Posts Tagged foreign films

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)

Year of release: 2017     Directed by Sebastián Lelio.   Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim, and Nicolás Saavedra.

Winner of this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, A Fantastic Woman tells the story of a transwoman who must confront her older partner’s grieving and increasingly hostile family after his sudden death due to a brain aneurism. The film functions as a chronicle of daily discrimination punctuated with magical realism as she sees her lover’s ghost wherever she goes, which functions as both an escape and a comfort to her.

Honestly, I must confess that I’m really not sure what to make of this film. On the one hand, Daniela Vega gives a fantastic performance (pun not intended), and she was a consultant for the experience of transwomen, so perhaps I should give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. It is clear that the film wants to be a call to treat everyone we meet with compassion, and it gives visibility to a part of the population which is often overlooked. On the other hand, there’s a sort of savage glee the film takes in depicting the abuse and degradation Marina (Vega) suffers over and over and over and… Yes, I’m sure many transpeople face that level of discrimination, but here it comes across as a manipulative stacking of the deck for two reasons.

First, similar to The Help’s ridiculous caricature of racists, which enables many white people to pat themselves on the back and think they’re not racist while refusing to challenge any ingrained cultural racism they harbor, the transphobic characters here are so extreme that they create a sort of security bubble for any nominally progressive person watching this. And if we’re honest, ninety-nine percent of the people who watch this will most likely be some degree of progressive. I’m sure there are many more people this degree of transphobic than The Help’s sort of racist, but the portrayal comes across as a cheap shot at moral superiority.

Further undermining the film’s depiction of transphobia is the scenario in which Marina encounters her lover’s family. She meets them after his death, and they want to prevent her from attending the wake and funeral, solely because she is transgendered. The idea that anyone might harbor resentment toward the person who broke up their family regardless of their gender identity is never seriously considered. Conflating the two motivations undermines both the bigotry of the former and the more reasonable, if selfish, anger of the latter.

Secondly, heaping on the discrimination and abuse so heavy-handedly means the only way we can identify with Marina is to pity her. She’s an object for our pity, which I don’t think is a positive portrayal of anyone. Thankfully, she’s not raped, but it would have been perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film if she had been. A few scenes break away from the misery of the rest of the film when Marina can be herself or dream about the world as she wishes it was, and they’re welcome reliefs both dramatically and thematically.

However, I have to give the film credit for Vega’s performance as she does a very good job at creating a nuanced character trapped in an utter hell. She is a hundred times better at portraying a transperson who is an actual human being than Eddie Redmayne was when he portrayed a preposterously concocted straight man who liked to play dress-up in The Danish Girl. While it’s possible the filmmakers are just depicting the hellish world Marina is forced to inhabit, I’m not convinced they aren’t perpetuating that hell with some of their stylistic choices – the filming of a physical examination due to a creepy and prurient social worker comes foremost to mind.

When Marina first meets her lover’s adult son, he inquires whether she’s had sexual reassignment surgery, because he cannot know how to act toward her unless he knows what kind of genitals she has. She tells him never to ask that, and the notion that we can treat people as human beings regardless of their gender is made strikingly apparent. However, after that scene, the film takes a coy, nearly voyeuristic interest regarding where Marina is in her transition, repeatedly teasing the audience and inviting them to speculate how much of a woman she is, while simultaneously saying how wrong it is to do so.

Postscript: when I Googled Daniela Vega to make sure I was spelling her name correctly for this review, the top search term was, “Daniela Vega before.” Based on the film’s treatment of her and its obsession with the state of her transition, that makes sense.


Personal recommendation: C+

Content advisory: A non-sexual but nasty assault, several scenes of nudity, some obscene language, non-graphic love-making.

Suggested audience: Adults with discernment

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The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge)

Year of release: 2016                      Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit.


Every year there are films that get away, films that would have easily made your yearend “best of” list had you seen them in time, but due to late release dates or the crazy influx of new releases during the last months of the year get overlooked until a few months later. For me, The Red Turtle is such a film. I had been hoping to see it in time for it to be included in my 2016 yearend list, and while I do not believe in going back to re-edit top ten lists months after they were published, consider this review my note in favor of its inclusion.

The latest film from Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies) is also the first one not to be produced in Japan. Dutch director and writer Michael Dudok de Wit takes the reins in crafting this gorgeous tale of loss, survival, and celebration of life. The narrative is propelled purely by the animation and the immersive soundscape, as de Wit wisely made the choice to have the film be dialogue-free.

From the first sound of the crashing waves and the imposing image of the blue-gray ocean peaks, the viewer is drawn into a remote world of beauty and danger. The nameless protagonist struggles against a sea storm to be crushed under the waves and thrown to shore. When he wakes up, he finds himself stranded on an island of bamboo trees, fresh fruit, springs of water, rocky summits overlooking the sea, and crabs, lots of crabs.

