Tag Archives: Best Foreign Language Film

Isn’t She Lovely?

A Fantastic Woman

by Hope Madden

Four years ago, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio graced us with the nearly flawless coming-of-middle-age character study Gloria, the magnificent observation of a particular woman’s battle to truly participate in life.

A similar approach and another utterly stunning lead performance guarantee that his latest, the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, is also a triumph.

The grace that envelopes every moment of Daniela Vega’s turn as the fantastic woman in question is very nearly magical. This is aided by surrealistic, Almodovar-esque flourishes, but it’s mainly the result of Vega’s quietly fiery performance. Resolutely uncommunicative, her deeply interior character demands your attention, refusing to surrender her dignity even as forces pummel it from every direction.

The film opens as the sixtyish Orlando (Francisco Reyes) meanders through a day leading to an audience with Marina, a trans singer (Vega). Then it’s on to Marina’s birthday dinner and home, to the apartment they’ve just begun sharing. The evening is lovely in its run-of-the-mill newness, and though Lelio appears to be setting up the coming conflict in rather broad strokes, the truth is that every moment so far has been a type of misdirection.

When Orlando dies, the assault begins: at the hospital, where Marina’s treated with suspicion; with the family, whose contempt cannot be contained; with the police, whose baseless investigation is perhaps the most degrading moment of all.

There is an aching tenderness to the first act as we begin to understand the nature of Marina and Orlando’s relationship, and we grieve the loss of that tenderness along with Marina. In Vega’s lovely performance we see not only her strength and resilience but also the courage it must have taken Orlando to be himself.

There is a drawback to such a quiet performance, though. In detailing the harassment and abuse Marina suffers from all sides without offering a clearer look inside the character, Marina becomes a symbol rather than a character, an object of sympathy rather than empathy.

Even if Lelio and Vega don’t let you truly know Marina, you cannot help but respect her.

Unbearable Secrets

Son of Saul

by Hope Madden

When Son of Saul, Laszlo Nemes’s blistering Holocaust drama, opens, you will think the film is out of focus. Hold tight, because Nemes has made a conscious decision here and this is just the first of many moments that will alter the way you look at a film.

The director’s breathlessly confident feature debut, which the Academy has nominated for best foreign language film, closely follows one Auschwitz inmate over a particularly tumultuous 36 hour period of his confinement. If you think you’ve seen everything there is to see about the Holocaust, well, the director will surprise you there as well.

Saul (a phenomenal Geza Rohrig) is a sonderkommando, or “bearer of secrets.” He is among the prisoners used by the Nazis to grease the machinery of extermination: rifling through clothing for valuables, removing victims from gas chambers, burning bodies, scrubbing floors in preparation for the next batch being hustled to the “showers.”

Nemes and cinematographer Matyas Erdely keep Saul in shallow focus so that the horror around him is all only glimpsed peripherally. We are focused, as Saul is focused, on just one thing – and yet we are, as he is, saturated in the hell of this existence.

When Saul spies the body of a young boy he deems his son, an idea seizes him. He becomes possessed to save the corpse from the knife, find a rabbi to perform a Kaddish (prayer for the dead), and give the child a proper burial.

The counterproductive, myopic insanity of this act and the controlled lunacy of Saul’s determination become almost reasonable in the context of the mechanized dehumanization around him – a horror that is immersive thanks to Nemes singular vision and Tamas Zanyi’s suffocating sound design.

Much remains ambiguous as the relatively simple story unfolds, but that simplicity allows for the director’s unrelenting focus. It mirrors Saul’s necessary focus, and the moans, screams, beatings, death, and misery that surround him and us – because it is not neatly packaged or clearly articulated – may offer the most realistic picture of the incomprehensible events that any filmmaker could hope to achieve.

Son of Saul is a deeply human film about man’s inhumanity to man and Laszlo Nemes is an artistic phenomenon.