And the Oscar Goes To… Three Foreign Films Contending for the Movie Prize

At the Movies

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Shahab Hosseini (left) and Tareneh Alidoosti are an estranged couple in “The Salesman.” Photo: Habib Majidi, courtesy of Cohen Media Group

This column is being published just after the Academy Awards nominations have been announced, and your reviewer wanted to signal a few foreign films likely to be recognized.

‘The Salesman’
Ashgar Farhadi is on a roll. The Iranian director came to worldwide attention when his film “A Separation” won the 2012 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture. Its positive critical reception led international film distributors to scope out Farhadi’s backlist, and two earlier works of his surfaced in the West: “About Elly” (2009), released in 2015, and this past year, “Fireworks Wednesday” (2006; see my take in the April 2016 Hill Rag).

Now that the West has caught up with Farhadi, it’s time to relish his current film, “The Salesman” (Forushande), which echoes his earlier works with a wholly contemporary Iranian setting, a discursive yet intriguing plot featuring an out-of-the-blue domestic trigger, and finely calibrated performing from an ensemble of his favorite actors. (The film, which opens Feb. 3, runs 125 minutes and is rated PG-13.)

Emad Etesami (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a middle-class couple in Tehran. He is a literature teacher, and both he and his wife are rehearsing lead roles in a local production of “Death of a Salesman.” After their apartment almost collapses around them, they rent a new place owned by one of their acting colleagues, Babak (Babak Karimi). They are unsettled when they discover that the previous tenant, a woman of ill repute, has left her belongings in the place, yet they try to cope. In a nasty turn of events, one of the ex-renter’s clients comes to the apartment while Rana is alone at home taking a bath. Thinking it is Emad coming home, she invites him in, only to be knocked unconscious in the shower.

Rana avoids serious injury, but the incident leaves her shaken and Emad outraged. The questions then become how the couple will find the assailant and what action to take. The halting, disagreeable effort to answer these questions, at home and during play rehearsals, transforms the peaceful life of the Etesamis into growing tensions between themselves and within their acting troupe. Eventually the play is performed, the culprit is found, and a kind of recompense is exacted – in an extraordinary confession sequence – but the film ends with uncertainties facing a now strained marriage.

“The Salesman” is an excellent bet to be one of the five films nominated for Best Foreign Language picture. I would argue rightly so, because Farhadi has again tapped his country’s Zeitgeist to produce a thoughtful, ruminative drama fraught with plausible dilemmas that allow his stable of actors to shine.

Farhadi fans will recognize his leads. The sturdy Hosseini was featured in “A Separation” and was a co-lead in “About Elly.” The delicate Alidoosti was a lead in “Fireworks Wednesday” and had the title role in “About Elly.” Both are used splendidly as a striving couple who are slowly, remorselessly driven to question each other and themselves. They personify a marriage not so much breaking apart as exhibiting hairline cracks that may be hard to seal.

‘Toni Erdman’
Another Oscar prospect is the German “Toni Erdman,” a drama filtered through farce that has earned accolades from international critics. Written and directed by Maren Ade, the film was the consensus best movie of the year in the January “Sight and Sound” annual magazine poll, voted on by more than 100 film writers. Whether Americans appreciate its humor is anyone’s guess, but it is a distinctive work. (The film, with German subtitles, is rated R and runs a lengthy 162 minutes.)

The story introduces shambling Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher from Aachen whose worldview could hardly be more different from that of his daughter Ines (Sandra Hueller), a workaholic corporate executive who is estranged from her cutup father and involved in a major deal in Bucharest. At loose ends after the death of his dog, Winfried flies to Bucharest to surprise Ines, but his timing is bad since she is at a crucial stage in delicate corporate negotiations. Winfried tries to loosen his daughter up with goofy pranks, chides her stuffiness, and mocks her barren business lifestyle. Yet, just when Ines thinks Winfried has left for Germany, he returns as the flamboyant Toni Erdman, barely disguised in a rumpled suit, a bizarre wig, and grotesque fake teeth, claiming to be her CEO’s “life coach.” As Toni, Winfried is surprisingly bold and wheedles his way into Ines’ circle. He’s impossible to ignore, but through his mischief Ines begins to see some of the absurdities of her own life, to the point of bonding with dad.

Wags have cracked that German comedy is a contradiction in terms, and I fear many in the US may not get many laughs from “Toni Erdman.” The lead character, especially in disguise, is so ludicrous as to be unbelievable – not the best premise for comedy. When he shows up, he appears more freaky than free spirit. The fact that anyone would pay him any attention, much less believe his ruse, seems preposterous. Not helping, perhaps, is that the daughter is so expertly chilly that much of the humor is banked.

What does work for this reviewer is director Ade’s overall smart yet snarky take on international corporate life. The airless meetings and cocktail parties, the vapid business talk (it is never clear in the film what kind of “business” is being done), the stale hotel life – all are valid reasons why Winfried wants Ines free of them. And while the film works awfully hard, and at sobering length, to make us chortle at this world, the fact that it is depicted at all in a movie is singular.

‘Julieta’
The great Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has been nominated four times for Academy Awards and won once with “All about My Mother.” His latest, his 20th feature film, could place him in the category again. After misfiring with the lurid farce “I’m So Excited” (2013), Almodóvar returns to drama and, surprisingly, takes as his source three short stories of Alice Munro published in her collection “Runaway.” (The film, now in theaters, is rated R for mature themes and runs 99 minutes.)

“Julieta” stars Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte, playing the older and younger versions of the film’s titular character. The film opens with the older Julieta (Suarez) learning, after many years, of the whereabouts of her long-estranged daughter Antia from the daughter’s old school friend. As Julieta begins to write a journal about her life, we flash back to the days when Julieta (now played by Ugarte) encountered a young fisherman, Xoan, on a train and eventually came to live with him on the coast. The couple have a daughter, but Julieta loses her Xoan in a storm. The film then shifts time, in a wonderfully staged two-shot, into Julieta’s life years later in Madrid, when she finds her daughter has abandoned her for reasons that mystify her. The finale details Julieta’s effort to find and reconcile with Antia.

As it turns out, Almodovar radically transforms the understatedness of Munro’s broth-like prose into his own pungent gazpacho cinema. He does this using some of his signature elements: striking shot selection within a rich color palette, dashes of melodrama (here moderated somewhat) within intricate plotting, and intense, credible performances from his female leads. Suarez and Ugarte may not look very much like one another (the blonde hair is consistent), but their performances still mesh splendidly through a similar sensibility and tone. “Julieta” is a relatively muted Almodovar but a fertile one.

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.