A simple cattle herder in the sand dunes of Mali finds his fate in the hands of edgy, insolent Islamic extremists. An Estonian tangerine farmer is caught in the crossfire between Georgian and Chechen ground forces in the disputed region of Abkhazia. An orphaned Polish Jewish Catholic novice has a crisis of conscience at a religious crossroads.
A lowly Russian mechanic tries to hold on to his home against the great and powerful he sees, who bow to the great and powerful he does not. And a series of ordinary Argentines take revenge against life's various inequities in a world where offending comes all too easily.
These are the stories shared in the foreign-language films vying for the Oscar this year, an unusually strong field. Stories that in many cases have been unheard, unheeded or submerged.
FULL COVERAGE: Oscars 2015
It is far from the first trip to the Oscars for Poland with "Ida" this year, Argentina with "Wild Tales" and Russia with "Leviathan." Though it is worth noting that "Leviathan," which targets corrupt institutions from church to state, is so polarizing at home, many in official Russia are refusing to claim it. For others — Mauritania, where "Timbuktu" was filmed, Estonia with "Tangerines" — it is their first time at the party.
The topics are provocative as a start. At a time when Hollywood is constantly criticized for avoiding big issues, let alone real life, watching these movies is like truly traveling to a distant land.
The way in which the filmmakers are approaching them is designed to incite with insight. From the raw to the refined, each is significant in adding to the cultural discourse — and not in predictable ways. Themes of religion, ethnicity, war, peace, forgiveness, revenge and respect flow through them. The central characters are mostly culled from the disenfranchised, the action driven by how those without power fare against those who do. With issues not restricted to any one country, not confined by any single border, it makes for a deeply engaging slate.
"Wild Tales" from Argentina is by far the lightest of the group. Writer-director Damian Szifron has created an anthology of revenge, essentially a walk of shame for anyone who's ever done someone wrong — scary mob types, angry aggressive drivers, cheating grooms among them. The cleverness is in exposing revenge itself as one of the crimes. The offended may get even in Szifron's film, but they also get hurt. It's the dark horse, but the raucous riot of "Wild Tales" could win if academy voters were more in the mood for laughter than tears.
In "Timbuktu," Russian-educated, Paris-based director Abderrahmane Sissako proves brilliant in weaving an absurdist point of view through the rigid minds and brutal reactions of Islamic extremists as they go about establishing the rules of order in a recalcitrant region. When a cattle herder is charged in the death of a local fisherman, ironically he is the only one in the place to take responsibility for his actions. Abuse of power is cast against integrity and looks much the worse for it.
Director Pawel Pawlikowski's front-runner, "Ida," uses the complicated origins of one young woman in 1960s Poland, born while the Nazi influence was still felt in her country, to explore the idea of religion as an individualized experience. A god not tied to bloodlines and family history but one of her choosing. It is an austere, nuanced study of loyalty and faith, the dilemmas Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) and her estranged aunt (Agata Kulesza) face are twisted and painful but somehow redeemed for being exposed to the light. Only there is forgiveness possible.
There is a purity in these films that suggests filmmakers who understand all too well the difficult realities. Such is the case with two of the category's most powerful films, "Tangerines" and "Leviathan."
In the Estonian film, Georgian writer-director Zaza Urushadze focuses on the humility and sensitivity of a tangerine farmer negotiating peace under his roof for two warring and wounded soldiers — one Chechen, the other Georgian. The film is anchored by Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak). The unassuming farmer is preparing for harvest when the war turns up on his doorstep. He becomes a quiet prophet for peace. So exceptional is the veteran Estonian actor in the film, it has sent me searching for anything Ulfsa has appeared in.
"Leviathan" peels back layers of corruption with devastating impact on the life of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov, also extraordinary), a working-class mechanic who lives with a rebellious teenage son and his beautiful second wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), in a house overlooking the sound in this remote Russian fishing village. The mayor now plans to demolish it, the dispute is in court. Kolya turns to an old friend (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a well-connected attorney in Moscow, for help.
From the vodka passed around like water, to the political and religious machinations, "Leviathan's" penetrating parable on power is difficult watching. Like Job, life goes only from bad to worse for Kolya. When it comes to dirty hands in this affair, everyone has them, from the old friend to the mayor and the local priest. Still the end shocks like the icy water surrounding the town. There is a visual metaphor the director keeps returning too — the graveyard of boats, broken and rotting, washed up on the shore along with the cleaned carcass of a whale (or leviathan).
In this choice, I don't envy the academy. The emotions the films reveal are unnerving, the stories they tell gripping, the worlds they open up are fearsome. Yet as with all great art, their accomplishment — their sharing of unforgettable accounts of wounded humanity — is a blessing.