Friday, February 22, 2008

Best Foreign Language Film

Beaufort (Israel)*
The Counterfeiters (Austria)*
Katyn (Poland)*
Mongol (Kazakhstan)*
12 (Russia)*

Will win: It isn’t unusual for me not to have seen any of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. What is unusual is for me to never have heard of any of them. Usually there are at least one or two high-profile foreign releases, and there were in 2007 – they just aren’t nominated.

Anyway, this is obviously just pure speculation on my part. Beaufort’s biggest distinction is that it isn’t The Band’s Visit – that Israeli film was disqualified because it included too much English. I’ve seen the trailer for The Counterfeiters – it looks to be a by-the-numbers story, but it’s about the Holocaust and the Nazi war machine, which could always swing votes. Katyn was just in the news because its director announced he wants to focus more on contemporary issues, whatever that means. And all I know about 12 is that it’s the highest-rated of the five movies on IMDb.

So I’ll take … The Counterfeiters. Awesome.

Should win: Obviously I have to abstain here, but I need to reinforce the already obvious point that there are some serious issues going on right now with the Best Foreign Language Film selection process. I can’t judge any of the nominated pictures, but I find it highly unlikely that any one of them, much less all five, is better than the first film on my Deserving list. Again, I have no knowledge of the particulars here, but in terms of obscure processes that need to be reviewed immediately, we can throw Best Foreign Language Film up there with Major League Baseball’s posting fee for international players (hmm, foreigners again, huh?), voting for the All-Star game in any major sport, free-throw shooting rules in college basketball (because right now you can more or less intentionally foul the worst free-throw shooter on a team off-the-ball during an inbounds play and not get penalized for it), and of course the BCS.

Deserving:
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Romania). I honestly don’t really want to discuss it. It’s best for everyone to go into this movie as I did, not knowing at all what it was about. So I’ll just say in general that it’s an extraordinary, fiercely moving examination of friendship and loyalty. Director Cristian Mungiu’s method – he favors extremely long takes, allowing actors to leisurely slide in and out of the frame – is only slightly showy, and the added intensity more than makes up for it. Some critics are citing it as a brilliant portrayal of life in Communist Romania during the late ‘80s, but I think its historical components are almost beside the point. It’s really just about two women and their struggle to survive, to help each other make it through the day.

(If my praise is so unqualified, you’re asking, then why didn’t it make my Top 10 list? Sadly, it’s just the tiniest bit slow. I appreciate the way Mungiu builds tension, and I’m not saying I was restless, but things could have been tightened up a little bit without sacrificing any impact.

O.K. fine, I’ll just admit it: The movie didn’t come to theatres until February, at which point I’d already started writing the Manifesto and had finalized my Top 10 list, which of course is now infamously a Top 13 list, which is really a Top 15 list, since three films are tied for the last spot. So I really didn’t feel like going back and tweaking that dastardly thing any further. Fuck, I’m no worse than the Academy, am I? Moving on.)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (France). I’ve already discussed this in relative detail, so I’ll just sum up here. It’s a very good movie that tells a fascinating true story about a man’s struggle to overcome his infirmity, as well as the numerous, loving women who feel compassion for him. It is not without its flaws – its flashbacks can be irritating and digressive, some of its minor characters are uninteresting and poorly developed, and like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, it’s a tad slow in parts – but it’s very well-made and often captivating.

So why wasn’t it nominated? Because French people are idiots, that’s why. The Academy has a ridiculous rule that each country is allowed to submit only one film for consideration. I guess the theory is that otherwise thousands of films would be submitted from all over the world, and members would never be able to find their way. Or the theory is that we’re a bunch of ethnocentric pigs who enjoy marginalizing the art of other cultures. Regardless, the powers that be in France decided to submit the animated Persepolis as its official entry rather than The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Why? I have no fucking idea. I liked Persepolis – I’ll discuss it briefly when we get to that infernal Best Animated Feature category, for which it’s nominated – but I can’t see how anyone would think it provides as rich and rewarding an experience as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Stupid France.

One more thing I want to discuss about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: I’m desperate to learn more about how the movie was subtitled. For most films, the process of creating subtitles, while never an exact science, is nevertheless straightforward. Take the spoken line in its native language, translate it into the desired language, and voila, there’s your subtitle.

But in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the fallen Bauby’s primary means of communication is through the construction not of words but letters. The ingenious, protracted method Henriette, his therapist, devises is as follows: She will speak a sequence of letters in rapid succession, all the while keeping watch on his face. When she reaches the letter he wants, he will blink. In this way he is able to construct words and ultimately sentences.

But how does this work for subtitles? Very poorly. Consider an example: One of the first words Bauby wishes to say, logically enough, is “death”, the French for which is “mort”. When Henriette reaches the first letter Bauby wants, he blinks, she repeats it to confirm, and the subtitle of “D” appears on the screen. But she didn’t just say “D”, right? She must have said “M”. So rather than simply translating the actual spoken letter, the subtitle must instead transfer the meaning.

Now think about this: “Death” and “mort” have a different number of letters. Watching the subtitled version, I interpreted Bauby to blink at the letters “D-E-A-T”. At that point, Henriette stops, realizing that the word he wishes to say is “death”. But, because “death” in English has five letters, and because Bauby only spoke four, the way I viewed the scene was that Henriette interpreted Bauby’s desired word before he finished. She recognized in advance what his last letter was going to be, and she sadly completed it for him. But that’s clearly not what happened. He blinked at the sequence “M-O-R-T” and finished the entire word himself. It seems like a minor thing, but it changes the meaning of the scene substantially.

Thinking about the consequences of this makes me dizzy. What about words that are represented by a dramatically different number of letters in different languages? Hell, what about a language such as Russian that uses the Cyrillic alphabet rather than the Latin alphabet? Or Chinese, which uses logographic characters rather than alphabetic ones? Is it possible the true contextual meaning of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly simply cannot be transferred into certain languages?

Here’s the most mind-boggling part: Neither the director nor the screenwriter of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is French. Julian Schnabel is American, and Ronald Harwood is South African. That they could make a movie like this that deals so explicitly with the French language absolutely amazes me.

This is a bizarre, fascinating example, but I guess my point is that in general we should all be wary of subtitles and be cognizant that they are often incapable of relaying the full meaning of a scene as it plays out in its native language. Then again, if the Academy continues to ignore the best foreign language films released every year, perhaps it doesn’t matter either way.

The Orphanage (Spain). As I’ve mentioned, I’m pretty much a wimp when I go to the movies. I scare very easily. But I’d like to think that The Orphanage is a truly scary movie, even for people with a backbone, especially compared to some of the schlocky slasher movies American audiences devour so greedily every year. A surprisingly moving tale about a mother’s desperate search for her lost son, The Orphanage may not make a lot of sense, but it’s steeped in atmosphere, full of dark basements and creepy closets. Director Juan Antonio Bayona knows how to ratchet up tension (some of his shots are tightly framed on a character so that we can’t see that person’s surroundings, echoing M. Night Shyamalan), and there’s one sequence – a twisted reinvention of the game hide-and-seek – that left me absolutely shivering in fright.
(God, I’m such a wuss.)

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