Watch for these five films, dramatic and absurd, in the international Oscar category

Julia Stockler in "Invisible Life"
Julia Stockler in “Invisible Life.”
(Bruno Machado/Amazon Studios)

In a year of global cinematic excellence, awards voters should take into consideration a bounty of excellent work beyond the justifiable hype for Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” and Pedro Almodóvar‘s “Pain and Glory.” It’s been such a strong year that acclaimed films such as Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” and Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ “Bacurau” missed the cut as their country’s international film submissions. Yes, the category formerly known as foreign language film has a new moniker, but this year’s record 93 submissions once again feature dramatic and diverse stories from around the globe. Here are five to keep an eye on.

“Invisible Life” (Brazil)

Bringing Martha Batalha’s melodramatic novel to life was no easy task for director and co-screenwriter Karim Aïnouz, but he got lucky in casting Carol Duarte and Julia Stockler in the film’s pivotal lead roles. The actresses give remarkable performances as sisters Eurídice and Guida, who are separated by fate in 1950s Rio de Janeiro. Duarte and Stockler chronicle almost 20 years of the sisters’ lives, but Aïnouz needed someone special to play a much older incarnation of Euridice at the end of the film. He was shocked when the nation’s living legend, Academy Award nominee Fernanda Montenegro, agreed to play the part.

“I think what’s really [great] about working with her, at that age and she has performed so many roles, I have this feeling that those roles sort of stay with you,” Aïnouz says of the 90-year-old “Central Station” star. “She is younger than you and me together, like new energy, and really, really fantastic. And with all this stuff going on, within our government politically and you look at her — she is what that country is. She is a force of nature.”

A scene from France's Oscar submission “Les Misérables.”
(SRAB Films/Rectangle Productions/Lyly films/Festival de Cannes)

“Les Misérables” (France)

Ladj Ly’s narrative directorial debut may share the same title as Victor Hugo’s classic novel, but it has only one true narrative connection: Montfermeil, France. The population of the Parisian suburb has changed drastically from the 19th century following the arrival of North African immigrants in the 1960s. Ly was inspired by the often-tense relationship with the police officers who patrol the area and its residents.

“France still has a really difficult issue with immigration,” Ly says through an interpreter. “[It] has a history with its ex-colonies and Africa. It’s always complicated. It’s still a subject, a bit like slavery, that has not been reconciled and digested by the main French people.”

“Les Misérables” took home the Jury Prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, but Ly appears just as proud of becoming the first black French filmmaker selected as France’s submission for the international film Oscar.

“First of all, it’s an incredible honor,” Ly says. “It’s an opening. Even though it is still very taboo subject, we are now representing France talking about this subject. We hope that that would make our cause heard and [spark] debate on the subject, we hope it might be able to make things evolve, change.”

Catrinel Marlon in a scene from “The Whistlers.”
Catrinel Marlon in a scene from “The Whistlers.”
(Vlad Cioplea/mk2 Films)

“The Whistlers” (Romania)

Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu’s latest effort was inspired by a moment at the end of his celebrated 2009 drama “Police, Adjective.” What if your main character — in this case a police officer — is forced to learn a somewhat obscure language for nefarious purposes? And what if that language was the only thing that could save him from a terrible fate? The result is a stylish film noir that features the unique whistling language born on the Spanish island La Gomera.

Thanks to modern technology such as cellphones and the internet, the indigenous language is considered, for lack of a better term, endangered. Porumboiu found an instructor at the island’s Department of Whistling Language willing to teach four actors in the film how to speak it. The movie simply would not work if the actors weren’t convincing in “whistling,” but Porumboiu insists he was always confident they could pull it off.

“The actors, they are much more intelligent than me,” Porumboiu says humbly. “Myself, I tried to [learn] but I had to do also some stuff in terms of production and so I stopped it. But I will try again. But the actors, they did very well.”

Elia Suleiman in a scene from “It Must Be Heaven.”
Elia Suleiman in a scene from “It Must Be Heaven.”
(Rectangle productions/Nazira films/Pallas film/Possibles Media/Zeyno film/Festival De Cannes)

“It Must Be Heaven” (Palestine)

There are moments in Elia Suleiman’s absurdist comedy when Suleiman, playing himself, somehow walks through deserted Parisian landmarks like a lonely figure in the desert. Or police officers perform inspired choreography on hoverboards through empty streets in the middle of a sunny day. A number of these scenes were not originally in the Palestinian filmmaker’s script, but suggested by someone in, of all places, the mayor’s office.

Suleiman had been warned by a French member of his production that he’d never get permits to shoot in tourist centers of the city. The employee in the Mayor’s Office had other ideas, however. He asked Suleiman about one particular scene, “Do you want to shoot this from the [Champs-Élysées]?” The director replied, “Well, I don’t have a scene in the sample today.” And he replied, “Write one. I will shut it down for you.”

The official had basically decided that if he was going to close swaths of Paris for the latest “Mission: Impossible” movie he was going to do it for Suleiman’s indie effort too.

“Everybody in Paris really wonders how the heck this happened because they keep asking me, ‘How did you do this?’ And it’s actually all due to this person, and I had a very good crew, also, that made it all feasible and happening.”

Pierfrancesco Favino (right) in a scene from “The Traitor.”
(Festival de Cannes)

“The Traitor” (Italy)

Many filmmakers might be intimidated by the scope of the later part of Italian mobster Tommaso Buscetta’s life, but the 79-year-old Marco Bellocchio was more than up to the challenge. Beyond chronicling the final two decades of Buscetta’s years in Italy, Brazil and Miami, he had to find a way to transform numerous courtroom scenes featuring one of the Italy’s most notorious informants into compelling cinema.

“I, of course, wanted to represent these courtroom scenes in a nonconventional, not stereotyped way, in my own original way,” Bellocchio says. “In Palermo, in the big trial scene, we were very lucky to be able to shoot in the courthouse bunker where the maxi trial actually took place. We were breathing the same atmosphere, breathing the same story [where] that trial that had taken place 40 years ago. And this opportunity created a kind of a natural inspiration, not only for me, but also for the actors. “

Bellocchio adds, “It’s true that millions of movies have been made about gangsters, mafia, trials and murders. I think we see the proof that we met that [standard] because at least in Italy, audiences were very generous toward us; it was a very big success.”