By Richard Ades
The widespread assumption is that Germany’s epic All Quiet on the Western Front will nab this year’s International Feature Oscar. For those in the mood for a less warlike viewing experience, however, the other four nominees are well worth considering. They range from a historically based courtroom thriller to somber tales involving, respectively, teenage boys, a pre-teen girl and a down-and-out donkey.
Here, in no particular order, are the other four nominees:
Remi (Gustav De Waele, left) and Leo (Eden Dambrine) are longtime friends in the Belgian film Close.
Growing up, growing apart
Close has an apt title, as the Belgian film is about the unusually tight friendship between two 13-year-old boys.
Leo and Remi (played without artifice by Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele) spend most of their days together, hanging out before, during and after school. Often, they even sleep together, sharing a bedroom with the blessing of their parents, especially Remi’s warm-hearted mother.
It’s all innocent and comforting fun until comments from fellow students force them to see their friendship through other people’s eyes. A girl asks if they’re “together,” while boys pummel them with gay epithets. None of this bothers Remi, but Leo responds by suddenly setting boundaries and branching out into activities that don’t involve his lifelong pal. The result is a development that’s heartbreaking, even if not entirely unexpected.
Director and co-writer Lukas Dhont handles all this with sensitivity and naturalistic restraint. It’s only in the aftermath of the aforementioned development that he turns restraint into a fault by delaying and underplaying the inevitable aftershocks. The result is that when they finally do arrive, they’ve lost much of their ability to move us.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Close (PG-13) is available from VOD outlets and will be screened Oct. 24-26 at Columbus’s Gateway Film Center.
The titular donkey sports a necklace made of carrots in Poland’s EO. (Photo courtesy of Aneta and Filip Gebscy)
Four-legged love story
Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski has made no secret of the fact that EO, his journey through the life of a lowly donkey, was inspired by the 1966 classic Au Hasard Balthazar. The differences couldn’t be starker.
While French director Robert Bresson told his own donkey-centered tale in a typically minimalistic manner, Skolimowski and cinematographer Michael Dymek ply us with images that are often ornate and sometimes surreal. There are strobe effects, infrared effects, POV shots, dreamlike flashbacks and nightmare-like sequences. There’s even a scene involving a mechanical dog that seems to appear out of nowhere.
Story-wise, the two films’ approaches are also different. While Bresson focused on people, the title donkey being merely an unwilling pawn in their difficult lives, Skolimowski turns his leading animal into a full-fledged protagonist.
Essentially, the new film is a love story between EO and Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), a woman who takes him under her wing while they’re working together in a traveling circus. After bankruptcy forces the circus to sell off its four-legged performers, the two are separated, but they never forget each other. In particular, EO is haunted by memories of happy moments he shared with Kasandra, which lead him to take actions that don’t always work out in his favor.
Like Bresson’s film, EO lends itself to larger questions about human nature, including our cruelty toward each other and toward the animals in our care. Both works also offer deep levels of allegorical meaning for those into religious, and particularly Christian, symbolism.
So which film is better?
Bresson’s is more perfect in its absolute simplicity, in contrast to which Skolimowski’s cinematic showmanship can be distracting. On the other hand, that showmanship frequently results in strikingly beautiful images. Along with its personable star, that gives EO viewers a lot to love.
Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)
EO (no MPAA rating) will be available from VOD outlets beginning Feb. 21.
Ricardo Darin (left) and Peter Lanzani star in the fact-based courtroom drama Argentina, 1985.
Dictatorship’s abuse confronted
Argentina, 1985 is based on an actual attempt to bring to justice those who tortured, raped, murdered and “disappeared” thousands of Argentinians during the long reign of a right-wing dictatorship.
Ricardo Darin stars as Julio Cesar Strassera, who’s appointed to prosecute the officials responsible for the former regime’s acts of terror. It’s not a task he accepts gladly, as many of his friends and relatives supported such acts in the name of fighting communism. Among them are most of his colleagues, complicating his ability to form the legal team he needs to take on his monstrous assignment.
Coming to his rescue is Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), a younger man who’s assigned to serve as Strassera’s deputy. Together, they put together a team consisting largely of idealistic students and instruct them to comb the countryside in search of people who can testify about abuses they suffered at the hands of government-sponsored thugs.
Director/co-writer Santiago Mitre handles this potentially explosive story in a surprisingly low-key manner and even adds touches of humor. That prevents the film from descending into melodrama, particularly when victims of the previous regime finally get the chance to tell their shocking stories in a nationally televised hearing.
One puzzling aspect of the case Strassera presents is that he seemingly makes little effort to connect these repulsive crimes with the suspects. It could be that Mitre simply left out that part of the testimony to underscore the fact that Strasser’s most important task is to convince the divided public that the crimes are worth prosecuting in the first place.
Or, as the prosecutor puts it so powerfully, “Nunca mas.” English translation: “Never again.”
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Argentina, 1985 (rated R) is available through Amazon Prime Video.
Cait (Catherine Clinch, left) is greeted by Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley) after a long journey in Ireland’s The Quiet Girl. (Photo courtesy of EF Neon)
Lonely girl finds temporary reprieve
The Quiet Girl centers on Cait (Catherine Clinch), a 9-year-old who tends to keep to herself. She’s not happy at school, and she’s even less happy in her overcrowded home, where she gets little attention from her overworked mother or her philandering, heavy-drinking father.
Then her mother gets pregnant yet again, and Cait is sent off to live with relatives in another part of rural Ireland until things get back to normal. This turns out to be an unexpected blessing. Her mom’s cousin Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley) welcomes her with the kind of love and warmth she’s never known. And while Eibhlin’s husband, Sean (Andrew Bennett), is stand-offish at first, he puts her to work on their farm and soon begins to show signs of acceptance.
Directed in an appropriately quiet manner by Colm Bairead, who based the Irish-language script on a story by Claire Keegan, this is no maudlin, feel-good flick. We eventually learn that Eibhlin and Sean are hiding a secret whose effect on their lives is painful and intractable. And then there’s the question of Cait’s future: How long will her newfound happiness last if, as planned, she’s forced to return to her family?
Thanks to sensitive direction and fine performances all around, The Quiet Girl reveals its secrets and delivers its answers in a way that will likely leave a lump in your throat. After its Irish cousin, The Banshees of Inisherin, it’s my favorite film of 2022.
Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)
The Quiet Girl (PG-13) opens in select theaters Feb. 24 and will be screened March 10-12 at Columbus’s Gateway Film Center.