The academy’s nominees for foreign-language film won’t be announced until February, but this year’s submissions are on the case. Of the 65 films put forth, a number take the form of crime thrillers and mystery stories, including several favorites for the final five. Denmark’s “Terribly Happy” follows a disgraced Copenhagen cop exiled to a small town where secrets, and a few bodies, are buried in the local bogs, and “Backyard,” the Mexican entry, tasks a fictional detective with solving the real-life murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez. Police play a supporting role in France’s “A Prophet,” the story of an Arab’s rise from naïve inmate to prison kingpin.
Other countries’ selections approach the genre at more of an angle. “Mother,” from South Korea, features a hunt for a young girl’s killer, but the lead investigator is a middle-aged woman seeking to clear her mentally impaired son’s name. Director Bong Joon-ho, last seen with the monster movie “The Host,” said that, although he prefers to mix and match genres, he usually starts with a kernel of suspense. “Crime, murder, stories of a chaser and the one being chased are all topics that have . . . excited me since I was little. In a sense, ‘Mother’ is a crime drama, and in a bigger sense it is an extreme story of a mother and a son.”
Michael Haneke, whose film “The White Ribbon” is Germany’s choice for the Oscars, often uses violence to provoke his audiences, most recently in the home-invasion horror story “Funny Games.” The new film, set in a small village on the eve of World War I, concerns a series of apparently random crimes, including vandalism of a cabbage patch and the blinding of a disabled boy. The tension between the director’s tightly controlled style and the sudden acts of violence that punctuate his movies is enhanced by “The White Ribbon’s” measured black and white, which captures the village’s quickening rot with unsettling calm. “The images you imagine are far more powerful than anything I can show,” Haneke says. “It’s much more efficient to hear a creaking step than to see the face of a monster, which usually looks ridiculous.”
An Israeli police officer searching for his missing brother is one of many characters in “Ajami,” an Israeli production co-directed by Yaron Shani, who is Jewish, and Scandar Copti, who is Palestinian. Broken into five chapters, the film follows a host of characters -- more than 150 by Copti’s estimate -- Jews, Muslims and Christians whose lives are all touched by violence, including an Israeli boy whose family is targeted by a Bedouin gang and a Palestinian who steals drugs from a dead man’s house to finance a lifesaving operation for his mother. “Unfortunately, this is how life is,” Copti said. “We believe that every person is a good person, but circumstances and his life bring him to do horrible things, just because his or her perspective conflicts with [another’s].”
The most eccentric approach to the genre is taken by Romania’s “Police, Adjective,” an anti-thriller that details the numbing routine of police surveillance. Undoubtedly the only submission whose characters debate the use of negative pronominal adjectives, the movie focuses on how subtle shadings of interpretation of the law can profoundly affect the course of people’s lives. Director Corneliu Porumboiu focused on a case revolving around a minor drug charge rather than something more dramatic. “If you destroy the life of a young guy, to me, it is the most important case in the world,” he said.
Jacques Audiard, who directed “A Prophet,” has no compunction about making a genre film. “I like the stylization of a genre film, the stylization that implies. It’s a way to accelerate the connection with the spectator: Here is the good guy, here is the bad guy. But once the spectator has agreed to get on board, then it’s up to the filmmaker to become more subtle and break from the confines of the genre.”