The whole world is one big unit of shared interests and intersecting differences. What greater avenue to explore dimensions of that unity in diversity than the cinematic one?
The following are some of the select few foreign language films I watched in the last year, aided by some of the foundational titles from my preceding viewing experiences in various capacities. They were instrumental in shaping up my belief that every aspect of our world holds essentially the same values. As a cinephile, a stereotypical image for one place or another has never been part of my mental design and has been abetted by my family ethos that is spread out around the world and is uniquely diverse in multiple ways.
Hence from four corners of the world, universal human experiences and timeless ethical principles come to the fore in these globally recognized works. I’m glad I watched them and had the opportunity to do so in the first place.
ELLE is a common female name and in French also refers to the feminine (as in ‘her’)
In this directorial feature by provocateur Paul Verhoeven (director of BASIC INSTINCT) an unnerving act of a break in and assault on the lead protagonist ( Isabelle Huppert) begins the telling and in the almost straightforward, nonchalant way of staging it, he sets off a discomforting trail of enquiry along with multiple perspectives. Just like the casual way she tells her cat that she could have atleast shown some aggression than just sitting still.
The act happens in daylight and ELLE burrows into our internal consciousness from there , making us active viewers and letting us look at the woman’s sense of trauma, surface passiveness and supplementing it by the external fact realized by us that it happens to a fifty plus year old woman ; that too comes with its set of complexities. The gaze of the oppressor entraps her but our own sense of voyeurism is put at the center almost as if the idea of pleasure and repulsion blurs to offer us a peek into our own way of looking at women’s bodies and our manners of reacting to their concerns.
The backlog reveals that her own son ( Jonas Bloquet, the popular ‘Frenchie’ from 2018’s THE NUN) plays passive aggressive games of an emotionally volatile nature with her while her male office employees have a lot to convey behind her back, not just limited to the commodification of the female figure in her video games franchise. Her search for the assaulter only leads to further mind games and uneasy secrets where breaching of moral boundaries is so commonplace that the idea of trauma recedes. Elle’s poker faced gravitas attests to that inner struggle where she refuses to play the victim card or withdraw into her own shell, falsifying then the two most common tropes society expects from the sufferer.
At times absurd, complex and coming with a distinctive style of performance by the Oscar nominated and Golden Globe winning Ms. Huppert, ELLE provokes and puts a whole new spin on the concept of revenge and payback. It makes us duly uncomfortable, teasing us about the male ego we often overlook and the sexual mores that lead some to inflict physical harm on others. It continues to haunt me still.
OLDBOY( SOUTH KOREA)
An Indian remake of this unconventional South Korean classic titled ZINDA (ALIVE, 2006), employing a greenish visual palette, brought me to the original about an Everyman kidnapped out of nowhere and made to stay in lockdown for years without knowing the reason for the same. It was, importantly, one of the first influential titles to come out of the flourishing South Korean industry, definitive of its distinctive ethos that we have come to acknowledge now .
There is something realistically brutal, primal about the man’s quest for answers and a whole legacy of hate mongering that transpires, tracing its arc to childhood days and introducing an unhealthy turn to his relationship with a young lady. One wrong done years ago leads to a chain reaction.
Stylistically shot with melancholy conflating with pure bloodlust, OLDBOY is about burdens of the past spelling disaster for an uncertain future. Its imagery is rooted in dynamics of our male dominated world.
THE CRIME OF PADRE AMARO( MEXICO)
In the years of implosive secrets and crimes of passion tumbling out of the church’s storied alleys, THE CRIME OF FATHER AMARO is timely as ever. It makes us question this very ideal of celibacy and moral and sexual constancy, undertaken as a solemn oath, by mere mortals and the way natural human desires contrast with that weight on the conscience.
This Oscar winning work is informed by the internal corruptions within a society of have nots who look up to custodians of faith. In turn, young members of the church, again ensconced within a male dominant order, witness seemingly strict seniors break their sacred covenants and indulge in physical relationships and hypocrisies by the dozen.
