FILMS OF THE WORLD - june 2022
June 2, 2022
Our collective surprise at the Russian invasion of Ukraine suggests that we, in North America, do not know a whole lot about what is currently happening in the world at large. In the face of our collective shortcomings to know and understand the state of the world, foreign films would seem as good a source as any. Especially in this era of the much-criticized mainstream media, of supposedly fake news, and, more generally, of militant and opinionated media.
To take an example, what were Russian films telling us about Russia itself, its mood, and its state of mind in the last few decades?
The answer is that the story told by Russian cinema is a rather gloomy one. Its most celebrated film of recent years, Leviathan (2014), tells the story of generalized corruption of the Russian public institutions, with officials working from a desk with Vladimir Putin’s official picture above them. That alone, of course, could not have been enough to predict the invasion of Ukraine, but that film, along with others, could have alerted us to the fact that the health of institutions, inside Russia itself, is not good and is cause for concern.
THE STATE OF THE WORLD THROUGH ITS FILMS
Although we will often look here at foreign films, we will not limit ourselves to them exclusively, since films from the more prosperous part of the world will also be looked at, if only in terms of comparison.
Let us however take the opportunity of the nomination and celebration of foreign films of 2021 considered for the Golden Globes, the Oscars, and the British BAFTA, to know a little more about the state of the world, or at least about how the films from international countries see the world.
In doing so, we will try to start with the more obvious themes, and end with the less obvious ones, whether these themes are from foreign countries or not. Let us start with the most obvious.
The most obvious theme to be found in international films is that a good portion of the world is struggling, in tough times, as we wrote in our previous entry in this section of our website.
The description of these tough times in films appears to vary from country to country, from continent to continent. There are different shades of what seemed to be, at the outset, challenging economic situations, mixed with human, social, and political ones. The more recent trend, however, is to see these difficult times through economic globalization.
CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE
We all realize that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is partly due to the Russian reaction to Ukraine’s wish to integrate completely into modern and prosperous Western Europe. What films from that part of the world (Central and Eastern Europe) tell us, however, is that integration into prosperous Western Europe is not without its challenges and could become a bumpy road, even if the ultimate destination is desirable. In Romanian films such as the recent Acasa, My Home (2021), a poor family living in the outskirts of Bucharest finds itself torn between integration into the new market economy or staying in its poor and autarkic state of self-sufficiency. The road to the economics of modernity has its challenges, especially when moving from one very different system to another, as portrayed in another Romanian film, Collective (2019), on the new health care system. The same misgivings were alluded to in the Bulgarian film Glory (2016), where a railroad worker is rewarded for his honesty by receiving a brand-new watch that does not tell time, while depriving him of his family watch, less modern, but that worked fine.
In areas that were involved in war-torn Yugoslavia in the 1990s, there is, in certain films from those areas, a desire to come to terms with a cruel past. Such is the case with Quo Vadis, Aïda? (2020), which tells the difficult story of prisoners in a refugee camp under the authority of the Serbian army. The more recent Hive (2021) is set in Kosovo, where young widows are searching for the bodies of their husbands, who died in combat in the civil war and who are buried in mass graves.
Elsewhere in Europe, the nominated Parallel Mothers (2021), among other themes, tells of the search for the bodies of men who died during the Spanish civil war of the 1930s and who are also buried in indiscriminate mass graves
LESS OBVIOUS THEMES
We have seen, in our previous section, how the integration into Western Europe of Eastern and Central European countries can have its own challenges, even if the end goal seems worthwhile. But these challenges coming from integration into larger entities need not only be reserved for countries entering the European Union These challenges are not always expressed in obvious and direct ways, and they are not exclusively economic either.
The first “less obvious theme” is in reality unavoidable in our current international state of affairs. It has to do with our globalized economy. The films are not so much about an exclusively economic perspective, of course, but about how globalization affects us in our lives, concretely. In the Bhutan entry for best foreign film, A Yak in the Classroom (2021), a young schoolteacher is torn between his important role in teaching in a remote village in Bhutan and his project of migrating to more prosperous Australia, where his singing performances would seem less crucial to the well-being of others.
