Though most mainstream moviegoers will never see them and most Hollywood insiders and Academy members will never admit it, the best movie of the year is usually not made in Hollywood, but overseas. And more often than not – at least in the last 15 years – that picture comes from a dissident Iranian filmmaker whose work espouses the tragedy of living under totalitarian conditions – and not only political fascism, but religious extremism and sexual segregation as well.
Case in point: Asghar Farhadi’s critically lauded A Separation, which has won accolades from the Los Angeles Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Online and has even earned a Golden Globe nomination. The movie tells the story of an upper middle class family in Iran torn apart by a marital separation. Not a divorce, you see, because the religious zealot judge deems their problems ‘unworthy’ of divorce. The wife moves back in with her parents, abandoning her husband and daughter, whose lives are then upturned by a young impoverished woman who is hired to take care of the husband’s father. It doesn’t help that she is devoutly religious. And pregnant. Watch the film to find out why. All I’ll say is I did not see the plot twist coming, and it’s a doozy.
A happier portrait of domesticity in the Middle East comes in Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? The film has been called everything from ‘brilliant’ to ‘an audience pleaser’ to ‘a utopian fantasy’. It recounts the modern day troubles between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon . . . specifically, the troubles between Muslim men and their Christian counterparts. The women, however, seem to get along just fine – and not necessarily for the reasons you might be thinking of. It was named the audience favorite at the Toronto International Film Festival and stands a very good chance of earning an Oscar nod.
Ditto Zhang Yimou’s new drama starring Christian Bale, Flowers of War. Based on the novel The 13 Women of Nanjing, it also stars Ni Ni, Shigeo Kabayashi and Tong Dawei (you’ll know them when you see them . . . if you frequent your local Chinese theater, that is). It tells the story of the Nanking Massacre and a group of prisoners who take sanctuary in a church and try to survive the onslaught that destroys their city. In case you’re wondering, Bale only speaks English in the movie, though to be fair it’s distinctly higher than his gravely Batman growl, so you can actually make out what he’s saying. Expect an Oscar nomination for the movie.