A marriage on the rocks in Iran, a prankster German father and a grumpy old Swede. Landmines in Denmark and a love story in Vanuatu. These stories are all vying for the same prize: that of Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards.
Maren Ade’s tragi-comedy Toni Erdmann is favourite to take home the Oscar on February 26, but the whole field demonstrates the diversity of cinema outside the Hollywood bubble.
To explain what’s on offer in 2017, The Conversation asked scholars from around the world to write about why these films matter, both at home and on cinema’s biggest stage.
The Salesman: Iran
Asghar Farhadi will represent Iranian cinema at the Oscars again, with his 2015 picture, The Salesman. The film is an exposé of a subtle cultural issue in Iran: how to perceive violence and react to an act of abuse in a family relationship, particularly in a male-dominated society.
The story deals with a young artist couple, Rana and ’Emad (played by Taraneh Alidousti and Shahab Hosseini), who are putting on a production of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. Their own conjugal life is shaken when Rana is attacked by a stranger in her home. Farhadi uses this scenario to raise the question of how we behave in moments of crisis.
Farhadi tackles this contentious cultural issue in a society of traditional values, where women’s “honour” is defined by their sexuality and men’s is defined by the control they exert over that sexuality. The audience observes ’Emad’s inner struggle with doubt, resentment and self-control in order to reconcile cultural norms of revenge and forgiveness. Rana’s defenceless conduct evokes an image of a passive victim avoiding conflicts out of terror.
The narrative is full of suspense and anxiety, as we have seen in Farhadi’s previous films The Past (2013), A Separation (2011) and About Elly (2009). Along with his realistic narrative style, Farhadi reveals his remarkable expertise in documenting the rise of confrontation and conflict, leading his characters to make fundamental decisions about their lives.
After The Saleman’s success at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won two awards for best film script and best male actor, the cast is looking forward to the results of the Oscars. As an act of protest against US President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban, Farhadi and his cast have announced that they won’t be present on the red carpet this year.
A Man Called Ove: Sweden
Ove lives alone, very alone, in a semi-detached home in a small-scale Swedish suburb. “Misery hates company”, the US tagline says, and the only company Ove longs for is that of his wife who has died. When the film begins, he is about to commit suicide, hoping to join her in heaven.
Such a beginning may sound particularly Swedish, well in line with an Ingmar Bergman film or a Lars Norén play. But Man Called Ove is different. You don’t attract the largest audience to a Swedish film in years if you don’t offer a somewhat more comforting vision of life.
Ove’s unfolding story, told in an emotional and warmly comic way, values the breaking down of barriers; barriers between individuals such as those between the grumpy old Ove himself and his more normal neighbours, but also barriers of class, ethnicity, fear and prejudices, hindering people from joining a supportive community.
One such modern barrier is that Bahar Pars, the film’s Swedish Iranian-born lead actress, could have been kept away from the Oscar award ceremony amid the uncertainty over US President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
The film, and the internationally bestselling novel by Fredrik Backman it is based on, combine the contemporary story of overcoming loneliness with a series of progressive flashbacks to events in both Ove’s life and Swedish history. The film uses Ove’s life to trace the development of a successful Swedish welfare state. Viewers are invited to enjoy both nostalgia for the past and fantasies about how contemporary lives could be, once again, filled by meaningful relationships.
Made by experienced comedy director Hannes Holm, the film benefits from the match between Rolf Lassgård as Ove, and Bahar Pars as Parvane – Ove’s new neigbour, who disrupts both his life and his plans to commit suicide. Their acting – his stubborn reclusiveness and her energetic go-ahead spirit – carries the life-affirming transformation of a man called Ove. Misery needn’t hate company.
Lush tropical scenery of evergreen flora surrounded by turquoise-blue coral gardens. Smiling, healthy and athletic people consuming real food and living in perfect harmony with their natural environment. No cars, no telephone nor internet, no air conditioning, no tourists.
This is the scene set by Australian filmmakers Martin Butler and Bentley Dean for their exotic romance movie, Tanna, which takes place on the island of the same name. Tanna may look like paradise but the film’s protagonists deal with a serious problem: true love and one of its most fatal consequences, to die of a broken heart.
