The nominations for the Oscars will be out early today in Los Angeles. We in India would get to know about them as we sit for dinner tonight. Our interest in the Academy Awards this year is understandably not as keen as it was in 2002, when
was among the five shortlisted entries in the foreign language category. This time, of the nine films chosen (out of a total of 65 from various countries) in this section – to be filtered down to five and announced today – there is none from India.
However, there is some brilliant cinema to be seen in all the nine movies. Personally, I have two favourites, and would be awfully disappointed if they are not among the ultimate five nominated foreign language pictures.
Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is an absolutely riveting piece of black and white celluloid. Describing life in a small, rigidly Protestant village in northern German just before World War I breaks out, the film sets out to present the unmistakable Haneke touch: there is sheer horror (did we not see that in his earlier Funny Games which left even some of the most hardened critics puking), there are uncompromising morals and there is deep mystery. And, what is most disturbing, there are no definite answers coming.
Haneke lets his hero, a young teacher, narrate the events, though decades after they had taken place, and the characters are diverse, like the doctor, the farmer, the pastor, the baron and so on. Each plays his role, never questioning the almost inhuman moral code, which sets the order in the village, granting rewards, but more often meting out cruel punishments. Children and women are specially targeted and physically and psychologically brutalized. The supremacy of patriarchy is clearly established, a fact that gives men the right to engage in clandestine evil. This is never allowed to come out in the open. So, when the doctor on horseback is tripped by an invisible wire or when the baron’s barn is set on fire, children, including a retarded boy, are punished. Maybe, they are guilty, angered and humiliated by the mistreatment in a horrifyingly sick society.
Haneke’s work, which clinched the Palm d’Or at Cannes last year, is extremely symbolic: he uses the village to show us how sick the German society was, a probable cause of the rise of Fascism. Captivatingly lensed and paced deliberately slow, The White Ribbon is a highly relevant socio-political document.
French master Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet takes us into another kind of suffocating atmosphere. Set in a French jail, where an Arab youth, Malik El Djebena (embodied by first-time actor Tahar Rahim), finds himself cornered between a Corsican gang and an Arab group, the movie won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes last May. Threatened to befriend and kill a fellow Arab, Malik becomes a slave of the Corsicans. Audiard’s taut plot takes us through raw and intense violence to tell us how Malik eventually educates himself to play one group against the other, building a neat empire for himself.
Stylised and superbly crafted, A Prophet actually deconstructs life in a prison through the deathly struggle between the Corsicans and the Arabs, each trying to gain an upper hand, if only to see the light of the next rising sun.