We normally like to use For Your Queue to champion an underseen new release and pair that with an older film you may have missed. This week, however, there are two wonderful films coming out on DVD that you should check out. Both are foreign language titles – one that went sorely underseen, while the other won the Oscar.
The Past is the newest film from Asghar Farhadi, whose magnificent A Separation took home the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2012. Another intimate examination of rocky family bonds, The Past winds through one man’s journey into his estranged family’s crisis. Centered on a volatile and brilliant performance from Berenice Bejo, the film is another exceptional family drama from one of modern cinema’s most promising filmmakers.
Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar winner The Great Beauty also drops today. A visual wonder, combining satire, silliness and social commentary with a loose narrative and the brilliant performance of veteran Italian actor Toni Servillo, the film lives up to not only its Oscar, but perhaps more impressively, to its “Fellini-esque” label.
The Academy did a nice job this year in honoring foreign language films. Each candidate was wonderful, and we were especially pleased to see The Hunt and The Broken Circle Breakdown get attention. But the fact is, there were so many exceptional foreign language titles released this year, a lot of really wonderful movies didn’t get the nod. And that’s too bad, because without the Academy stamp, they went largely unnoticed in theaters. So, we decided to honor them ourselves. Please enjoy our list of the best foreign language films that did not get an Oscar nomination this year.
If there’s one thing the films on our list have in common, it’s the strength of their female leads. Nowhere is this more the case than with the Chilean import Gloria. Paulina Garcia owns the title role with a performance that is raw emotion in action. With nary a false note, Garcia takes us on whirlwind coming-of-middle-age tale that never ceases to surprise.
2. Blue is the Warmest Color
Moving at its own pace, the French film packs an emotional wallop as it follows young Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) through her first affair of the heart. Anchored by Exarchopoulos’s powerhouse performance, and her touching chemistry with co-star Lea Seydoux, Blue is a beautifully human, wildly compelling love story.
3. The Past
Available today on DVD is a poignantly complicated, beautifully told tale of family dysfunction and the constant presence of our past. Blessed with unflinching performances – particularly from a magnificent Berenice Bejo – the wonderfully textured The Past keeps your attention as its mystery slowly unravels before your eyes.
4. Beyond the Hills
A Romanian story of forbidden love, progress and superstition, Beyond the Hills offers an understated and unhurried picture that leaves you shaken. A tale of survival and a displaced generation’s quest for security, the film makes for a beautiful examination of the weird, counter-productive, even dangerous relationship between primitive and modern Romania.
5. A Touch of Sin
That same tug of progress against a backdrop of old world creates the dehumanizing and corrupt environment for Zhangke Jia’s A Touch of Sin. The film dips a toe in four interweaving stories of individuals torn by the too-rapid cultural shift in China. Amid bullet and arterial spray, four beautifully developed characters struggle against their own bleak futures.
Original films – not reboots, franchises, or adaptations – are a relative anomaly in today’s movie landscape. Truly original works that take you into authentic human experiences are an even greater rarity. This sad fact puts writer/director Asghar Farhadi in the category of the unique alongside Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch. Like each of these geniuses, Farhadi has a particular style. You can see this style in his latest, the French language drama The Past.
At its own pace, the film unveils the complicated relationships a splintered family has with each other and with its past. Iranian Ahmad (a wonderful Ali Mosaffa) returns to France to attend the divorce hearing his French wife Marie (Berenice Bejo) has asked for. He wonders why he had to come in person, and why Marie didn’t book him into a hotel as he asked.
The low key Mosaffa anchors the film of a family spinning out of control, and his unflappable demeanor makes a lovely counterpoint to Bejo’s chaotic bursts of passion. Because of Ahmad’s grounded presence, we can slowly unravel all that brought the family to this point.
Bejo (The Artist) offers an unflinching performance. She’s never worried about being likeable, and indeed, Marie is not. She’s an amazingly textured, complicated mess of neediness, love, guilt and denial.
As the title suggests, the past itself is also an ever present character. It doesn’t go away, it remains. Like Ahmad, no matter how much distance Marie puts between herself and her past, it is still right there, coloring today as well as tomorrow.
Farhadi writes beautifully, and he draws very natural and dimensional performances from his entire ensemble, even the youngest members of the cast. As the story spills out in every direction, the messes remain true to the characters and their lives. Chaos isn’t created for the sake of chaos, it’s simply examined as a natural side effect of the happenstance of this family.
The Past has Farhadi’s thumbprints all over it, showing countless little similarities in theme, style and tone to his previous efforts, but it pales in comparison to his Oscar winning A Separation. Adults take self righteous stands, young people want to learn from them but have to point out the hypocrisy of their actions, and tragedy hangs in the balance. He understands the sometimes powerfully difficult messes people get themselves into, and the sleight of hand adults use to excuse themselves and blame others.
It just doesn’t work quite as well here. In The Past, the lessons feel a little more like finger wagging. It’s a minor fault, though, in a beautifully acted, well written, expertly crafted and often surprising family drama.