In a time when even prominent critics complain about the glut of movies, the greatest victims are those with subtitles. In the United States, non-English language cinema is often considered a box office anathema, which gives particular weight to the foreign-language Oscar. In recent years, the category awarded Michael Haneke’s “Amour” and Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation,” two profoundly mature works that ranked among the year’s finest from any country. This year, none of the frontrunners deserve the prize as much as the one least likely to win it.
That’s not to say the category is short on quality; in fact, it contains some of the richest, varied storytelling found there in years. Yet if the Oscar were handed only to the finest achievements in contemporary motion pictures — rather than the crop that receive the best campaigns — “The Missing Picture” would easily top this category. The first Cambodian nominee in the history of the award, Rithy Panh’s diary-like chronicle of his adolescent experiences in a forced labor camp under the destructive grip of the Khmer Rouge demonstrates cinema at the height of its powers.
Through its blend of poetic autobiography and allegiance to historical responsibility, “The Missing Picture” is unlike anything else in contention at the Academy Awards this year. Most predictive charts suggest it has the weakest odds at winning on Sunday. However, more than anything else in the category, “The Missing Picture” fully represents the singular vision of its creator.
According to most pundits, the leading contender is “The Great Beauty,” Paolo Sorrentino’s mesmerizing paean to Italy’s fractured society through the lens of a jaded writer (Tony Servillo, in a brilliant performance marked by sunken eyes and a sly grin). A terrific return for the expressionistic filmmaker after his poorly conceived Sean Penn vehicle “This Must Be the Place,” Sorrentino’s latest work is a profound meditation on cultural identity through the elaborate filter of its iconography and Sorrentino’s swirling camerawork.
But the slick exterior of “The Great Beauty” takes prominence over its emotional potency. That strength can be found in “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” Felix Van Groeningen’s elegant portrait of a Belgian bluegrass couple coping with their daughter’s untimely death while seeking catharsis in music. Though it derives much of its tender qualities from committed turns by Veerle Baetens and Jonah Heldenbergh (whose play served as inspiration for the movie), “The Broken Circle Breakdown” glides along on the pathos of its lively soundtrack (already a commercial hit in Europe).
Then there’s “Omar,” Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s tense drama about a young man forced by hawkish Israeli intelligence to spy on his close relatives and endanger his romance. Its expertly constructed suspense is matched only by Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish entry “The Hunt,” in which a scowling Mads Mikkelsen plays an earnest man villainized by his community after being mistakenly accused of pedophilia.
The category is dominated by darkly introspective looks at solitary figures struggling against forces beyond their control, but none taps into that scenario with the focused, analytical abilities of “The Missing Picture.” With little photographic evidence of his experiences, Panh instead uses delicately constructed wooden dolls to recreate the daily battle for survival that he and his family endured, further filling in the gaps with plentiful archival material, a rich sound design, and propaganda films given fresh context with the filmmaker’s pensive voiceover.
Its handcrafted feel imbues each moment with an intimate expression of anguish matched only by the faintest glimmer of hope in Panh’s search for catharsis in creativity. Watching the movie, one can’t help but feel a personal connection to his plight. Recalling “troubled times where fear alternates with hope,” Panh states from the outset that as a 50-year-old, he remains haunted by death surrounding his youth, and the fierce grip of the Khmer Rouge as it forced Cambodian citizens to plow the fields under increasingly inhumane circumstances throughout the 1970s. “These are not missing pictures,” he admits at one point, “because they’re inside me.”
While Panh never fully animates his miniature figurines, “The Missing Picture” often takes on the feel of an animated documentary, its carefully whittled characters echoing his fragmented memories and the restrictions imposed on him. Announcing that the Khmer Rouge wanted its oppressed masses to be “made of metal,” he cuts through their efforts with each insightful moment. Frequently cutting to the menacing figure of Khmer Rouge overlord Pol Pot in black-and-white footage from the era, Panh creates a telling contrast between the revolutionary’s grinning presence in official documentation and the ugly outcome of his time in power.
Despite the dour atmosphere, “The Missing Picture” maintains a lively quality that reflects the artist’s persistent search for an idealistic outlook: Panh crafts vibrant sequences that override the grim reality of his story, including one lovely moment in which a doll representing his late brother soars over the surface of the moon as pop music he loved plays over the soundtrack — moments after Panh recounts the awful story of his sibling’s death.
The movie is littered with such hypnotic moments: Panh takes the images and trauma of his tortured past and refashions them with renewed value. Using the Khmer Rouge’s own weapons against them, “The Missing Picture” is a complete one.