Hive (2021), which we referred to earlier, is in good part about a business project directed by a widowed woman that starts in a village in Kosovo and ends up as a truly international business, with many challenges along the way, especially from local senior men who are very concerned about the fact a widowed woman is participating in the regular economy, outside her home.
We could understand Japan’s entry into the foreign film category, Drive my Car (2021) as a film that alludes, subtly, to the theme of globalization. Indeed, all the plays that are involved in the hero’s theatrical career are from outside Japan and even his car is foreign made (a German car). But that would only make up part of its multifaceted dimensions, which is why it was also nominated for Best film (including American films) of 2021.
Another seemingly unavoidable theme would seem to be the continued transformation of our world of media. It is certainly present in the French entry for best foreign film, France (2021), which is the name of the héroïne, a star tv news anchor in Paris, who is facing choices between advancing her career and doing the right thing, off-camera. This theme of media transformation seems to be also a theme in quite recent American films, such as A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), a film about a period, in the 1970s, that seemed less torn by militancy and aggressive discourses than today’s media environment. The recent Nightmare Alley (2021), telling of how rumors and falsehoods can have disastrous effects on people, would seem to echo our current media cruelty, in stark contrast to the media landscape present in the reassuring A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
Our third less obvious theme may have to do about “coming to our senses”, not so much figuratively, but quite literally. An Italian film that has been mentioned in the foreign film category is The Truffle Hunters (2021), a documentary about a slowly disappearing generation of Italians who found their truffles with, quite literally, all their senses, and with the acute senses of their beloved dogs, who often lived with the hunters, sometimes even eating at their table. The quite recent American film Pig (2020) also seems to refer to our sensory integrity, when a former great restaurant chef retreats into the forest, searching for truffles and other delicacies with the help of his beloved pig and its acute sense of smell. A Yak in the Classroom (2021), the film from Bhutan that we referred to earlier, may also refer to our senses, as a yak, a kind of buffalo, sits eating in the classroom, while teacher and students carry on as if nothing unusual was there.
THEMES THAT APPEAR MORE “SOCIAL”
While films from less prosperous countries would seem to often address economic challenges, films from more prosperous areas of the world would seem to address, more often, what we can describe as social challenges.
Although nostalgia may not qualify as a social challenge, it is interesting that there are recent nostalgia films out from Great Britain and The United States. The film version of the successful television series, Downton Abbey (2022), is set in a rural and prosperous British landed family, with both titles and a large contingent of servants, in stark contrast with the current state of affairs, at least for most of us. In the case of the more recent version of West Side Story (2021), the violence between New York street gangs of the 1950s would seem, in comparison, less cruel than current ones.
As suggested earlier, just as films from less prosperous countries often describe economic challenges, recent current films from more prosperous areas of the world often describe social challenges.
As populations from rich countries are growing old, from a demographic point of view, some new themes appear. That was the case with the British film The Father (2020), on the problems middle-aged children have towards their aging father. In the same vein, a film out of France, Belgium and Luxembourg, Tout s’est bien passé (2021) (Everything went well) tells of siblings accepting their father’s wishes to go to Switzerland to be euthanized. Some recent films from French-speaking countries seem to focus on quite specific social challenges. Les Intranquilles (2021) (The “Unrestfull”), a film from France, speaks to the challenges of living with a spouse having mental issues. Another European film from Belgium, Un monde (2021) (A world) speaks to the challenges of school bullying, while a film out of Québec, Noémie dit oui (2022) (Noémie says yes) addresses the delicate topic of the juvenile sex trade.
We have tried to understand the themes present in films from the world over, sometimes concentrating on nominated films for the awards season of 2022 in the different foreign film categories.
While some films sometimes defy interpretation, such as the quite mysterious and demanding French film Titane, on which we have more to say in the main section of our website, most films are amenable to some kind of at least partial understanding. Even the rich, dense and multifaceted Drive my Car can be considered as sharing some of the characteristics of general themes of the films of the world of cinema of 2021. Generally speaking, recent films from less prosperous areas of the world often address economic challenges, or at least challenges that have an economic element to them, and films from more prosperous areas often address social challenges.
These are general trends, painted with a large brush, and there are of course many exceptions.
It will be interesting to see how these trends hold, or not, in the films that we will see further in 2022.