by Nathaniel Rogers
In the wealth of high-profile pictures that seem to debut
every minute in the month of December, one story deserves far more press
than it ever gets: This time of year, the studios release scrappy gold-seeking
foreign pictures, too. Oscar season draws near and the foreign film
category for this year's Academy Awards has fifty-one hopefuls (a record
high) vying for those coveted five slots. Sadly, a majority of those
films will never open in the U.S. Currently, out of those fifty-one
films, two have already played in America and at least four more are
earmarked for releases early next year. But take note: Three of the
category's highest profile entries are opening now.
France's Oscar contender for 2001 (and, indeed, the obvious front-runner)
is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Le Fabuleux Destin d' Amélie Poulain, released
here simply as Amélie. This exuberantly comic romance
is already a sensation in Europe and is quickly becoming a crossover
hit here. The whimsical plot centers around a painfully shy waitress
who lives alone in the magical town of Montmartre (also the setting
of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge) impishly doling out rewards and
occassional punishments to co-workers, family, and neighbors. For Amélie,
this mischief making is both saving grace and debilitating flaw. These
acts help her feel a connection to those around her that she clearly
needs, but the anonymity of her deeds functions as an emotional barrier.
Amélie's secretive nature keeps her locked inside her fertile imagination.
But, clearly something is motivating her to continually reach out to
touch others. You see (and you'll see it coming early on) the love and
happiness that she attempts to give others is the same thing she so
desperately needs herself.
Though Amélie is most often referred to as a fable
(and it comes complete with fable-like voiceover and storybook structure),
it is by and large a romantic comedy. Romantic comedies are the great
comfort food of movie genres. They are rarely less than utterly predictable,
but we love them all the same. Amélie is a worthy entry into
the canon, but, true to form, it falls into all the genre traps. You're
always far ahead of the loveable waif and her tentative search for love.
Consequently, you may be ready for the movie to end much sooner than
it actually does. The length of the film is a problem, but plot and
narrative structure have never been this genre's forte so perhaps it's
churlish to complain.
foremost ingredients in a successful romantic comedy are chemistry and
charm. Success rests on these two ingredients alone. As far as chemistry
goes, Amélie is also standard. The title waif is played winningly
by Audrey Tautou, an instant star in France, and Matthieu Kassovitz
(the director of Hate and Crimson Rivers) dreamily embodies
her soul mate. However, since so much of their relationship is cat and
mouse, Amélie lands squarely in the Sleepless in Seattle
school. It wisely leaves the final relationship to your own imagination.
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, contrary to popular accepted truth, had no chemistry
in that famous film either. They shared exactly one awkward scene. But
viewers who'd already fallen in love with both characters instinctively
filled in the rest. They'll do the same here with Tautou and Kassovitz.
Amélie has a predictable plot, and chemistry only in absentia,
the film's success rests on charm. And here, the film excels. From its
manic looney tunes introduction to Amélie's unhappy childhood, to the
dreaming couple's motorbike ride, Amélie is ripe with bawdy humor,
trippy invention, and sweet promise. There's even enough of a dark undercurrent
to win some cynics over. The cinematography, editing, music, and performances
all work like calculated charms to maximize the directorial vision.
In his previous films (Delicatessen and City of Lost Children)
Jeunet proved himself a master stylist with a complex grasp of visual
gags and storytelling. Like the other showman working in the fabled
Montmartre neighborhood, he immerses his audience entirely in a fervently
Another Oscar contender opening this month is
Behind the Sun, the latest Brazilian drama from Walter
Salles, who gained fame stateside with Central Station, a nominee
three years ago. Behind the Sun is inspired by the novel Broken
April by Ismail Kadaré, which was set in Albania. Here, the tale
of a long blood feud between two families is transported to Brazil,
but the resonant thematic material would work anywhere. The film's sad
story, taking place over just a few months, deals with the blindness
caused by hate, and the inevitable tragedy of war and bloodshed. Live
by the sword, die by the sword.
The film opens with semi-cryptic narration from a child
walking silhouetted through parched trees. There is a shot of a blood-stained
shirt flapping in the wind from a clothesline. The shirt belongs to
one of the kid's murdered brothers. For a brief moment, in the violent
hot wind, the shirt almost looks alive. The dead, you immediately understand,
are haunting the living.
Breves family leads a joyless life. They work long sweaty hours for
next to no money and wait patiently for the blood on the shirt to turn
yellow. This slow inevitable change in pigment is a sign that their
family's loss must be avenged. The Breves are at war with another family
over land. They've been in this bloody feud for as long as anyone can
remember. This dark and hateful history is evident in the fatalistic
mood hanging over both families, and the black and white photos of the
slain on each family's wall.
