The 63-title list of submissions for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is something of a lucky dip – for every abundantly creamed-over festival hit in the running, there are at least two far less known quantities that have either worked their way along the fringe festival circuit or simply been plucked from a small, little-travelled pool of local offerings by the relevant committee. As nice as it would be to say that hidden gems abound, such films are just as often under the radar for a reason.
The London Film Festival, highlight package of other fests that it is, is a handy opportunity to catch up on one’s homework in this category: thanks to them, I’ve brought my tally of seen titles up to 20. That’s still less than a third of the field, but the season (and the screener influx) is young. Among them is the film I covered in my first review for Variety, India’s entry “Abu, Son of Adam”; sadly, I don’t think it will, or should, make much of a dent in the race.
One hopeful that’s been much on my mind since viewing it at Cannes in May, and further provoked on a recent second viewing, is Oliver Hermanus’s “Beauty" (B+) a quietly candid, formally tight study of a subject hitherto foreign to South African cinema – repressed homosexuality in the conservative white Afrikaner community.
The first mostly Afrikaans-language film to represent South Africa in the Oscar race since “Paljas” in 1997, it initially screened under its more evocative, if harder-to-pronounce title, “Skoonheid.” The translation is direct, and yet a certain intangible subtext is lost in the English word: “skoonheid” is an awfully hard-sounding word for something as seemingly soft as beauty, an appropriate disjuncture for a film in which sensual pleasures come encased in glass.
Hermanus’s impressive first film, 2009’s Cape Flats-set “Shirley Adams,” eschewed predictable gangland drama to focus on the functionally distraught mother of a gang violence victim; with greater thematic daring and technical acumen, his sophomore effort extends the young writer-director’s interest in those silent sufferers in the middle-aged margins of South African society. “Beauty” may explicitly address sexual and racial discrimination in the country’s still-segregated heartland, but it’s a long way from the clean-cut issue pictures that the country tends to export: not least because many of the social barriers that most crucially inform the narrative aren’t visible to all.
In a finely wrought performance that calls for both bullish, slightly impervious physical presence and subtler hairline fractures in mood and demeanour, Deon Lotz plays Francois, a placidly (if not entirely happily) married father of two whose beigely domestic lifestyle in the mild-mannered Afrikaner capital of Bloemfontein is sporadically disrupted by homosexual impulses. His long-held grip on these – aided by secret weekend parties with like-minded community fellows who congregate to drink beer, watch rugby and fuck each other – begins to loosen dangerously when he falls hard for a single man.
Specifically directed lust is a new and unwelcome sensation for Francois, particularly given the awkwardness of his target: Christian (model-turned-actor Charlie Keegan) is a young, beautiful and, against Christian’s worse instincts, straight fledgling lawyer, who happens to be the son of an old family friend. The tragic impossibility of Francois’s desire is negotiated with care and laudable lack of condescension by Hermanus and Lotz alike, though they play sharp, sore games with our expectations of this story: the latent violence in this aggressively male society comes into play in a third act as vicious as it is heartbreaking.
Crisply lensed in earthy olive tones that seem to single out the flesh in every shot, as if preying on Francois’s own carnal weaknesses, “Beauty” is a vivid and upsetting portrait of prejudices that prevail even in far older democracies than this one, but this universal resonance is countered by the more curious and specific ironies that come in a country that for so long was defined by its social oppression: in one particularly pointed scene, a participant at one of Francois’s secret sex parties is vilified by his peers for bringing along a black guest. In Hermanus’s astutely judged and commendably barbed film, no minority is merely a victim.
Less overtly provocative, but no less difficult or profoundly sad a story of interrupted intimacy, Iceland’s Oscar submission, “Volcano" (B) represents another instance of a young filmmaker reaching far beyond his own demographic bracket to reach hard human truths. Treading similar territory to Sarah Polley’s acclaimed “Away From Her” with a slightly messier emotional framework, Oscar-nominated short filmmaker Rúnar Rúnarsson’s debut feature is an elegiac, markedly unsentimental and only occasionally overmeasured reflection on the indignities of aging and the sometimes excessive patience of mortality.
Hulking sixty-ish actor Theodór Júlíusson plays Hannes, a newly retired school custodian facing the familiar old-age crisis of too much time on his hands. As he struggles to find a place in what was previously only a part-time household for him, brusquely tolerating his loving but beleaguered wife Anna (Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir), further digging trenches separating himself from his impatient children and bemused grandkids, and methodically repairing a weathered old fishing boat that, in Rúnarsson’s otherwise thoughtful and organic screenplay, likely sprang a leak due to the weight of its capital-M Metaphor status. When Anna suffers a severe stroke, however, a shellshocked Hannes is forced into the wholly unfamiliar position of placing someone else’s survival before his.
From here on, any moral points one might draw around this tricky (if hardly exceptional) scenario – ranging from old ‘got ‘til it’s gone’ adages to more heated euthanasia-based questions – sound more banal than anything this gentle but fearsomely precise film has to say. Exquisitely performed by Júlíusson, a forbidding but increasingly breakable screen presence, and constructed with calm old-soul authority by Rúnarsson, this is rare humanistic filmmaking with a clear grasp of both modest scale of its narrative, as well as the vast wells of feeling behind it.
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