Didn’t get a chance to see any of the foreign-language movies nominated for an Academy Award this year? Better brush up before Sunday! We’ll make it easy: Here’s a synopsis of each of the five nominees, compiled by staff who attended the All Roads Film Project “Global Glimpses” screenings at National Geographic headquarters last weekend.
1. A Separation (Iran)
What it’s about: After Simin moves out of the home, her husband, Nadar, tries to care for their young daughter and his own aging father, who has Alzheimer’s. The nurse he hires to tend to his father is injured during an argument, and the two families must decide who is to blame. They struggle with the conflicting demands of doing what is right under the law, what is right for their family, and what is right under Islam.
What the title means: Simin has secured a visa for the family to leave Iran, but Nadar refuses to abandon his father. They separate while Nadar considers granting Simin’s request for a divorce.
Iranian flavor: Women are frequently straightening their head coverings, and some key plot points hinge on the opinions of religious elders and swearing on a Koran.
Oscar-worthy moment: Any of the scenes that take place in the small office of the judge who is deciding the fates of these two families. Matters of life and death are debated with powerful, subtle performances.
Who’d star in Hollywood’s remake? For Nadar, Bryan Cranston has shown in Breaking Bad that he can play a father willing to make sacrifices for his family. Gwyneth Paltrow has the poise to portray the determined Simin, and Dakota Fanning could pull off the role of their smart and observant daughter, Termeh.
2. Bullhead (Belgium)
What it’s about: You can’t run from the past. The shady underworld of growth hormones in Belgium’s cattle industry provides the backdrop (and apt metaphor) for this character sketch of a deeply damaged man. Jacky Vanmarsenille is an East Belgian farmer who, in making a shady deal for cattle hormones, reconnects with a childhood friend, Diederik. This sets off a chain-reaction through which Jacky’s struggle with his traumatic youth and subsequent addiction spirals out of control.
What the title means: The sense of loss that comes from hurtling through life like a mindless beast, without family to care for or real responsibility. Also, Jacky’s physique.
a) Blue-and-white Club Brugge football scarf
b) Linguistic dissonance between Flemish and French
c) City views over the Meuse River
Oscar-Worthy Moment: Jacky confronts his childhood bully from his childhood—now crippled and living in a home. In a truly terrifying scene, he pulls himself back from the brink of a murderous rage.
Who’d star in Hollywood’s remake? Vin Diesel as Jacky (though he’d have to gain about 30lbs of muscle.) Tony Hale as Diederik for that just-awkward-enough bit of comic relief combined with real acting chops. Marion Cotillard as Luisa, especially if they want to keep the French angle.
3. Footnote (Israel)
What it’s about: Old dad and middle-aged son are both Talmudic scholars. Dad is angry at not being recognized for decades of thorough research. Son gets big kudos. Dad is resentful. Tensions ensue, but are framed with absurdist whimsy—like the scene in which Talmudic scholars with bushy eyebrows meet in a room so small that they all have to rearrange their chairs every time someone wants to enter or exit.
What the title means: Dad’s greatest accomplishment is being named in a footnote by another Talmudic scholar.
a) Talmud jokes.
b) Security checkpoint jokes.
c) More Talmud jokes.
Oscar-worthy moment: There isn’t one moment that stands out. Rather, this movie’s great achievement is turning a movie about the Talmud into a fascinating exploration of family dynamics and introducing Hitchcockian suspense (why did the Ministry of Education mysteriously summon the son?) and Seinfeldian humor to dazzling effect.
Who’d star in Hollywood’s remake? Since this is a movie about a book of rabbinic commentary on Jewish law, Hollywood needs maximum marketability. Let’s cast Larry David as the brooding, curmudgeonly, running-shoe-clad dad and Jerry Seinfeld as the bemused and full-bearded son.
4. In Darkness (Poland)
What it’s about: Doing the right thing can be its own reward. Based on a true story, Christian family man Leopold Socha is a sewer inspector who moonlights as a thief in Nazi-occupied Poland. Shortly before the liquidation of the town’s Jewish ghetto, Socha cuts a deal with a desperate group of Jews to hide them in the sewers in exchange for steady payments. Over the next 14 months, Socha must confront personal danger and loss as he comes to terms with his own anti-Semitism and begins to see “his Jews” as humans like any others, with desires and failings and incredible resilience.
What the title means: It’s literally how the characters must live in the city’s underbelly, but it’s also the state of mind for many in the war-torn world above.
a) Old World cobblestone roads
b) Plenty of vodka
c) Dialogue in a constant mix of Polish, German, Ukrainian, and Yiddish
Oscar-worthy moment: Socha and his partner watch dispassionately as ghostly, wailing forms appear at a distance in a dark forest. The shapes resolve into a group of naked Jewish women being chased and gunned down by soldiers. The two thieves turn and walk silently back home.
Who’d star in Hollywood’s remake? Stellan Skarsgård as Socha, with a plumped-up Naomi Watts as his kind-hearted but cautious wife. Benedict Cumberbatch as Mundek, the de facto leader of the Jewish refugees, and a dark-haired Joey King as Krystyna Chiger, the young Jewish girl who went on to write her memoirs about life in the sewers.
5. Monsieur Lazhar (Canada)
What it’s about: A Canadian elementary school is in shock after a much-loved teacher commits suicide in her classroom. Her replacement, an Algerian refugee, must deal with both the students’ trauma and the private, yet parallel, grief which has followed him from his troubled country. The film is packed with scenes exposing cultural differences, such as Monsieur Lazhar’s first encounter with a Rice Krispie treat (a “Quebec-style baklava”) or his confused exposure to an iPod on shuffle.
What the title means: It’s the name of the teacher who becomes a target of cultural preconceptions as he struggles to help his students—and himself—leave the past behind.
a) Memories of white houses and blue skies
b) Raï folk music
c) Lots of tea
Oscar-worthy moment: Simon, a troubled student who saw his former teacher’s corpse hanging from a noose, admits to having spread a lie about her that he believes prompted her suicide. Monsieur Lazhar’s reassurances release a torrent of pent-up emotion in the classroom. The breakdown brings closure to the tragedy, but also puts his job as a teacher at risk.
Who’d star in Hollywood’s remake? Teach Tony Shalhoub French and he’d be the perfect candidate to play Monsieur Lazhar. Elle Fanning as the favorite student, Alice, and Preston Bailey as the troublemaker, Simon.