A number of foreign-language Oscar submissions this year coincidentally (or not) recount tales of totalitarian governments and repressive groups, and the entrapped individuals who struggle against them, as I report in a recent Variety article ("How to tackle a tyrant," Dec 8). Whether it's 18th Century Denmark ("A Royal Affair"), 1950s Czechoslovakia ("In the Shadow"), Chile and East Germany in the 1980s ("No," "Barbara"), war-ravaged Germany in the wake of World War II ("Lore"), an ultra-orthodox religious community in rural Romania ("Beyond the Hills") or brutal child militias in Africa ("War Witch"), there's a whole lot of subjugation to go around.
For the article, I interviewed many of the directors about the deep-rooted traumas that are addressed in the films, including Christian Petzold, speaking about "Barbara" and Pablo Larrain, discussing "No." Both films are sure to be among the most critically lauded foreign-language films when they're released next year. (I expect both films will make the Oscar short-list, but I don't know if their razor-sharp visions will make it all the way to the Awards.)
A more likely contender is Nikolaj Arcel's "A Royal Affair," which is set in Denmark over 200 years ago, but the Danish filmmaker says the themes in the film — pitting science vs. religion, and rich vs. poor — "mirror what's going on today," he told me. While "Affair" charts the battle between arch conservative religious forces against the reformist principles of the Enlightenment, Arcel finds contemporary echoes of the film's conflicts in everything from the rhetoric in America's recent presidential campaign to the rise of nationalist political parties in Europe over the past decade. Arcel says the connections are "quite obvious. … We're saying let's please keep moving forward, and try to have rationality conquer irrationality."
A similar theme emerges in Cristian Mungiu's Cannes-decorated "Beyond the Hills," which follows two young women in a rural monastery in Romania — one of whom is effectively tortured in an attempt to "save her" from her sins. Based on a true story, Mungiu saw the event as a way to explore several ideas, among them, "what happens if you interpret religion literally" and "the side effects of tolerating irrational beliefs in society."
The latest from Mungiu — whose 2007 Palme d'Or-winning drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" was widely hailed by critics and raised an outcry when it was left out of Oscar's foreign-language race — may be too dire for the Academy and has even divided the filmmaker's fans, but look for it as another example of Romania's powerful and patient cinema of the oppressed.
That's not to say that all is morose in this year's foreign language contenders. In fact, most of these same films actually focus on the way individuals in repressive environments try to fight back. As the young Danish queen in "A Royal Affair" says, "For a while, we felt we could do something: Bring about change."