Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language

Virtually every review of “Anna Karenina” this holiday season managed to recycle the book’s opening line about happy vs. unhappy families. (“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”) But the Karenins were whiners compared to the domestic units populating 2012’s foreign-lingo film Oscar entries. From the Balkans to the pampas, families were going nuclear, and putting the funk in dysfunction.

Typified by Mexican helmer Rodrigo Pla’s Uruguayan entry “The Delay,” in which a harried Montevideo mother leaves her senile father on a park bench, or Joachim Lafosse’s “Our Children,” in which a troubled Belgian mom chooses a homicidal solution to problems of marriage and motherhood, the imploding families in question are untraditional and, much of the time, improvised: That they stray from the “conventional” mom-dad-kids format isn’t always the direct cause of their problems, but the variations become key to their conflicts. And such conflicts create drama.

“Absolutely,” says helmer Boudewijn Koole, whose “Kauwboy” — about a remote father, motherless son and the latter’s pet crow — is the official Netherlands submission this year. “You look at children’s books and films, and there’s almost always an absent mother or father. It creates tension and that’s what you’re interested in.”

There’s no shortage of tension in “Our Children,” based on a notorious Belgian case of child murder, despite the crime being revealed right at the start of the film.

“For me, it wouldn’t be possible to do a suspense movie with this subject,” says helmer Lafosse. “It’s too serious.” Lafosse says he prefers to work with dramatic irony, and have viewers, rather than wonder what will happen, ask how and why such a tragedy might occur. And it was important for him and Jacques-Henri Bronckart (who produced with his brother, Olivier) to be on the same page.

“When I said to Jacques-Henri and his brother I didn’t want to shoot the actual crime, he said, ‘OK, if you refuse to shoot the killing of children, I will accept your proposition.’ It was important to me to have a producer with a conscience, who wanted us to speak about violence without violence.”

Both Bronckart and Lafosse say the real case was a far more familiar and sensitive issue in Belgium than in their co-production countries of France or Switzerland, or, certainly, in the United States. Lafosse says audiences around the world have regularly made comparisons to “Medea,” which pleases him. But family stories of almost any stripe are inherently classical regardless of ethnicity or geography: the Hasidic marital melodrama of Israel’s “Fill the Void,” for instance, or Afghanistan’s “The Patience Stone,” in which the wife of a paralyzed jihadist turns to unorthodox, liberating sex.

“There are a lot of dysfunctional families,” says Koole. “It’s part of life.”

It’s how those families cope with that life — or regroup, or reimagine themselves — that drives films like “Sister,” the Swiss entry from Ursula Meier, whose protagonists are a young thief who works a high-end ski resort, and Louise, his unhappy flatmate.

“I like characters who are not in the norm,” Meier says. “They think they can live outside of the world. They try to find another way of life, and then find they’re up against the wall.”

Coping against the odds also exists in Antti Jokinen’s “Purge,” which is about two generations of women from the same family who are victimized by the Stalin era and human trafficking, respectively. “You have to survive and even when you are broken and a ‘victim’ you must look for things to set yourself free,” he says.

Real life has frequently been the inspiration for these films, be it real life on a personal and intimate or political and global scale.

“Clandestine Childhood,” the Argentine entry, for example, is based on helmer Benjamin Avila’s personal recollection of his country’s “dirty war” of 1976-83. On a more local level, Koole says he really did have a pet crow as a kid but his young hero’s domestic drama was more vaguely inspired. “The father-son relationship keeps coming back to me,” he says. “My mother is still alive, but my father was always busy and there was always tension in my family.”

Meier says other people found real-life parallels to her story when she and Antoine Jaccoud started writing the “Sister” script.

“During the writing of the film, we thought we had this really crazy idea, but it happens,” she says. “Also, the story of Louise is very classical, and the audience can see it without our even saying it: She got pregnant at 14, couldn’t finish her studies, had to get a job, was rejected by her parents. It’s tragedy in a sense, because she doesn’t believe in the world. She’s very angry — against society, her boss, the man who fathered her child, she fights against everything and with Simon they try to find another way of life. But they can’t escape the world.”

Which was the situation for Aida Begic, whose “Children of Sarajevo” is the Bosnia-Herzegovina submission.

“After my first feature, ‘Snow'” — which is about the post-conflict traumas of women whose husbands and children were killed in the Bosnian War (1992-95) — “I wanted to do something lighter,” she says. “I wanted to do a teenage movie. But when I looked at the teenage population in Sarajevo, I realized that they are one of the most damaged groups in our society.”

Her protagonists are war orphans — Rahima (Marija Pikic), 23, who struggles to make ends meet while looking after her juvenile-delinquent brother Nedim (Ismir Gagula), who is 14. It’s yet another case of family in extremis, examples of which were not difficult for Begic to find.

“Usually, before writing a final version of the script for my films, I do a documentary film, or at least some documentary material that treats the subject connected with my fiction story,” she says. “For this film, I did a lot of research, spending time with kids in orphanages, and also at a workshop dealing with violence with teenage boys. So, Rahima and Nedim are fictional characters, but they’re based on real-life examples and research.

“Whatever you touch here in Bosnia whatever subject you want to treat, it happens to be about some dysfunction. But maybe I would be happier if it took a little more struggle to discover problems in the society I’m living in, rather than be surrounded with pain and craziness.”

Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language
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