‘Biutiful,’ other foreign films take a view of larger world

The submissions for the foreign-language film Oscar serve as cinematic ambassadors for their home countries. Many of the films in this year’s crop concern themselves with reaching across borders, those between nations and, in a few cases, the one between this world and the next. Here’s a look at a few of them.

Much of Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World,” the entry from Denmark, is taken up with domestic affairs: two marriages splintered, one by illness and one by infidelity, and two sons who decide to respond to the violence of a schoolyard bully with violence of their own. But that story is framed by cutaways to one of the boys’ fathers, who is working as a United Nations doctor in a destabilized African country. At home, he preaches nonviolence to his son, but the decision is not so easy when a local warlord is brought into his makeshift operating room, a man who has been eviscerating pregnant women as a means of establishing his power. The film does not draw facile parallels between the two situations, but neither does it allow a glib distinction between them.

“It was my intention to touch upon our privileged national security and suggest that, although things that are going on around the world are much more severe, they still concern us,” Bier says. “The movie is about how incredibly difficult it is to be a decent human being.”

In “Even the Rain,” the line between present and past blurs as a Spanish movie crew shooting a film about Christopher Columbus’ exploitation of South American natives is disrupted by the Cochabamba protests of 2000, in which working-class Bolivians successfully repulsed an attempt to privatize their water supply. Even as the filmmakers-within-the-film depict the colonists of centuries earlier using the natives for slave labor, they pay their local extras $2 a day, which could easily be seen as colonization by another means.


Working from a script by her husband, Paul Laverty, a frequent collaborator of Ken Loach who worked for years as a human-rights activist in Nicaragua, director Icíar Bollaín deftly navigates the pitfalls of making a film that criticizes the very thing she is doing. “We see these filmmakers as neocolonialists, going in and trying to make a profit out of people who are in need,” she says. “At the same time, I think there is a kind of homage to the filmmaking business because it is actually very hard to achieve a film like that. That is what I like — both sides of the coin.”

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” from Thailand, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Biutiful,” from Mexico, bring together the living and the dead. In “Biutiful,” downward-spiraling Javier Bardem is able to pick up on impressions from the recently deceased, perhaps because, if his behavior continues unchecked, he will soon be among their numbers. “Uncle Boonmee,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, takes a more elusive and less literal-minded approach. Boonmee too is dying, but he is not the only one who can see the shades of the past, figures who return as themselves or clad in monkey costumes, born of a twilight world where randy catfish seduce unwary maidens.

In the Greek entry, “Dogtooth,” Yorgos Lanthimos builds an open-ended allegory in the space between totalitarian government and helicopter parenting. In order to protect their children from the evils of the world, a middle-aged couple has created an elaborate mythology in which deadly felines prowl the grounds just outside their front gate, and even the slightest step beyond the compound’s borders risks almost certain death. Words like “sea” have been redefined to strip them of all connection to the outside world, so that the children’s only impressions of those outside their immediate family come from worn-out videotapes of “Rocky” and “Flashdance.”

Some have read “Dogtooth” as a parable of Greece’s past dictatorships, but Lanthimos says he had nothing so fixed in mind. “I didn’t make it for the dictatorship in Greece, or another totalitarian state, but I do understand that this could make people think about these issues. After we wrote the script, I realized that the film is about how much you can control people’s mind. On the next level, that can really be about media, or the information that leaders give their countries. It depends on the people who watch it and what they make of it. That’s the most important thing for me, to be able to watch a film and then think about all these other things.”