children alone. This isn't easy. The children are acting out; they miss their father. They talk every few days by phone and his wife fully appreciates that her husband is often a great risk. The company commander is capable and popular, but decides to go on patrols with some of his platoons to help morale. Normally a company commander would have his platoon leaders lead patrols. On one patrol they are ambushed, and the CC makes a decision in an attempt to save a wounded man. His decision has serious ramifications which turns the story in a surprising direction. The director uses hand held cameras here with many extreme closeups, giving a real sense of verite. We don't normally think of Denmark as having much of an army, much less engaging in Afghanistan, but absent the language these could be US troops. The tension in A War comes from as much the combat aspect as the second guessing of actions that seemed reasonable at the time. Screening time: 116 minutes.

The third film, The Club, comes from Chile. Chile is a country which had lengthy periods of crushing military dictatorships, especially the Pinochet regime, which tortured and murdered many whom they suspected were leftists. Like other largely Catholic countries, Chile had its own pedophile scandal. The film opens with a group of four older retired priests and a nun, living in a modest house in a small coastal town. The nun helps care for the priests but has her own darkness. It soon becomes clear that these men are living there under orders because each has done something reprehensible, such as taking babies from women prisoners and giving them to other families or molesting children. Of course each rationalizes what he did. The house is intended to be their refugee and a place for repentance. They live together quietly but have a passion for dog racing. One of the priests has trained a real championship greyhound. One day a Vatican official arrives with another retired priest whom he has assigned to the house. The official moves in as well, interviewing each ex-priest to see if any have a sense of repentance. No sooner does the new priest show up, than an apparently crazy man camps in front of their house and begins to yell disturbing accounts of sexual abuse. The men are very upset as they have been trying to live quietly and unnoticed by the townspeople. The new priest seems particularly disturbed; the crazy man yells out his name. The story takes a very unexpected turn to its extremely powerful ending. The director, Pablo Larrain, is best known here for his two recent films No (2012) and Gloria (2013). In The Club, Larrain films with what seems to be a pale gray filter, which gives a peculiar dystopian color tone. His actors are outstanding. Although the film did not make the final selection for Best Foreign Language film, it is Larrain's most accomplished film to date. Screening time: 97 minutes.

I loved these films, each of which continued to resonate long after I walked out of the theater. Try to see them in a theater, which will be difficult as I mentioned. A War will continue at Opera Plaza, but probably not for more than another week. But if you must, watch them at home. You will be rewarded with real greatness on the screen.

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