After surveilling the island, the man devises a plan to escape his Robinson Crusoe-esque fate. However, the island or the sea has other ideas. He quickly builds a bamboo raft and sails off, but the raft is almost immediately destroyed by a massive thud from a seemingly invisible creature. The second and third attempts are met with the same result.

When the man discovers the reason that he cannot leave the island, his anger is understandable, and the choice he makes as a result of that anger is likewise easy to understand. However, the immediate tragedy and loss of that choice is painfully acute, and the consequences of that loss overshadow the remainder of the film, for both good and ill. In the beautiful world of the film, the healing power of nature results in substantially more good than ill, which could be interpreted either as the power of the environment, or as the divinely ordered nature of creation healing any wrongs.

As the film gently unfolds its breathtaking cycle of life, death, destruction, and growth, I spent much of the time thinking about Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. The connections between the ocean, the island, the man, the eponymous red turtle, and the crabs highlight the beauty in all of God’s creation and the way that they are dependent upon one another. Something that harms one harms all of them, and all of their lives are best when none attempt to thrive at the expense of the others.

The relationship of the red turtle to the man is, in my opinion, best left unspoiled. It’s not hard to deduce, but the precise nature of the relationship has an aura of mystery worth discovering as it is gradually revealed. It is essential to mention that the red turtle is the central catalyst which emphasizes the interconnectivity of all the different characters and creatures.

The simple 2D animations throughout the film give it a richness and poetry that is haunting and gorgeous. The vibrancy of the hues shifts from scene to scene, with grayer tints for scenes of disaster and brighter colors for scenes of hope. Finally, the dark red shell and fins of the turtle stand out magnificently from the blue, brown, and gray background which forms so much of the film.

It is wonderful to see Studio Ghibli expanding their distribution to include non-Japanese films; hopefully, there will be more thoughtful celebrations of life and beauty like The Red Turtle from other cultures as well.

Personal recommendation: A

Content Advisory: Mild peril, potentially upsetting scenes of loss.

Suggested Audience: Kids and up, provided they have long attention spans.       MPAA rating: PG

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The Innocents (Les Innocentes)

Year of Release: 2016             Directed by Anne Fontaine.    Starring Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, and Vincent Macaigne.

This review will not spoil the central plot point around which the story of The Innocents revolves. That plot point is revealed about twenty minutes into the film; however, even though it is technically not a spoiler, it is still something I believe should not be known going into this film. Consequently, there may be a few places where I am more vague than I would otherwise like to be.


A few months ago, several of my friends and fellow film critics started praising The Innocents enthusiastically. Most frequently, I heard comparisons to Of Gods and Men and Ida. While both comparisons are apt, the comparisons that most struck me were to three novels: Song at the Scaffold by Gertrude von le Fort, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Silence by Shusaku Endo, which has a film adaptation by Scorsese coming out in one month.

As a story about a convent of nuns suffering various forms of persecution as the result of a war, the similarities with Song at the Scaffold struck me immediately, with the main difference being The Innocents is set in Poland in the aftermath of World War II, rather than the reign of terror during the French Revolution. Some of the nuns’ decisions may be baffling to a contemporary viewer, but if one remembers how badly they have been victimized and as a result no longer trust the outside world, the fear which grips this convent should be more tragic than perplexing.

The main similarity with The Scarlet Letter was something I noticed toward the end. In high school, I read that novel like most American students, and for the paper I wrote I chose the topic how God can bring good out of evil, focusing on the ways in which the community and Hester’s life improved after the affair and public branding. (Don’t ask me for details; that was over ten years ago. I just remember the general gist of my essay.) Likewise, after horrific tragedies and suffering on the part of innocent victims, The Innocents suggests a way in which hope can grow from the darkness, making the world a better place.

mv5bywe0otlimtmtmwm3ys00nwe2lwi4otgtmzk0mdlim2yymdm4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtewmty3ndi-_v1_Finally, Silence is Endo’s famous novel about faith in the midst of feeling abandoned by God’s silence in the face of extreme suffering. As Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) says roughly halfway through the film, “Faith…at first you’re like a child, holding your father’s hand, feeling safe. Then a time comes…when your father lets go. You’re lost alone in the dark. You cry out, but no one answers.” That feeling of isolation permeates The Innocents, and several of the nuns and novices question their vows and their faith as a result of their sufferings.