Father Amaro (Gael Garcia Bernal) sets forth on the same path of forbidden desires from which there is no return. This torrid affair that begins with delicate beginnings for the two spells ultimate doom for the girl whose fall from grace leads to her untimely end. The storytelling doesn’t stray away from basic, universal facts, from the way privilege rests with a few, the manner in which poverty and superstitions coexist and hushed whispers absolve the malefolk of several buried crimes and misdemeanours. Here, the final stretch weighs heavily on Father Amaro but the fact that he’s still the one standing to deliver sermons to his disciples in the Church haunts me. Deliverance is mostly unfair to the innocent ones. Father Amaro’s guilt and the girl’s naivety and innocence indeed cross paths for an unseemly resolution.
This is the film that won ASGHAR FARHADI a second Oscar which he didn’t accept himself owing to US’ immigration ban on Muslims. His film THE SALESMAN seethes with similar anger at a social mesh that ostracises the very idea of self enquiry, women’s rights even in the wake of a stressful nightmare and promotes silence as a necessary evil.
This pall of internalized doom visits a couple when it moves to a new apartment in Tehran, Iran and the wife is found bloodied and unconscious in the shower by the husband as he returns home. A stranger walked in when she was there and invaded her private space. The nature of the attack is never revealed. Authority figures are no help and well wishers can offer no sage advice other than the gospel of resignation to the two.
The husband, then, searches for the culprit and this burning ember within him leads to final tense minutes with an elderly man who turns out to be the one. This confrontation sets the stage for a complex, utterly realistic, claustrophobic clash where every word said is informed by repression and foundations of a society built on it.
Incorporating the play DEATH OF A SALESMAN that both participate in professionally(hence the title) , human desolation comes out with stark, caustic effect courtesy the performers and the creation of the ethos involved. It hurts to see that justice denied becomes the burden of a lifetime to hapless people everywhere.
JELLYFISH(ISRAEL) , AMELIE, PRICELESS, GOODBYE, CHILDREN( THESE THREE FILMS IN A ROW ALL HAIL FROM FRANCE) , PLOY(THAILAND) , ALONG THE RIDGE( ITALY)
Around 2008 to 2011 when curiosity for a host of diverse voices and discovering nuanced presentations of the same was at its peak for this budding cinephile, LUMIERE MOVIES and UTV WORLD MOVIES brought me these gems. These two channels are now defunct but I am indebted to them for unveiling new worldviews adjunct with experiences I see around me everyday. I watched a few fully while some sparingly but they all still occupy my mind. So here they are. They are all milestones from their respective nations and occupy a respectable position in cinematic canons owing to their uncompromising realism and universal humanity.
JELLYFISH is still etched in my mind with its anthological, interconnected strands involving a lost child, a young lady who looks after her, a bride to be pondering her fate along with an injury and a tensed mother daughter bond. The sunny aura of Tel Aviv, the subtle storytelling and the image of a girl in the sea all compose a variety of voices.
The two French films featuring a luminous Audrey Tautou are delightful too. AMELIE, which I am yet to watch fully, is a celebration of colours, textures and the joie de vivre ocassioned by connecting with people unselfishly. Audrey is like an angel as on PRICELESS, as an individual surviving on the kindness of strangers and riches with her wit and moral complexity but love finds its way too though with a man who can truly give her emotional resonance. She has a presence that can light up the frame, on both of these features .
Then there is the globally recognized GOODBYE, CHILDREN, set in the restive Nazi era, capturing the irreplaceable charm of friendships, pain of separation and man made affiliations and loss of innocence with burning, topical agency especially in an era where kids, separated around borders, have a lot at stake. To me, it’s reminiscent of the words of Anne Frank.
On the other hand is the narrative and spatial realism of PLOY, a Thai thriller dealing with emotional disturbances among the sexes in largely a hotel room and I remember being taken in by the slowly unraveling tensions especially as a young woman shares the space with a couple of many years. I hope I watch it again soon to let its mysteries be untangled, with better understanding that I have acquired with passage of time.
Finally, there is ALONG THE RIDGE that I watched with my sister while on a trip to Sri Lanka as we were waiting in our hotel room. Its depiction of familial dysfunction touched our souls, so unblinking was its vision, its empathy for children caught in the crosshair and the fragility of marital bonds. It is timeless in its dissections of family and interpersonal relationships.
So watch these films and share their merits with others.