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Foreign Exchange

by Nathaniel Rogers
of The Film Experience


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.

The 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.

Since 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 imagined world.

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.

The 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.

It's 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.

Sadly, 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.

Finally 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.

The 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.

The 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 depth anyway.

The 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