The international-film category was once littered with feel-good stories about the relationship between an older person and a child, such as “Madame Rosa,” “Pelle the Conqueror,” “Burnt by the Sun” and “Kolya” that took home the statuette. Given the Oscars bestowed on the likes of “Cinema Paradiso” and “Life Is Beautiful,” individual nations could be forgiven for skewing their annual submissions in a crowd-pleasing direction.
However, the global film establishment had to take notice as the Academy started honoring tough-minded stories about “The Lives of Others,” as the title of 2006’s examination of post-Cold War suspicion puts it. A heartbreaking Balkan standoff fuels “No Man’s Land.” Assisted suicide is central to “The Sea Inside” and “Amour.” Bullying and xenophobia animate “In a Better World.”
The 2021 Oscars feature five nominees that reflect the sometimes-bleak world but there is always a strong note of hope. The five contenders are “Drive My Car,” a three-hour Japanese film; “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” only the second Oscar submission (and first nom) from Bhutan; Paolo Sorrentino’s “Hand of God,” the Italian helmer’s second visit to the Academy Awards; Denmark’s “Flee,” an animated tale of an Afghan refugee; and Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World.”
Three of the films even broke out of the international film race, with “Drive My Car” drawing noms for best pic, adapted screenplay and director; “Flee” also earned nominations for animation and doc, while “The Worst Person in the World” nabbed a nom in original screenplay.
Joachim Trier, who directed “Worst Person in the World” says of the noms: “The Academy wants a broader spectrum of people from across the world looking at films and voting. It’s a more international community. And that’s being reflected, I think, this year. Also, in a big surprise: best original screenplay, which is a great honor and competing with the best of the best, really, really top people. I think that might have something to do with that openness in the Academy among the members for world cinema.”
This year’s 92 international film entries yield nary a kid hugging a grandfather. And the final five are decidedly connected to real life. The young driver who carries the burden of her mother’s death in “Drive My Car”; Julia, who is not “The Worst Person in the World”; Ugyen of “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom”; and Fabietto in “The Hand of God.” These are indelible portraits of young people aching to find their place in the sun.
Aside from scoring a rare triple nominations, “Flee” also ticks off three boxes — multicultural suspicion; the European refugee crisis; and LGBTQ+ prejudice.
“Lunana” director Pawo Choyning Dorji sees another throughline. “I think there is this common thread [of young people trying to find their place in the world] in the nominees. A pandemic is raging across the lands; there is all kinds of separation, anxiety, fear and suffering. Because of what the world has become, the world and the audience are longing to go back to familiarity and home, and this is what these stories offer.”
Even though Bhutan is trying to become the world’s happiest place, he says most young Bhutanese are leaving for other places. His film’s protag Ugyen wants to go to Australia.
The film is set in a remote Himalayan village. “There aren’t many people who have experienced Lunana, and Lunana hasn’t experienced the world. However, within that diversity, the story touches upon this universal human quality of seeking home, seeking where one belongs. I think this is what has helped our film, within all the diversity the film exhibits, the audience connects with what they have been desperately longing for, in a world that lacks that at the moment.”
For Julia in “The Worst Person in the World,” the longings are in both her personal and career choices. She races through medicine, psychology and photography in the first half-hour of the movie, while trying to find the relationship that fits her proves more elusive.
“A lot of people are struggling with the pressure of expectations,” director Joachim Trier says. This includes social-media images of happiness in love and career. That was Trier’s basis, but he expanded on it. “It became a story about a young person trying to go through loss to find purpose, to ground herself and hopefully grow from the experience of loss.”
Filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen met “Flee” protag Amin some 25 years ago when they were both in school. While there were rumors then that Amin had seen his family shot down in Afghanistan, Rasmussen was grateful to be given the opportunity to tell the Afghan’s real story (though his real name is not used).
“I was curious about how and why he came; he came from Afghanistan to this small Danish village, but he didn’t want to talk about it [initially].”
What started out as a conversation between two friends grew larger and the idea for the film expanded from a short to a feature. For the harsher realities of Amin’s life, Rasmussen found animation a way to tell the story.
“We are exposed to so many of these stories in the media that a lot of people have a tendency to block these out,” he says, including himself in that number. “You can take everything in, but then you cannot wake up in the morning.”
While some of these films were shot before the pandemic, COVID seems to have influenced them all. Sorrentino says he didn’t want to make a “bleak” film during
“Maybe because of COVID that brought me, but maybe also others, it made me look more inside because it was not easy to make a movie like we were used to, movies about a topic that we used to find interesting in the world,” he says.
Sorrentino adds that as a 50-something father, with children who are getting ready to leave the home and seek out their place in the world, he was attracted to the topics. “I am facing again all the problems of the youth.”
“Drive My Car” director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi adapted the Haruki Murakami story and says through an interpreter: “I found Misaki to be a very appealing character, someone who I thought I would want to depict in the film, but in the film she is actually more developed than she is in the short story. In the short story she is primarily a supporting character, but in the film her existence is a bit larger.”
The coronavirus pandemic interrupted shooting for eight months from its start in March 2020. He incorporated it into the story in the final scenes in which you can see the characters wearing masks. “It shows how much the world had changed, the timeline,” he says.
For “Lunana” director Dorji, the pandemic interfered in a different way.
“Once the film was completed, we were thrilled to share it with the world, but the film’s journey coincided with the pandemic; many of our festival screenings, distribution releases, etc. were all delayed and cancelled. It was very tough and disheartening.”
His film was finished two years ago and submitted for the 2020 Oscars, but rejected because Bhutan didn’t have a proper selection committee. However, the Academy encouraged him to get one set up and resubmit it and he was thrilled to see it make the shortlist and then one of the final five.
“The world gets to see Bhutan, and for me that’s what matters more than anything else. Bhutan has been under COVID lockdown for the past month, and everyone was celebrating. I was happy the film’s nomination gave everyone a reason to be joyful during such a difficult time.”