Foreign Films May 13

Alois Nebel, directed by Tomás Lunák

(In Czech, with English subtitles)

This animated drama, based on a series of Czech graphic novels, focuses on a quiet railway employee, who watches the shifting political landscape of his country in 1989, while being besieged by sorrowful and traumatic memories of events past. Throw into this a mysterious man who crosses into Czechoslovakia to commit a crime of vengeance. Who that man is and how he fits into Nebel’s life are the questions that swirl like the fog that envelops Nebel along the railroad tracks as he makes his quiet rounds.

The Big Picture, directed by Eric Lartigau

(In French, with English subtitles)

Paul is a successful Parisian attorney, happily married with two lovable and much loved children. All of this crashes in on him in a day. His law firm partner reveals to him that she is dying and needs to turn over the entire practice to him. His wife lets him know that she considers him a sell-out for forgoing his photography ambitions to embrace the less adventurous practice of law. And, oh, she just happens to be having an affair with an adventurous photojournalist friend. Finally, in a confrontation that spirals out of control, Paul accidentally kills Gregoire, the other man in the picture. Now he’s in for it. Paul contrives to fake his own death, assume Gregoire’s identity, and start over in a far and distant land, where his own photography skills blossom to levels of international fame. But can he continue to hide his secrets when the whole art world is about to see his works and his new name that doesn’t quite fit Gregoire’s description? The world is a much smaller place than some of us would like, Paul being one of those who might not enjoy the flattened earth of today.

English Vinglish, directed by Gauri Shinde

(In Hindi, with English subtitles)

Shashi is happily married in India, with two children, and a life of relative comfort, if restricted and confined by tradition. The feet of her husband and children are firmly planted in the modern world, but they’ve more or less neglected to help or encourage Shashi to join them there. With mild but hurtful distain, they address her dismissively and expect her to serve them hand and foot, but seldom bestow respect upon her as a wife and parent. Her husband patronizes her, while her kids tolerate her as best as they can. When she travels alone to New York to help her thoroughly modern and independent sister prepare for her niece’s wedding, Shashi seizes the opportunity to learn English in secret and become something of an equal within her family. But Shashi learns a lot more – what it is to be respected, how it feels to be an equal among men and women, and what it is like to accomplish something of profound significance, all on her own. Then her family comes to New York to join her, and her plans and dreams teeter on the cliff of disaster.

5 Broken Cameras, directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi

(In Arabic and Hebrew, with English subtitles)

Emad Burnat is an ordinary Palestinian farmer, living in his village of Bilin on the West Bank, within a stone’s throw of an Israeli settlement. Israel is erecting its problematic security fence, not through the settlement but through Burnat’s village’s land. There go the olive groves, the pasture lands, and a way of life. Burnat and other villagers decide to protest nonviolently. This is a documentary of Burnat’s efforts to seek justice, recording the struggles of the people of Bilin, taken largely from footage he shot with his own cameras, most of which were destroyed in the course of the protests. This is also something of a family record of his young son growing up in an increasingly unjust and unsafe world.

The Gerber Syndrome, directed by Maxi DeJoie

(In Italian, with English subtitles)

This pseudodocumentary purports to reveal to the viewer facts about a contagious outbreak in Italy of frightening proportions, a disease that causes its victims to go berserk even as they suffer from raging fever, skin ruptures, profuse bleeding from mouth and nose, etc., and all sorts of other terrifying symptoms, too many for me to recall. Make no mistake: a gullible person might be swept into the story and find it believable…nah. But it’s still fun to watch as science fiction. I bet the extras had a great time playing their parts, especially when they rampaged about, attacking unsuspecting passersby, none of whom seemed to be the least bit wary of the dangers of staggering, bleeding crazy people.

