Thank goodness for the Oscar party to add a little cinematic sparkle during February when new film pickings are slim. There is the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!, feted at the Berlin festival. A satirical spoof on the early ‘50s Hollywood studio era (glorified biblical epics, gaudy musicals, and hokey westerns preferred) it’s bookended by scenes of a production boss in a Catholic confessional, throwing in a kidnap plot involving “Commie” screenwriters. George Clooney hams it up as Caesar in the eponymous big-star epic subtitled A Tale of the Christ. Even minor Coen brothers offers some reward. And in light of the controversy over the Oscars lack of “diversity,” I should mention Race, the new biopic about sprinter Jesse Owens who triumphed under Hitler’s gaze at the Berlin Olympics eight decades ago.
Having already reviewed the eight best picture nominees I won’t add much about them. My vote would go to Spotlight, the tremendous ensemble drama about how the Boston Globe’s crack team of investigative journalists exposed the clerical sex abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese. I suspect, however, that The Revenant’s leading 12 nominations will give it the edge, and its Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu, whose Birdman bested Boyhood last year, may well grab another golden statuette in the directing category. The major omission to my mind is Carol and its director Todd Haynes.
Like the World Series in baseball, the Academy has never given much attention to non-American and especially “foreign-language” films, although there’s some international content in two of this year’s best-picture nominees: Room (Canada-Ireland) and the half-Australian Mad Max: Fury Road. Essentially world cinema gets to compete in single category limited to five films. The likely winner is Son of Saul, my top film of 2015 about which I wrote in detail two weeks ago. The Embrace of the Serpent is the other contender about which I’ll say more.
First a look at the acting nominations, where non-Americans sometimes do well, and several other categories.
Among the men, whatever you make of Leonardo DiCaprio’s agonizing endurance-ordeal performance in The Revenant, I think this is his turn for the big prize after a string of nominations. Last year’s winner, Eddie Redmayne, is unlikely to repeat for his shape-shifting gender-transforming role in The Danish Girl. The big omission here is Michael Keaton who was superb in Spotlight. After losing out last year for his best shot in Birdman, he’s been unfairly overlooked. (Too bad there isn’t a child Oscar as Canadian pre-teen Jacob Tremblay would surely take it as the little boy held captive with his mother in Room.)
In the supporting category my pick would be Brit Mark Rylance who was the best thing in Bridge of Spies. The sentimental vote may go to Golden Globe winner Sylvester Stallone for reprising his Rocky role in Creed, even though it makes no sense given the exclusion of Michael B. Jordan in that film’s African-American starring role. Also left out were the lead actors in the African-themed Beasts of No Nation, lending credence to the complaints about an all-white bias. Another Brit, Tom Hardy, will have to be satisfied with a having a banner year, scorching the screen as Mad Max and playing gangster twins in Legend before appearing as the treacherous villain in The Revenant.
Among the women, I’d like to see Charlotte Rampling be rewarded for her great performance opposite Tom Courtenay in the marital drama 45 Years. I suspect the odds may favour Golden Globe winner Brie Larson who was extremely affecting as the mother in Room. The major omission is Charlize Theron who as Furiosa gave Mad Max: Fury Road much of its punch. Also, Rooney Mara (best actress at Cannes for Carol) has been relegated to the supporting category for what is by any measure a leading role. She is one of only two Americans in that category. I give the edge to rising Swedish star Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) who was in a remarkable number of movies including the overlooked Ex Machina.
The wondrous Inside Out should be a lock for best animated feature. Indeed it should be a best picture nominee. The very adult and weirdly melancholic world of stop-motion puppetry in Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa is the outlier in this otherwise family-friendly category.
Like foreign-language fare, Oscar relegates documentaries to a single category. Any number would have deserved nominations. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is the most outstanding of those nominated. When he appeared at the Sundance festival last month on a panel with Werner Herzog he said something that goes to the heart of how documentary film can illuminate the darkest aspects of the human condition: “The task is first of all to identify the immoral imagination. To shine a light on it. To help people see how it works. Its mechanism. Then, to help people imagine the terrible consequences of it. The fear. The silence . . . to see how urgently needed the social change is that might make possible the realization of a genuinely moral imagination.”
Finally, in the foreign-language category Son of Saul is the likely winner and deservedly so. Tobias Lindholm’s Afghanistan-themed A War (Denmark) is the only Oscar-nominated film I’ve yet to see. Mustang (France’s submission though a Turkish coproduction) and Theeb (Jordan’s submission about a Bedouin boy’s perilous journey during the First World War) are worthy selections. But the one I hope benefits most is Colombian director and co-writer Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (http://embraceoftheserpent.oscilloscope.net/), which premiered at Cannes and added to its awards at Sundance. A true masterwork, five years in the making, it’s also a testament to the mesmerizing power of black-and-white cinematography at its best.
The narrative toggles between two time periods as its principal characters follow a serpentine river into the deepest Amazon. In the early 20th century deathly ill German explorer-anthropologist Theo Koch-Grünberg (Jan Bijvoet), borne in a canoe by a native guide, encounters a lone tribal shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), a striking figure who blames the white man for the evils — rubber plantations and enslavement not the least — that have destroyed his people. Nevertheless Theo’s promise of knowledge of tribal survivors is enough to bring a doubting Karamakate along on a journey into the rainforest where Theo is seeking a rare “yakruna” plant with healing powers. En route they are briefly detained by another tribal group and come across a Catholic mission school run by a dictatorial priest (shades of cultural and spiritual genocide in the guise of protection and saving the children from their “savagery”).
Forty years later, an American anthropologist, Evan (Brionne Davis), drawing on Theo’s diaries, embarks on a similar Amazonian odyssey to find the yakruna, encountering the now elderly Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar), more inscrutable than hostile, who leads him into a jungle heart of darkness. Along the way, at the site of the abandoned mission, the travellers come across a bizarre messianic cult and are made to imbibe a liquid that results in hallucinatory visions (the film’s one burst of colour). The journey ends in the awe-inspiring formations of the “workshop of the gods,” its ethereal horizons a culminating witness to the enormity of what has been lost.
Behind this amazing production was a long process of historical research into early Amazonian explorations and indigenous cultures. Respect for their traditions was important both for authenticity and access to sacred locations. Non-professional native actors were recruited for the roles of the key tribal figures and the power of their portrayals is quite extraordinary in depicting the collision of contrasting civilizations. Explaining his interest in that past and its mysteries, director Guerra spoke of it as a “journey to the unknown” that has been a “lifelong dream.”
Embrace of the Serpent suggests comparisons to other movie voyages into madness such as Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Fitzcarraldo. The sequence of coming across the jungle cult is so wildly outré that I wondered if it was fantastic invention. In fact, although a good deal of the scenario was fictionalized, this part was factually based on a 19th century episode in which an escaped rubber slave from Brazil had proclaimed himself the son of God and attracted a group of fanatical followers. Indeed such cultic eruptions became a cyclical phenomenon in subsequent years, marked by strange rituals and even mass suicides. As Guerra answered me: “When you remove the indigenous spirituality you create a vacuum that leads to madness and fundamentalism.”
We should not be surprised that the outrageous can be a result of the outrages that have been committed against the indigenous peoples of our hemisphere. Whether or not Guerra gets to address a global audience for a few minutes on Oscar night, this is a movie not to be missed.