[Editor’s note: To revisit the full look at Foreign Language films of 2014, see Anna Tatarska’s January 10, 2014 story. We offer highlights from that story for three of the five Oscar finalists in the selection below.]
Poland: Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)
At this point Ida, set in the Polish 1960s, a story of a Catholic nun-to-be discovering her Jewish past, seems to be the frontrunner of the 2015 Foreign Oscar category, having swiped most of the awards to date, both in the U.S. and overseas. For many years Polish film connoisseurs were longing for success at least comparable to the glorious times of its film-school sixties, and with Ida they got more than they wished for. Pawlikowski’s entry is not only critically praised but also claimed the prestigious number one spot on the “highest grossing Polish film at the U.S. box office” list, leaving the likes of Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Wajda and Jerzy Skolimowski behind. Ida has a beautiful, calm, classic charm with its 4:3 aspect ratio and sleek, thoughtful black-and-white cinematography; but it is also quietly revolutionary and modern, especially in its approach to the characters. There is a beautiful dynamic between Ida and Wanda (Trzebuchowska and Kulesza’s acting is truly outstanding). Same blood, different stories, clashing priorities and attitudes. But Ida’s light brightens Wanda’s darkness and the Aunt’s bluntness scars Ida’s naiveté. They’re like missing pieces of a puzzle, not only because of their newly found family ties. Ida, from a certain perspective, is an unusual, wisely and economically told coming-of-age story; an unbiased, depoliticized and relatable portrayal of in fact a very particular, local, politically and religiously involved, yet universal subject matter. Pawlikowski lets the silence speak; and it does, proving that less is sometimes not more, but everything.
Mauritania: Timbuktu (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)
Abderrahmane Sissako’s modest Timbuktu became one of Cannes 2014’s most surprising cinematic experiences. Besides its indisputable artistic qualities, it was a meta-commentary on a controversial topic: sharia law. Timbuktu focuses on the patterns of everyday life as they’re being drastically influenced by an abstract concept of what is right and what isn’t. But despite choosing plotlines that are heart-wrenching, Sissako never succumbs to pathos and retains a humanist approach that welcomes distance and rays of humor into this grim universe. Painting his characters as multidimensional human beings, not illustrations of opposing takes on life, he also manages to weave the beauty of local culture into the plot. His directing is sensitive and careful for the most part, impressively intuitive, effortless. There is a slightly looser control over the second part of it, but the performances (especially first-time actor and musician Ibrahim Ahmed as the lead) remain believable and touching.
Argentina: Wild Tales (dir. Damián Szifrón)
The Pedro Almodóvar-produced Wild Tales also premiered in Cannes and was enthusiastically received as a sort of Midnight Madness equivalent in the main competition. Initially screened at 10 p.m., it brought the room to a level of much desired ecstasy after yet another day of hard work and scarce sleep. Argentinian director Damián Szifrón delivers an episodic, witty macabresque that’s deliciously improper and delightfully merciless in its attitude towards its characters. And he holds all five separate narratives in perfect check. Wild Tales delivers on its promise and is much wild fun.
The Contenders for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
Argentina, Wild Tales, Damián Szifrón, director
Estonia, Tangerines, Zaza Urushadze, director
Mauritania, Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako, director
Poland, Ida, Paweł Pawlikowski, director
Russia, Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev, director