Having done anthropological fieldwork on Tanna over a period of 25 years, I have been invited to attend public screenings of the film, in order to contextualise the life of the actors who appear in it.
In discussions with audiences, my comments about real-life Tanna always provoked the same refrain: “the dream has been shattered”. The fact is that the tribal groups featured in the movie have been among the most filmed and also the most visited by tourists.
Like other Tannese people they have mobile phones, drive cars, watch movies and football games, eat rice and instant noodles. Those who migrate to the capital of Vanuatu, Port-Vila, often live in slums and work as security guards.
However, when they live on their home island, they still maintain relative autonomy. There, money is not yet the most important good, so people are glad participate in the shooting of a movie. That’s why the end result is pretty good.
This story, set in a remote corner of the world, has become a world success. Sadly, since the movie was shot, Cyclone Pam has very severely damaged the island.
After the disaster, there are no more leaves on trees and of course no more fruit, no more food, no more traditional houses, and perhaps no more smiling people ready to participate in a cinematic adventure about tropical paradise.
Toni Erdmann: Germany
German comedy Toni Erdmann tells the story of a father-daughter relationship. Ines (Sandra Hüller) works as an executive consultant and is driven by the demands of the consultancy business; she is a very serious person.
Her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), is a retired music teacher who always tries to be funny. He creates an outrageous alter ego, Toni Erdmann, and follows his daughter in character to confront her with the absurdity of her professional life.
When he arrives at Bucharest, where Ines works, he brings her into one absurd situation after another. At a private reception, he introduces himself as the German ambassador in Romania and Ines as his secretary Miss Schnuck. In an amazing scene, he starts to play the piano and introduces his daughter as Whitney Schnuck, performing the song Greatest Love of All by Whitney Houston.
Another scene captures Ines’s birthday brunch, which was also supposed to be a team-building exercise for her and her colleagues. As she is facing some problems with her dress, she finally cracks and decides to stay naked. She tells her colleagues that this is a ritual they have to follow. Some furiously leave her flat, others show their irritation but do get naked. Finally, her father shows up in a traditional Bulgarian animal costume. When he leaves her flat she runs after him, and finally hugs her father, respecting him as he is.
Toni Erdmann is Maren Ade’s third feature film as director. She has also worked as producer for several German films. Her latest work is an excellent staged dramedy, which is able to show the occasional absurdity of formal situations and self-imposed obsessions, whether they are professional or private.
The film gained international success starting at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. Such has been the film’s success that Paramount Pictures has announced an American remake starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig in the leading roles.
In the same way Toni Erdmann shows her daughter not to take everything so seriously, the audience of this remarkable film can learn that life can be much easier with humour and a sense of absurdity.
Land of Mine: Denmark
Danish film Land of Mine takes place just after the second world war on the Western coast of Denmark, where 2,000 young German prisoners of war are commanded to remove land mines from the coast by Danish and English allied authorities. During the process, almost half of the war captives are injured or die.
The story focuses on Danish sergeant Carl Leopold Rasmussen who has the command of a small German division of predominantly youngsters. He battles with pent-up anger towards the German occupational forces; the mining clearance is his chance to give vent to his bottled-up frustrations. However, the experience develops his hatred into an opportunity to forgive.
The film opens up a shady chapter in Danish history, with reference to actions that may have been in breach of international conventions of war. The film was very well received by the Danish press, but Danish historians were hesitant about the historical accuracy of the narrative. In a critical sense, Land of Mine not only narrates the historical past, it may also present a mirror reflecting disconcerting contemporary Danish foreign policy, such as its involvement in wars in the Middle East.
Martin Zandvliet, a Danish director with a rapidly rising profile, wrote and directed Land of Mine. He successfully stages the immense west coast drama as a condensed chamber play during which we gradually entrench ourselves in Carl’s emotional journey, and the German youngsters’ dread of death. Two fairly new Danish actors, Roland Møller and Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, shine along with a number of highly talented upcoming German actors.
Land of Mine undoubtedly represents the rise of new Danish talent in film production and indicates that a new generation of filmmakers is impatiently waiting in the wings.
Marc Tabani is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS).
Featured image: Collider