Five pictures have been nominated for the award for Best Foreign Language Film, narrowed from a list of 81 submissions - just shy of last year’s record 83. Three of this year’s films came from Europe, with one from South America, and another from Jordan.
Embrace of the Serpent - Colombia
Colombia’s first nomination tells the story of an indigenous shaman who leads a German explorer’s expedition through the Amazon rain forest at the dawn of the 20th century. Four decades later, an American accompanies that same guide on a repeat journey to search for a sacred plant.
The film is in black and white, which University of Oklahoma College of International Studies assistant dean Rebecca Cruise described as an artistic choice evocative of Schindler’s List.
Mustang - France
Cruise described France’s submission Mustang as a “sleeper” that could overtake the frontrunner Son of Saul. It’s set in rural Turkey, and tells the story of five Muslim sisters, and has been called “The Virgin Suicides set in Anatolia” by The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman.
All five nominated films deal in some way with violence and war, and Cruise described the way the grandmother and uncle marry the girls off as a form of domestic violence.
“The director [Deniz Gamze Ergüven] is Turkish, and this is what’s interesting, she, it’s a she. It’s a woman. There is a female director nominated in this category, which is more than we can say for the pictures that have been nominated for Best Director,” Cruise said.
Theeb – Jordan
The Kingdom of Jordan is also a first-time nominee with Theeb. It’s been compared to the 1960s Peter O’Toole epic Lawrence of Arabia, both in the time it’s set, and its imagery. Two Bedouin orphans are asked by a British Army officers to take them toward an essential railroad.
“You really see the vastness of the desert, the difficulties of trying to survive in the desert, and I think that’s also why it’s being compared to a western – that isolation that one feels,” Cruise said. “But again, this idea of violence comes up. This takes place during World War I. So the war, violence, and the heartaches that leads to and how that affects these two young boys.”
A War – Denmark
Perhaps the most overt depiction of the common theme of violence and war among the nominees is the Danish submission. Denmark has done well in this category, with three wins and 11 nominations since 1956. In A War, a Danish soldier endures a military tribunal after allegations he attacked civilians in Afghanistan.
“This perhaps a reminder that the United States has not endured the Afghan war alone. Dozens of countries are involved in this,” Cruise said. “Denmark has actually been the country that, per capita, has suffered the most losses in Afghanistan.”
Beyond the tribunal itself, the film is about the toll war takes on families.
“It is about the killing of some innocent lives, but the Danish standard for these sorts of situations is much higher than you might see elsewhere, certainly in the United States,” Cruise said. “It’s unclear, but it’s unlikely that a U.S. battalion or a U.S. soldier would’ve faced the same scrutiny.”
Son of Saul – Hungary
Many critics are calling Hungary’s nomination Son of Saul the frontrunner, after it took the 2015 Grand Prix, the second-most-prestigious prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It also won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.
There’s never a shortage of World War II films, including last year’s winner – Poland’s Ida. Cruise says this film takes a different perspective that’s both effective and disturbing.
“These Sonderkommandos were Jews that were taken either by force or given the option to clean up the ashes or dispose of the ashes or bodies after people were taken into the gas chambers in Auschwitz and other concentration camps,” Cruise said. “So you can imagine the psychological damage that this would do to those individuals, and the ostracization that they would feel within the camps also, becoming ‘dirty’ and killing their own people.”
Taking on the role wasn’t even a guarantee that they would be spared from executions.
“What’s so remarkable about this film is it really does give us that clear image of the actual process, the mechanics involved, in a concentration camp like Auschwitz,” Cruise said. “The coming off the trains, the leading to the different facilities, the going through the showers, the disposing of the bodies – we see the entire process.”
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