The Other Son, directed by Lorraine Levy

(In French, Arabic, and Hebrew, with English subtitles)

Stories of babies switched at birth are many in literary and oral tradition, but typically the modern ones are played for comedy more than for drama. Not so The Other Son. Joseph and Yacine are two teens on the cusp of adulthood and independence, when they find out that through a mixup during an evacuation, they were switched as newborns in the hospital. Joseph, a Palestinian by birth, has been raised Jewish, while Yacine, with Israeli parents, has lived all his life with a Palestinian family on the West Bank. Now what are the parents to do? With the resilience of youth, the two young men find connections between each other, and each quickly respects the other’s humanity. In short, they understand the meaning of equality and justice. The parents, at least the fathers, are dismayed, angered, and anguished. The mothers take a more loving stand but find their hearts conflicted too. Levy is French in origin, and the movie feels more French than Middle Eastern, but the dilemma is still a universal one. While the young men understand that at least in part their dreams and ambitions have arisen from their birth parents, both also see the value of their family life in which they were raised, how both the nature of origins and the nurture of family have shaped them and enriched them.

A Royal Affair, directed by Nikolaj Arcel

(In Danish, with English subtitles)

When we think of Danish cinema, we most likely might consider the Dogma 95 movement of Lars von Trier and other directors. (HCPL’s only tentative representative here is Italian for Beginners.) Then along comes A Royal Affair, in complete contrast, a big, sweeping, grand historical drama, full of intrigue, lofty ideals, rich dialogue, beautiful costumes, and sound historical fact. It also received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Johann Struensee is an 18th century German physician and political philosopher, who longs for the Age of Enlightenment to arrive on the borders of Denmark, as backward a country as ever there was one. When he becomes the personal physician to King Christian VII of Denmark, he sees his chance to create a better nation. Along the way, he also falls in love and has an affair with Queen Caroline, Christian’s wife. What results is a struggle between the powers that be, church and aristocracy, against that which might be, an enlighted monarchy. While Struensee (played by the formidable Mads Mikkelsen) effects his cherished changes through the work of King Christian, the aristocracy and church elders seek his downfall so that the nation might crawl back into its medieval hole. Make no mistake – tragedy grown out of historical truth could yield in time to a better world. The journey to that world might be a hard one though. Struensee could tell you that.

Rust and Bone, directed by Jacques Audiard

(In French, with English subtitles)

A love story about two damaged people, Rust and Bone displays at once brutality and tender sentiment. Stéphanie is a trainer at an aquarium/amusement park. Her orcas obey her every hand gesture, as easily as the Beast yields to Beauty, but when an accident results in her losing her legs, life changes horribly for her. The bright smile fades to a doleful gaze. That spark of enthusiasm for life dies. Ali is a rough and tumble guy, a bar bouncer and boxer, who together with his young son Sam escapes a disastrous marriage, landing in the same town as Stéphanie, where he stays with his working-class sister and family. Stéphanie has had a very brief encounter with Ali previous to her accident and takes a chance on calling him, hoping maybe for a strong guy to push her wheelchair or just someone to talk to. The relationship that grows between them is hardly one of pity. Both are forlorn figures, and that commonality infoms their actions and movements together. Peripheral to that, but always present, is little Sam, perhaps the most damaged of the three, and when he is most in need of his father’s strength, Ali, regardless of everything, must decide what to do, what to sacrifice to save that which is most beloved. If you are interested in seeing more films directed by Audiard, try A Prophet, also owned by HCPL.

Time of My Life, directed by Nic Balthazar

(In Dutch, with English subtitles)

Based on a real person, Mario Verstraete, and a real movement, the right to die with dignity, Time of My Life takes us on a journey with Mario, beginning with his days of youthful and vigorous strength, protesting the nuclear arms race, engaging in trivia games with his pals, hanging out with his two best friends, Thomas and Lynn, laughing, and loving life. His successful journey as the years pass comes to an abrupt halt when he is diagnosed with an aggressive form of MS. Mario knows from day one that he does not want to wither away and suffer the indignities that ill health bestows so generously on us. He would rather die, and he takes that up as his cause. As the Netherlands has just passed a law to allow assisted suicide, Mario presses for similar legislation in Belgium. It isn’t just lawmakers who need convincing though. Mario’s friends and family aren’t keen on the idea of his dying with assistance. But as they see his increased sufferings, his diminished world, and his mounting humiliations and indignities, they soften their views to meet his needs. Sad but uplifting in a way, Time of My Life also has its moments of humor to temper the pathos.

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