I’ve seen all the movies nominated for Best Picture Oscar (except for “Hacksaw Ridge”) so I’ve been focusing on foreign films as well as bingeing on Scandinavian TV series. These are so good, and there are so many of them on Netflix. I finally got to see season 1 of “Borgen,” the Danish series about a female prime minister that everyone was talking about last year. It’s just as good as people said, and after our horrifying election season, it feels even more satisfying. It serves the same function during the Trump era as “The West Wing” did during the Bush years. Liberals can dream, can’t we?
Another Danish series, “Dicte,” about a crime-solving journalist, is also good, with many of the same actors you see in “Borgen,” and the Swedish “Wallander” is much more nuanced and satisfying than the BBC version with Kenneth Branagh. The recent “Nobel” focuses on a cute Norwegian commando who comes back from Afghanistan to become involved in a murder with diplomatic implications. And that’s only a few of them. It’s February and cold and the country is falling apart, so why not stay in and watch TV?
Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-nominated “The Salesman” is another of the Iranian director’s deep and subtle explorations of Iranian middle-class life, particularly the position of women. As in his brilliant Oscar-winning “A Separationh” a married couple’s everyday life is upturned by an unexpected calamity, which reveals obscured facets of their personalities as well as aspects of their culture. Once again, Farhadi manages to create an atmosphere of foreboding and suspense without sinking into melodrama or manipulating his characters.
Emad and Rana, both amateur actors, are forced to move to a new apartment when the building they live in collapses. The new place, while airy and large, contains clothing and other items left behind by the previous tenant, a woman who lived there with a child. In between rehearsals on a bare-bones production of “Death of a Salesman,” Emad and Rana try to settle into their new home. There are a few bumps: their new neighbors hint that the woman who lived there before wasn’t quite respectable, and repeated attempts to reach her don’t succeed. Finally, they put her stuff outside and carry on. One day, while Rana is showering, someone enters the apartment. What happens is not totally clear, but the neighbors find her bruised and bleeding. Although she denies a sexual attack, her shock and Emad’s rage belie that assertion. Obsessed with discovering the man who entered his apartment and ignoring Rana’s pleas to leave it alone, Emad launches his own investigation.
Shahab Hosseini, who also appeared in “A Separation,” powerfully channels Emad’s wounded male pride and fury. He is enraged at this violation of his sense of self, and his need for revenge turns him into a vindictive and angry man, even toward his wife. Sexual assault carries with it a special shame in all societies, but in a religiously conservative culture such as Iran’s, it feels even worse. Rana is terrified of contacting the police, and throughout the film, there’s a pervasive fear of government intrusion.
Willy Loman, the character Emad plays in Miller’s play, also feels humiliated and unmanned, so these themes resonate on several levels. Farhadi’s gift is to create multi-layered screenplays where the different elements combine in a shattering conclusion. While not quite up to “A Separation,” “The Salesman” is an excellent piece of filmmaking. Amazon Prime will be streaming it this summer.
Have Some Hummus
Another film set in the Middle East is on the festival circuit, but it couldn’t be more different in mood. “Hummus! The Movie” examines the wildly popular food through the stories of three famous hummus-makers–a newly religious Israeli Jew, a single Arab woman in Abu Gosh, and a Palestinian Christian who works in his father’s restaurant. The film is funny and fascinating, and captures the zaniness in much of Israeli life. Also, the hummus looks amazing. Directed by Oren Rosenfeld, the documentary also touches on the fierce competition between Israel and Lebanon to claim the Guinness World Record for the largest plate of hummus. “Hummus! The Movie” is currently screening at the Jewish Film Festival in New York and will probably show up at a Jewish film festival near you soon. It’s a lot of fun.
Land of Mine
The Danish feature “Land of Mine” concerns a historical incident at the end of World War II that I knew nothing about. Hitler believed that the Allied invasion would come on the west coast of Denmark, since that is the shortest route to Berlin. Accordingly, the German army placed more land mines there than any other location in Europe. After the war more than 2,000 German POW’s, mostly teenagers, were forced to remove over 1.5 million land mines from the beaches, despite such dangerous work being forbidden by the Geneva Convention of 1929. A large percentage of the POWs were killed or maimed during the five-month demining process.
Directed and written by Martin Zandvliet, “Land of Mine” is a powerful indictment of the cruelty of war. A truckload of German teenage boys comes to an isolated farm near the coast, under the supervision of a Danish sergeant, played wonderfully by Roland Moller. He tells them their job is to clear the beach of mines, after which they will be sent home. Sgt. Rasmussen is just as angry at the Germans as the rest of the Danish population, which has suffered under occupation for five years. The boys are worked hard and fed little, and some of them are blown up as they begin their work. Zandvliet and the editing team keep the tension high as the boys find and dismantle the mines one by one. Played by nonprofessional actors, the boys are frightened and homesick, hungry and bored. Zandvliet doesn’t stack the deck; although the POWs are not demonized, neither are they turned into martyrs. The sergeant does develop some sympathy for them as boys who are trapped in a dangerous situation they neither comprehend nor control. “Land of Mine” isn’t an easy movie to watch, but it’s definitely worthwhile, even if just to learn more about this little-known history.
I stopped into the New York Historical Society to see the exhibit on the first Jewish Americans and learned that the Jewish community in the West Indies was the largest in the New World for a very long time and that the Reform Movement started in Charleston, not Cincinnati. Who knew?