The Belgian film "Bullhead" (4.5) has generated quite of bit of interest in Europe and an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film, but aside from an interesting lead performance, I found it to be more flash than substance. It's ostensibly set in the mafia-run meat industry of Flanders, where illegal use of growth hormones on cattle is apparently common. But the mob aspects don't really drive the story; rather, the film revolves around Jacky, a grotesquely muscular man hopped up on steroids who is mixed up in the meat industry. (I suppose that he is supposed to be like the cattle--but that comparison doesn't lead anywhere.) The film veers into a backstory addressing the reasons for Jacky's steroid usage, but that story doesn't really have much to do with the mob story. In fact, what I found frustrating about the film was that there were too many plot threads that were never tied together in a satisfying way. It definitely doesn't compare in quality to the other two Oscar nominees I've seen, "A Separation" and "Monsieur Lazhar," both of which earned 9s from me. I'll catch one more Oscar nominee, from Israel, this weekend.
"Rose" (9) explores a piece of Polish history I knew little about and is one of the best films I've seen at the festival. I have the sense that stories of life in the Soviet Union that perhaps were too dangerous to tell until recently are beginning to surface more in films; I've seen several in the past couple of years. This one is set in Masuria, a part of Poland settled by people who, as is explained at the beginning of the film, were ethnically German (or Prussian) but developed a unique cultural identity. The people there were considered German by Poles but were melded into the rest of Poland under the Soviets, who wanted one Polish identity. So the Masuren were an ethnic minority who, right after World War II, were oppressed by other Poles and also by the Russians. This film tells the story of a man with a mysterious past who comes to Masuria right after the war and meets a woman who he comes to care for and protect. Like the excellent film "A Woman in Berlin," this film depicts the violence against women that was absolutely ramp, and shows just how vulnerable women were during and after the war. Some complicated politics are also on display in terms of how the man's past puts him into jeopardy; I couldn't really tell what was going on while I watching the film but later pieced together that he worked for the Polish home front and was involved in the Warsaw uprising, an attempt to reestablish an independent government in Warsaw before the Societs took over. The history I found online was illuminating after the fact, but my confusion didn't detract from my experience of the film, because even without much context I could see how well the film depicted the chaos and swirling allegiances of post-war Soviet Poland. I'll warn you: there is quite a bit of violence against women in the film so it's not for everyone--but I found it to be an amazingly effective examination of an important and little-understood part of the war's aftermath. It won best film and an audience award at the Warsaw Film Festival, which is pretty unusual for a film this complex and painful. I don't expect it to get a wider release in the U.S., but you can see it at the film festival on Sunday night.
"Abu, Son of Adam" (4.5), the only film from India in this year's festival, didn't translate quite as well (and I mean that literally). It's a sweet story of an elderly Muslim couple in the South Indian state of Kerala, a part of Indian culture that I haven't seen depicted much. The couple longs to fulfill a lifelong dream for devout Muslims of making a pilgrimage to Mecca. They can ill afford such a trip, but the film is devoted to their efforts to do everything they can to raise the money to go, selling their few possessions and hoping that Allah will provide the way. The display of simple, sacrificial faith is affecting, but the film leaves some strands unaddressed (particularly references to a son they never see) and the subtitles are grammatically incorrect and missing punctuation, adding to my sense that I was missing the gist of what was happening.
Heading off to see films from Belgium, France, and (if I don't run out of gas) Norway!