Into the midst of this convent in turmoil comes Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a communist and atheist who has little to no respect for the nuns’ beliefs, especially when those beliefs interfere with the work she has come to do. (I said I’m being vague.) However, through Mathilde’s commitment to the promise she made, she does find a way to work with the nuns. The film may be more sympathetic to Mathilde than the nuns; however, Mathilde’s final climactic idea affirms the primary vocation of the nuns and brings a heartfelt joyful conclusion to the sorrowful events that had preceded it.

mv5bnmzmowmwyzqtngjjys00mtnhltk5yzqtzjzjntkwy2m0zjg5xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtewmty3ndi-_v1_Laâge convincingly portrays Mathilde’s sympathy for the nuns, even as she clings to her secular worldview. Her confrontations with Sister Maria’s raw yet steadfast faith overshadow the film, and the two actresses complement each other’s screen presence beautifully. As the cold and steely Mother Abbess, Agata Kulesza (from Ida) serves as a reminder of the dangers both of overly zealous piety and of rationalization for a noble goal. Mathilde may have the least amount of sympathy for the Abbess, but the film refuses the easy temptation to vilify her, even as she makes some appalling choices, one of which slightly stretches her character’s credibility.

Director Anne Fontaine beautifully evokes the cold, desolate landscape of post-war Poland with slow moving, long takes and a bleak, blue-gray color palette, only briefly splashed with reddish browns for dance scenes. The winter setting reinforces that Poland is now controlled by the Communists, a hell possibly worse than the Nazis, and Fontaine does not shy away from those details: from the danger the nuns feel, to the outright contempt that other characters have for them, and to the dangerous encounter Mathilde suffers for helping the nuns.

The Innocents opens with the nuns singing Creator of the Stars of Night, an Advent chant in which one verse says: “In sorrow that the ancient curse/Should doom to death a universe,/You came, O Savior, to set free/You’re own in glorious liberty.” Those words may sound bitterly ironic to the nuns at the film’s beginning, but through the course of this story the hope reflected in the following verse of the hymn becomes apparent to the convent: “When this old world drew on toward night,/You came but not in splendor bright,/Not as a monarch but a child/Of Mary blameless mother mild.”


Personal Recommendation: A-

Content Advisory (spoiler-free version): Non-graphic sexual assault (ends quickly), themes of spiritual abuse, horrific off screen deaths, and some gruesome surgical procedures.          Not rated

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

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Stations of the Cross

Year of release: 2015        Directed by Dietrich Brüggemann.         Starring Lea van Acken, Franziska Weisz, Florian Stetter, Lucie Aron, and Moritz Knapp.


The first comparison which came to my mind watching Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross was Kieslowski’s The Decalogue. Both films take their titles from a religious item (a well known Catholic devotion and a famous scripture passage, respectively) which also serves as an inspiration for a modern dramatization of the underlying concept behind the titular item. In Stations of the Cross, watching the fourteen year old Maria (Lea van Acken) go through fourteen various encounters, each reminiscent of the corresponding Station of the Cross, becomes a vehicle for a critique of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism is always an easy and deserved target for critique. It is to the credit of director Dietrich Brüggemann and his film that this critique achieves an astounding level of pain and tragedy without devolving into parody. The first scene (Jesus is condemned to death) sets the stage for the film exceedingly well. It shows Maria to be a conscientious, sensitive, and studious girl who desperately wants to devote her life to Christ. She is in a preparation class for her upcoming Confirmation, and her pastor Fr. Weber (Florian Stetter) explains to them they are becoming warriors for Christ, a regrettably overused and rather inaccurate analogy even among non-fundamentalist Catholics. As Fr. Weber encourages them to make sacrifices to attain holiness, Maria wants to go one step further: sacrifice her whole life to God for her mute four year old brother. While Fr. Weber clearly means sacrifice as a life of prayer and self-denial, Maria takes it much more literally, and the film’s remaining thirteen tableaux show her struggles to be holy as she understands it from her fundamentalist church community and family.

The fourth tableau (Jesus meets his mother) highlights the relationship between Maria and her family and the primary way in which the film dramatizes its source material. Maria asks her Mother (Franziska Weisz) if she can sing in the choir of another Catholic church, which performs mostly Bach and little soul and gospel as well. However, Maria and her family are members of a Catholic Church which not only adheres to the Tridentine Rite (pre-Vatican II Latin Mass for any non-Catholic readers), but also believes the introduction of the Novus Ordo (Mass in the vernacular) with Vatican II was when the devil entered the church and corrupted it by invalidating the Mass. Naturally, soul and gospel (as well as rock and pop music) are demonically influenced, and Maria receives a stern lecture about damning her soul for music. The episode is extremely painful to watch, but in the opposite way that Jesus’ encounter with His own mother was painful on His walk to Calvary.

Other scenes also show the subversion which this approach to faith results in. The sixth station is Veronica wiping the face of Jesus as an act of compassion. In that scene Maria’s face is wiped with her tears as she’s humiliated for apologizing to her mother. The eighth station is Jesus speaking to the women of Jerusalem to console them. That scene consists of a very upset Maria telling another student to leave her alone, because he’s an obstruction on her path to holiness.

