Moviemaking is often at its best when practiced in the context of social catastrophe. To me, the two greatest and most daring periods of American sound cinema were the 1930s and 1960s — the first prefaced by the Great Depression and the second by the Civil Rights era and Vietnam. In post-World War II Italy and Japan, filmmakers made masterpieces that completely re-imagined the nature, purpose and even the basic grammar of filmmaking.
Putin's Russia is an ideological midget compared to what the Soviets imposed on half of Europe for more than four decades. Perhaps the filmmakers of the old Eastern Bloc are still probing for meanings in the debris of a system that was supposed to mark the end of history, and perhaps that's what makes so many of their films so stirring.
The Oscars have certainly taken notice. In a superb field of Best Foreign Language Film nominees, three of five titles hail from countries in the former Soviet Union.
Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski's "Ida" has been mistakenly characterized as a Holocaust drama by some because it deals with the collective guilt of Occupied Poland for the wartime fate of Poland's Jews. Dense and difficult but also as simple as a fable, "Ida" is a road movie set in the Communist Poland of the early 1960s, in which a novice nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) leaves the convent on the eve of her vows after being told she was born a Jew. To reclaim her past, Ida visits with her only surviving relative — a boozy, prodigal party hack nicknamed "Red Wanda" (Agata Kulesza), a state prosecutor during Poland's post-war Stalinist purges.
Wanda's empty hedonism only thinly masks her despair. When Ida's acute resemblance to Wanda's dead sister reawakens Wanda to the brutal losses in their shared past, the two women embark on an odyssey that, to varying degrees, consumes them both.
Pawlikowski gave up a thriving career in Britain to return to Poland for "Ida," in part because he says he had grown suspicious of contemporary cinema's many "tricks." His achievement here is the way "Ida" so intricately balances the burdens history places on its characters against the burdens they make for themselves. Agata Kulesza's Wanda is easily the most tragic film character I encountered in the past year — a dead-eyed victim of Hitler who transforms herself into Stalin's enforcer. Wanda fascinates Ida the way a snake fascinates a wounded bird.
Like J.C. Chandor's terrific and inexplicably under-nominated "A Most Violent Year," "Leviathan" is a drama of municipal intrigue that plays like a mafia movie.
Director and co-writer Andrey Zvyaginstev claims his saga of eminent domain run amok was inspired by the Marvin Heemeyer "Killdozer" rampage, which took place in Granby, Colorado in 2004. But although Zvyaginstev's protagonist shares a profession with Heemeyer (both are low-rent auto repair entrepreneurs), "Leviathan" is clearly a very Russian parable about governmental corruption — and the tactics a crooked system uses to help the strong devour the weak.
"Leviathan" starts out as a sort of Russian "Erin Brockovich," with crusading attorney Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) helping his hotheaded old army buddy Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov) fight Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the bloated provincial mayor who tries to take possession of Kolya's riverside home and the valuable land it sits on.
Dmitri soon blunders his way into an affair with Kolya's restless wife Lilia (Elena Lyadova). When the corrupt local courts rule against Kolya, Dmitri attempts to fight fire with fire by blackmailing Vadim with a dossier chronicling years of murderous corruption. Dmitri has cornered the beast, and the beast must now strike back or perish.
It's remarkable that "Leviathan" was even created in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Like "A Most Violent Year," "Leviathan's" unusual public-sector setting adds a great deal of unpredictability and suspense; though the characters are clearly capable of violence, we are unsure how far they are willing to go in their attacks on each other, since they technically operate in broad daylight rather than in some shaded underworld. And like the gangster films it resembles without imitating, "Leviathan" is a broad allegory on human greed and frailty, one that renders justice as a capricious and situational ethic, if it exits at all.
Based on the critics' groups and the Golden Globes, either "Ida" or "Leviathan" ought to be the Oscar winner in the foreign language category. I hope I'm wrong, but I suspect both films may be rejected in favor of the fine but somewhat schematic Estonian movie "Tangerines."
It's odd to call "Tangerines" Estonian, since it takes place in the Georgian Caucases during the civil war of the early 1990s, it was written and directed by Georgian filmmaker Zaza Urushadze and it was shot in Guria, Georgia. But the funding was through the Estonian company Allfilm, and if "Tangerines" wins an Oscar it will be the first "Estonian" production to do so. It also deals in part with an Estonian diaspora. Like the post-Soviet era itself, it all gets rather complicated.
No matter. "Tangerines" is a timely and nuanced pacifist drama that feels a bit like a play, albeit one punctuated by sudden bursts of military violence. Two Estonian citrus farmers come upon the aftermath of a skirmish between Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), a Georgian fighter, and Ahemed (Giorgi Nakhashidze), a Chechen mercenary fighting on the Abkhazian side. The two soldiers are mortally wounded, and the farmers nurse them back to health, despite each man's vow to slaughter the other as soon as strength returns. Meanwhile, the wider war inches closer with every sunrise, with unsurprisingly destructive results.
"Tangerines" is a meticulous work that achieves everything it sets out to do. It's also a bit obvious in its messaging, and at times seems to be working itself out with the predictability of a math equation. But "Tangerines" quivers with exactly the kind of unalloyed humanist sentimentality the Academy is often a sucker for (watch "Life is Beautiful" or "Cinema Paradiso" again if you want to see what I mean). That makes it a contender, even without the wind of the L.A. Critics or the Golden Globes at its back.
Off-Ramp contributor R.H. Greene will look at the last two nominees for Best Foreign Film Oscars, "Wild Tales" and "Timbuktu," in his next post.