Sunday, February 17, 2008

Bittersweet Foreign Films

Tonight Anu and I saw the wonderful Israeli film "The Band's Visit," a bittersweet look at the Arab-Israeli chasm in a unique and compelling way, one that avoids direct political confrontation and instead looks at human relations, similarities and differences from a personalized vantage point, and the loneliness that ensues when circumstances cause distance and disconnect between people who hope instead for friendship and understanding.

The acting is excellent on all counts, with even the most minor of characters coming across as believable. The location is a character in itself, chosen clearly to underscore the overwhelming sense of isolation and incompleteness in all the characters' lives. And the music, the only thing that manages to truly fill the empty spaces from which director Eran Kolirin has constructed his narrative tone, is set apart from the rest of the film as a beacon of dignity and hope in an otherwise lonely world. Clearly not a very American film, but one which I recommend highly.

It reminded me of other bittersweet foreign dramedies , all of which join "The Band's Visit" on my personal favorites list (and all of which hang together on the basis of tone and style, not plot similarities).

Wolfgang Becker's "Goodbye Lenin!" is a post-Communist tear-jerker which deals with the transience of cultural and familial stability in a way which rang especially true with my own Central European sensibilities. Unfairly tarred by some as Marxist nostalgia, "Goodbye, Lenin!" is instead a heartfelt look at family, love, loss, and changing times. Like Kolirin's focusing on people rather than politics, Becker makes the central issue not capitalism vs. communism but rather the precarious nature of striking a balance between freedom and progress on one hand, and rootedness and cultural heritage on the other.

"What to do in Case of Fire?" is the best punk rock film since "Repo Man," and like with the other films discussed, Gregor Schnitzler manages to strike another delicate balance -- this one between nostalgia and realism regarding the interesting and passionate, yet difficult, politically and socially charged punk heyday of the late 1970s to mid 1980s. Dealing with the different paths that a group of punk anarchist friends have taken since those times, and an event which forces them all back together for one last chance at friendship and meaning in their lives, "What to do in Case of Fire?" takes to task the selfishness and emptiness of the "Me Generation" backlash against the tumultuous times that preceded -- while still not making the good old days seem better than they really were.

Finally, Mira Nair's "Monsoon Wedding" rounds out this list of great bitersweet films. Simultaneously realistic and romantic, "Monsoon Wedding" deals with the conflicting and often hypocritical attitudes about love, sex and romance that prevail not only in Indian society, but in various forms throughout the world. Again, rather than make a diatribe Nair chose to focus on human stories that reveal the complexities of the situation rather than paint a black and white picture. Charming, and yet bravely gritty in some of its depictions of the relationship between sex and power, like all the films mentioned "Monsoon Wedding" succeeds on many levels.