Films have an unusual ability to alter the perspective of those who view them; they offer a window into understanding and empathising with the other. This is particularly true of foreign films; after all, it was German director Wim Wenders who famously said that American film is centrally concerned with how to entertain, while international cinema has always been concerned with how to live. With that in mind, we review the best Foreign Films of the year; Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot, Ruben Östlund’s The Square, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, and Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman. All of these films, in some fashion, offer a distinctive take on a universal question that crossed all borders and boundaries last year: how we construct identity.
The Square (Sweden)
After winning the Palme d’Or and handily sweeping up most major European awards, Ruben Östlund’s The Square is regarded by many North American critics as the best overall film of the year, not just the best international film; it is undoubtedly a favourite to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
A scathing satire of not only the art world but the upper crust of Western society, The Square deals with a topic many great European films touch upon: the collective contradictions and guilt of the upper class.
The film centers on Christian (played by Claes Bang), a sharp-dressed and well-mannered director of a major contemporary art museum. On the surface, he is a paragon of a successful European professional. Alas, his thin veneer of competence dissolves when he hires a PR team to create a provocative (and unusual) campaign designed to increase his museum’s visibility on social media. Over the course of 2.5 hours, a series of bad decisions cause Christian’s life to fall apart, and the foundations upon which he rests his identity simultaneously dissolve underneath him.
Told in a series of sketches, The Square is both side-splittingly hilarious and deeply serious, featuring multiple scenes that are sure to linger with the viewer long after the film is over. (Terry Notary’s cameo is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, guaranteed.)
The latest film by Russian auteur Andrey Zvyaginstev uses a couple’s determined search for a lost child as a pretext for a study of all that ails modern-day Russia. Inspired by many of Russia’s brilliant Soviet-era directors, Loveless is a dour rumination on the spiritual desolation and emptiness that characterises contemporary Russia.
The film centers around the abjectly unhappy marriage of Zheyna and Boris, and their lone child, Aloysha. Living separate lives and in the middle of a vicious divorce, the couple is forced back together after Alyosha mysteriously disappears. Set in 2012 (just as Russia descends into conflict with Ukraine), Zvyaginstev portrays a version of morally degenerate Russian society, one that centers upon status, wealth and extreme individual freedom.
It seems that no one, from their friends to the police, wants to help Zheyna and Boris. No one seems to care about anything other than upward mobility (and selfies, which feature prominently in the film). This “new,” atomised, post-Soviet Russia is contrasted with references to the vestiges of Orthodox Russian Christianity, along with the ever-present propaganda than expounds Putin’s signature brand of aggressive nationalism. Not caring about each other (or much of anything, other than fancy apartments and money) until the disappearance of their neglected child, the frantic couple search with ever-increasing urgency through a bleak, decaying Russia to find their lost son. The main strength of the film is how their struggle is rooted in a definite sense of place and time; Zvyaginstev creates a damning, harrowing portrait of Putin’s Russia.
If you’re wondering how things are going over in Russia, Loveless is guaranteed to fill you with a deep, cutting sense of unease. Given that Russia currently occupies a higher degree of relevance in North American discourse than any time since the Cold War, Loveless might curry the favour of the Academy this awards season.
A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
The genesis of A Fantastic Woman, much like the film itself, is magnificent. Hired initially as a “cultural consult” to ensure the movie (about a tragedy in a transgender relationship) was realistic, Daniela Vega wound up starring as the lead in Sebastian Lelio’s film. The director’s intuition to cast Vega paid off, as she delivers an enthralling performance.
Vega stars as Marina in the first international hit with a trans-as-trans lead, while Francisco Reyes plays Orlando, her older lover. The two are in a healthy, happy relationship when he falls ill, and suddenly dies. Marina is left to pick up the pieces and deal with Orlando’s judgemental, scornful (and often cruel) family, proving her worth, identity, and purpose in the process.
The film gives those who identify as trans a human face, as Lelio brilliantly portrays how having a unique identity intersects with life’s larger questions of loss, grief, and discrimination. The film is a considerable achievement for the director and Lelio is definitely a front-runner for the Academy Award. What gives the film such gravity is that, while it is rooted in questions of trans identity, it has a universal, human quality that gives it incredible depth. As Vega so eloquently stated, it’s a film about “how we moralise love.”
Directed by Israel’s Samuel Maoz, Foxtrot is a harrowing portrayal of a family confronted with unimaginable grief in the wake of losing a child, a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, in the line of duty. Applying a surreal, ethereal gloss to an age-old tale of anguish, Foxtrot is a much more complicated film than it might appear on the surface. Using tragedy as a pretext, Maoz’s film is an unflinching examination of the collective conscience of Israel, touching on the nation’s latent attitudes towards everything from racism to machismo to the Holocaust. Presented in a tripartite structure, Foxtrot is slow-paced and shot in a truly unique fashion. It is unequivocally one of the most innovative and unpredictable films of the year.
As is always the case, anything to do with the Israeli army is bound to generate a lot of controversy, and Foxtrot is no exception; the film was immediately condemned by Israel’s Foreign Minister for its portrayal of the Israeli army as irresponsible and cavalier. Despite a cold reception from the Israeli government, Foxtrot came away with the Grand Jury Prize in Venice. The controversy it generated in Israel generated much buzz for the film, which otherwise stood the risk of being too closely associated with art-house for mainstream audiences.
Despite being snubbed at the Oscars, Foxtrot is one of the best and most creative foreign films of the year. While focused on Israeli-specific issues, viewers do not need to be well-versed in the specifics of either Jewish customs or Middle-East conflict to enjoy and sincerely appreciate this film. Ultimately, Foxtrot centers around how both internal and external forces, rooted in tradition and history, exert pressures on our identity.
As long as movies have existed, filmmakers have used the medium to reflect the dominant themes of the zeitgeist. In 2017, identity was at the heart of nearly every major global issue, from Donald Trump’s inauguration to far-right nativist movements in Europe. Just like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films famously reflected the internal anxieties of post-war German identity, and the New Hollywood of the 1970s explored identity in the wake of the collapse of the American dream, the films of Maoz, Ostlund, Zvyaginstev, and Lelio offer a window into identity in a globalised, interconnected world of seemingly perpetual cultural, political, and social flux.