Reel Streaming: A Trio of 2020’s Best Foreign Films
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 34
By Laurence Lerman
As this year’s Academy Awards broadcast quickly recedes into the past (if your viewership declined by 58% from the previous year, you’d wanna quickly recede, too!), we’re left, as always, with the films...dozens and dozens of films. And whether they were award-winners or not, there were plenty of outstanding ones from across the world to consider.
Thomas Vinterberg’s alcohol-infused comedy-drama Another Round from Denmark won the Oscar for Best International Feature Film this year, the prized title in a category that emerged from a record number of 93 eligible entries submitted by 97 different countries. (That’s right, 93 submissions for the 93rd Academy Awards. Synchronicity, right?)
It is genuinely thrilling that so many countries accepted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s invitation to submit their finest films for Oscar consideration. In this record year, it’s worth noting that three countries submitted films for the first time, all of them dramas: Sudan sent in You Will Die at Twenty, Lesotho offered up This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection and, from Suriname, came Wiren.
Until this week, I’d only seen a handful of the international submissions beyond the five final nominees. A good number of them are out there and available to stream, so this week I pushed the button on three of them that very deservingly made the Oscars shortlist.
The Mole Agent (Chile) The official submission of Chile also holds the distinction of having been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Those who avoid documentary features in favor of multi-part streaming doc programs shouldn’t be put off by Maite Alberdi’s 84-minute effort, which is actually more of a drama-documentary hybrid.
In the film, detective Rómulo Aitken selects an octogenarian widower from Santiago, the sharp-minded Sergio Chamy, to go undercover in a nursing home and investigate whether one of the residents is being abused by the staff or any fellow residents. The clandestine mission is filmed through Sergio’s spy glasses and Alberdi’s film crew, which is on-site under the guise of their making an actual doc on the facility. Over the three months that Sergio spends at the institution, his life and interests intertwine with the those of the other residents, particularly the women, who open up to their hearts and emotions to Sergio as he listens with interest and compassion.
Much sweeter, sensitive and sympathetic than you would initially imagine, particularly when one considers the plight of the elderly and the awful truths of the modern healthcare system we’ve seen over the past year, The Mole Agent warrants the attention it’s been getting.
Dear Comrades! (Russia) Russia’s entry comes from veteran filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky, whose 45 years behind the camera have included everything from Chekhov adaptations (Uncle Vanya, 1970) to historical epics (Siberiade, 1979) to steely action-adventure dramas (Runaway Train, 1985) to idiotic Hollywood cop flicks (Tango & Cash, 1989).
In Dear Comrades!, which picked up numerous honors in its native Russia, as well as at the Venice Film Festival and with the National Board of Review, Konchalovsky chronicles the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre. It was an ugly event that saw the shootings of dozens of protesting workers in the eponymous Russian city by order of the Government Commission. The writer/director tells the story through the eyes of Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya), a staunch Communist and party worker whose beliefs are seriously challenged when she witnesses the shootings at the demonstration and the Commission’s subsequent attempt to cover up every aspect of it. Crisply shot in high-contrast black-and-white and edited with precision, Dear Comrades!’s formal style can barely contain the horrors and darkly anxious humor that bursts forth from its frames.
Two of Us (France) In Italian-born writer/director Filippo Meneghetti’s debut feature, Martine Chevalier and Barbara Sukowa are Mado and Nina, aging neighbors who live in adjacent apartments. The two are more than just casual friends, though—they’re lovers who have been together for decades, a secret that nobody knows, particularly not Mado’s dutiful adult daughter. The two older women have a plan that involves Mado selling her place and the pair moving from France to Rome, where they’ll live out the rest of their lives happily and without any constraints. The plan is derailed when Mado suffers a debilitating stroke and her children hire a caregiver. That’s followed by a plan to move her into a nursing home, not considering Nina to be anything more than an overly concerned neighbor. And they’re not interested in Nina’s caretaker ideas, feelings or her rising anger when it comes to the care of her secret lover, which is on the brink of no longer being a secret.
The performances of Two of Us’s leading ladies are exemplary, with every gesture and familiar glance hinting at the shared history the two have secretly enjoyed. While Ms. Chevalier might have the trickier role, as she’s relegated to only her eyes and some shuffling motions after having her stroke, it’s the mighty Ms. Sukowa who brings it on as a determined woman whose wrath is unleashed when she’s denied the opportunity to care for her lover. It’s the kind of focused energy that Sukowa exhibited in Fassbinder’s Lola (1981) four decades ago. Or maybe it’s just a reflection of young filmmaker Meneghetti’s own talents and drive.
Has anyone seen any of the other official international submissions? With 93 of them to choose from, I’d love a suggestion or two to point me in a good direction. I have occasionally defaulte to what I refer to as my culinary guide (“I enjoyed Bhutanese cuisine once before–maybe I’ll check out Pawo Choyngh’s Dorji’s Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom from Bhutan!”
Any ideas, Insiders?
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.