A Winner

The Academy Award for foreign film is historically a hard one to handicap. That’s because the voters in that category must meet the requirement of actually seeing the nominees, all five of them, in effect a mandate for an educated electorate. It would be interesting to know how many total votes in the most recent referendum were cast for that award as against, say, the award for Best Actress. It would be interesting too, albeit not as ascertainable, to know how many people who voted for the performance of Sandra Bullock also saw that of Carey Mulligan. And obviously, the new quota of ten nominees for the top category of Best Picture increases the likelihood of an unfully informed voter. If The White Ribbon or A Prophet or, less so, Ajami established itself as a favorite in this year’s Oscar race, it’s simply for the reason that those were the only ones of the foreign-language candidates to have been released in theaters and reviewed in the press, the only known quantities. Accordingly, it’s fair to guess that we would not now be getting the chance to see the Argentine entry, The Secret in Their Eyes, had it not emerged as the “surprise” winner. (The same thing, an Oscar-night surprise and a post-Oscar release, occurred last year with the Japanese Departures.) The other loser, Peru’s The Milk of Sorrow, will presumably be consigned to oblivion.

Directed by Juan José Campanella, who has some experience in American prime-time television, The Secret in Their Eyes is more of an old-fashioned slick manipulative commercial entertainment, less of a critics’ film, than any of the three overdogs in the race. Firm-footed, smooth-surfaced, it centers on a retired public prosecutor struggling to write a novel on a nagging twenty-year-old case, the rape and murder of a newlywed schoolteacher. The film, generating suspense partly through its coyness as to the outcome of that case, shuttles between two time zones, then and now, plainly signalling the period by way of the relative blackness or grayness of the beard and hair of the leading man, Ricardo Darín. Once you get past his constant look of acid indigestion, Darín is a masterly underplayer, a shrewd economizer, a dignified sublimator, and while it seems he stars in at least a couple of films in every annual Latino film festival, he is apt to be best known to the general public for Nine Queens and maybe El Aura. Or in other words, he is apt to be not known. This presents a golden opportunity to correct that. In addition to Darín’s tormented hero, the film is filled with well-drawn characters: his alluring but seemingly unattainable new boss (Soledad Villamil), still at work — now a judge — and still alluring twenty-odd years after the murder case; his erratic alcoholic colleague; the sarcastic tyrannical department head; the self-aggrandizing policeman; the obsessed husband of the victim; and, when at length he turns up, the hateful perpetrator. The sturdy storyline braids together a number of complementary strands — the unravelling of a mystery, for starters, with flashes of psychological and philosophical insight worthy of Simenon; political corruption (but of course) and abuse of power; unrequited love; the regrets of advanced age — en route to a satisfying if unsurprising surprise ending. Some of the outrageous political shenanigans might be classified as a bit parochial, but they will not be unfamiliar to any well-informed adult or any follower, no matter how spotty, of the Argentine cinema.

The Eclipse, directed by Conor McPherson, is an Irish ghost story, slow, quiet, tasteful to a fault, easy to overrate for its avoidances. Still, it deserves plenty of credit for regarding ghosts as a part of life instead of as part of a mere genre. The photos on the kitchen wall and in the bedroom efficiently fill in the background — the cancerous mother departed from a family of four — and the shadowy phantom that visits in the middle of the night earns an early shiver. Even the living are treated throughout to a lot of half-light and silhouettes, as if their place on earth is tenuous at best, their separation from the other side only slight. The dramatic situation is interesting in itself. The widower (Ciarán Hinds, nice to see his dour countenance in a lead role), a woodworking instructor by trade, with a fading father-in-law in the old folks’ home, is serving as a volunteer driver during the annual Cobh Literary Festival, assigned to chauffeur a divorced writer on the supernatural (Iben Hjejle, a Danish actress whose flawless English has been heard before in High Fidelity and elsewhere), the latter anxious not to renew an old fling with another guest of the festival, a married best-selling novelist (Aidan Quinn, fatiguedly glamorous) whose sense of superiority barely outpaces his sense of self-loathing. The dynamics of this situation are absorbing enough not to have needed the couple of cornier ghostly apparitions (blessedly brief) meant to remove you from your socks. And yet, something more, something else, seems to have been needed, something subtler, something frequenter. A drunken fistfight, just to preserve the Irish good name, brings the personal relations to a realistically messy climax, and tastefulness reasserts itself for a final ghostly apparition, a final shiver.

Death at a Funeral, a scant three years after the British version, is tantamount to a summer-stock production in Cleveland, a black comedy made over into a black comedy, or more distinctly a dark comedy made over into an African-American comedy. Beyond the casting of Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Regina Hall, Zoë Saldaña, Loretta Devine, Danny Glover, et al., it has been only sporadically African-Americanized in the script (“The catfish nuggets are to die for”), and it has been plain old Americanized mainly in the grossness of the toilet humor. Who could ever have foreseen that director Neil LaBute, the contemporary cinema’s iciest misanthrope, would stoop to poop jokes to bring down the house? Among the few white faces in the crowd, dinky Peter Dinklage reprises with total authority his role from the original, sort of like a Broadway headliner re-upping for the road company, and James Marsden intrepidly negotiates the bumps and curves of a bad acid trip.

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