Each one of those episodes is shot in a single take with a motionless camera, creating a long still take which adds to the tension and tragedy that encompasses Maria’s life. There are two notable exceptions to the otherwise motionless camera, and those moments remind the viewer that the austerity of Maria’s fundamentalist family and church is not the final word or an example of true religion, which becomes exceedingly clear when the camera slowly moves to a God’s point of view shot at a crucial moment.

My one miniscule complaint is that if someone knows the Stations of the Cross (and I do quite well) it becomes fairly easy to figure out where the film is going and how it is going to end, especially when the ninth tableau begins a more literal application of the stations to Maria’s life. However, Brüggemann has some surprisingly thoughtful touches which he saves until the end.

Last year’s Ida similarly explored questions of faith and doubt in a broken world, using long takes and infrequent camera movement as well. One big difference between Ida and Stations of the Cross; however, was that Ida depicted characters struggling with doubts. Here the characters are rigid in their mentalities. Both films raise challenging questions for the viewer, but if there’s one thing that keeps Stations of the Cross just short of greatness, it is the unchanging attitudes of all its characters (including Maria). Nonetheless, this is still a very, very good film about faith, fundamentalism, and loss.


Content Advisory: Very tense scenes of family discord, depictions of an emotionally abusive family.

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A-

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Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski.  Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, and Dawid Ogrodnik.

Throughout Ida the camera hardly ever moves. I don’t mean that the takes are unusually long; I mean that for each take, director Pawel Pawlikowski frames the shot, keeps the camera stationary, and then lets the actors act out the scene, as they move towards and away from the lens and from one side of the frame to the other. That choice is remarkably effective at creating the impression of a window into the life of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) a young novice about to take her vows as a nun, only to discover dark family secrets which challenge her conceptions.

Before Anna takes her vows, her mother superior wishes her to visit her only living family member, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Anna has never met her aunt, who refused to raise her because she is a prominent judge and proud supporter of the Communist party in Poland, and she assumes the Catholic sisters brainwashed Anna to hate her. However, the nuns did so such thing, and Anna is completely ignorant of her past, her identity, and her family’s dark history.

Ida is much more than story merely about discovering one’s roots, or bonding with an estranged family member. While both of those things happen to Anna, as well as learning her real name: Ida, the film is just as much a story of doubt, resolution, uncertainty, and lifelike scenarios that are painful, comforting, and confusing. The juxtaposition of such scenarios is not unlike the moral conflicts in Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, and Ida’s searching for her past, as well as the blocking of two crucial scenes, certainly reminded me of The Double Life of Veronique. I love that in a story about personal roots and reconciling two different lives Pawlikowski references some of the greatest Polish cinema.

However, Ida struggles to reconcile her past with her present life, and Pawlikowski introduces his own techniques as well. Many of the subjects are positioned in the lower corners of the screen, drawing attention to the open space above, suggesting that there is something more than the individuals in the scenes. That blocking is prominent during the early scenes set in the abbey when Ida has no clue regarding her past or why she came to the convent. As Ida learns more about her past, the subjects take up more and more of the screen; however, long distance shots, corner blocking, and extreme angles occur throughout, appropriately emphasizing dramatic developments in the story.

When Ida first embarks to learn her past, her embittered aunt says both as a taunt and as a compassionate warning, “What if you go there and discover there’s no God?” I would not go so far as to say Ida has a crisis of faith, but her resolution and religious certainty is certainly tested by what she learns regarding human depravity, surprising acts of mercy, and her own desires. Ultimately, Ida’s life as a novice, the history of her family, and the time spent with her aunt come to a climax that encapsulates the worldliness of her aunt, her family’s tragic past, and her religious upbringing. This balance is achieved by the scene’s location, its sensual setup, the meticulously placed camera, and the minimal dialogue. Ida’s choice after this moment is foreshadowed by her aunt’s earlier retort: “What sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?” Whatever choice Ida makes is going to be some sort of sacrifice; the pain and joy of life which she has now experienced will affect her and remain with her.

The window Pawlikowski creates is focused incredibly clearly (both literally and figuratively), and the view it provides is thought-provoking and touching. As a stark contrast to the window-like stationary camera, there are three shots in which the camera moves, (or six if you count a still camera in a moving vehicle) all of them perfectly synchronized immediately before or after a period of change and upheaval in Ida’s life. The final one is a handheld backwards tracking shot, as tenuous and uncertain as the pain and joy of life as well as the reconciliation of past and present as Ida walks towards the unknown future.

Content Advisory: Two off-screen sexual encounters, one with fleeting nudity; an off-screen suicide; tragic themes.                      MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A

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