The first family introduced, the Breves, is the focus
of Behind the Sun's compelling narrative. Only two of their sons
remain alive. The youngest (Ravi Ramos Lacerda) - whom they simply refer
to as '"the kid" - is the narrator. His adored elder brother Tonio (the
exceedingly handsome Rodrigo Santaro) is now the protector of the family's
honor. It is his dreadful duty to avenge his brother's murder with another.
An eye for an eye. The way they've always lived.
a powerful opening to a film that charges through its first hour with
nary a misstep. Tonio's nervous hunt for his brother's killer, propelled
almost solely out of tradition, is masterful storytelling and brutally
unnerving. The spin on the film's inevitably depressing plot is that
Tonio and "the kid" are less blind than the older generation who propels
the back-and- forth murders. They want it to end, but can't see their
way around it. Their vision is impaired by sadness and their own less
than rosy prospects for survival. The catalyst then to this insular
circle of hate must necessarily come from outside. It takes the form
here of a travelling circus, and a fire breathing young girl (Flavia
Marco Antonio) who enchants both brothers.
once Salles begins to open up the story in this direction he loses his
way. The romance is a narrative necessity, but unfortunately derails
the film's carefully constructed mood and begins to take over. The romantic
portion of the film favors the magical realism reminiscent of Like
Water for Chocolate in a couple of uncomfortably over-the-top sequences.
This new mood is at odds with the power and grit of the primary storyline.
Behind the Sun never fully recovers from its circus romance tangent.
It simply dilutes the intensity of the film which needed to retain its
hardness to make its valuable point. This leads the story abruptly to
a truncated finale that, while functioning as a resolution and offering
needed hope, sidesteps the more harrowing nature of the film's first
half in order to offer the audience a semi-comforting but clichéd
final shot. Despite this one major flaw, however, Behind the Sun
is worth seeing. It is blessed with good performances, gorgeous
earth-toned cinematography, and sharp editing. Most importantly, it
adresses a relevant theme in a mostly clear-eyed fashion.
we come to the cream of the crop - a satiric look at the global impact
of modern war and, like Behind the Sun, a film dealing with vicious
cycles of hate. No Man's Land, a smart, incisive tragicomedy
from Bosnia, first gained international acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival
where it won the best screenplay prize. (One can hope, probably in vain,
that an Oscar nomination would be in the works for this category as
well.) In a year where many of the best films (such as Moulin Rouge,
Mulholland Drive, and Waking Life) have been bursting
at the seams with show-off grandeur, No Man's Land achieves its
impact through simplicity.
It starts hypnotically, with a beautiful a cappella
woman's voice singing, and the sounds of soldiers marching. We watch
as Bosnian soldiers slowly emerge from the night fog. They're lost and
scared - possibly in enemy territory. Lighting cigarettes is forbidden,
since the enemy could see the red dot and use it as a target. They banter
and bed down for the night, uncertain of their fate when they awake.
It's not giving much away to say that the cast is significantly pared
down shortly thereafter - this is a war film after all.
conflict is beautifully simple but wrought with tension. Three soldiers
are stranded in a trench. There's one Bosnian soldier, one Serbian soldier,
and a wounded Bosnian soldier lying on a mine that will explode if he
moves. What will happen? Will any of them survive their time in this
trench? One of the great and rare joys of No Man's Land is that
you really don't know. The first half of the film deals almost exclusively
with these three trapped characters (an echo of Jean-Paul Sartre's No
Exit) containing numerous amusing and difficult observations about
the nature and lunacy of war.
simplicity and directness of the humor and tension in the first portion
of the film opens up and expands as the film unfolds. The trio of wounded
warring soldiers attracts the attention of both Bosnians and Serbs,
the UN Peacekeepers, and several reporters (notably Katrin Cartlidge
in a sly performance). Soon this "no man's land" in the trench is teeming
with characters who have competing or parallel agendas. This latter
portion is more uneven than the set-up in that the tone of the humor
varies considerably. Sometimes it's tightly wound and sometimes it's
played too broadly (Simon Callow is a little hammy in comparison to
everything around him) and some of the comic highlights trade a little
too heavily in cliché - but the movie snowballs in power and
film succeeds in many ways. It examines both the idiocy of warfare and
the need for taking sides. It paints a vivid and hilarious picture of
the increasingly complex media circus that surrounds infighting in today's
global community. The film ebbs and flows, expands and contracts beautifully.
It moves quickly from the loose nervous banter of the soldiers in the
fog to the hate and aggression of the trio of wounded soldiers in the
trench. It grows into a carnival of complications and players, and pares
itself down again as the climax mounts. The film culminates in a final
marvelous shot as we leave No Man's Land behind.
The picture was written and directed by Danis Tanovic.
He shows a rich potential in both of those capacities. May he have a
long and fruitful international filmmaking career. No Man's Land
is a likely foreign film nominee, the best war film I've seen since
The Thin Red Line and the best satire since Election.
It is simply astounding.
©2001 Nathaniel Rogers