The movies nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film are tales of history, betrayal and adventure set against the Afghan war, the Colombian Amazon, the deserts of Jordan, a Turkish village and the mud, ash and corpses of the Holocaust.
The films are at once sweeping and intimate, offering portrayals of family upheavals and vast narratives that set characters against the sins of transgression and tumult of change, including Hungary's entry, "Son of Saul", directed by Laszlo Nemes, which unfolds through the eyes of a Jewish slave laborer who herds fellow Jews to their deaths at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The movie recently won the Golden Globe for best foreign film.
"Embrace of the Serpent," from Colombian director Ciro Guerra, reveals in startling black-and-white cinematography the majesty of the land and the degradation – moral and otherwise – colonialism wrought on the indigenous tribes of the Amazon. "A War," by Danish director Tobias Lindholm, traces his nation's involvement in the Afghan conflict through the ordeal of a commander charged with war crimes.
War is also the backdrop in "Theeb," directed by Jordanian filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar, which tracks a Bedouin boy's adventure against the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. "Mustang," the French entry by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, is the story of five exuberant sisters challenging the traditions of Turkish village life in a patriarchal society.
In a recent interview at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Ergüven, who has been criticized by some Turkish conservatives, said she chose the name "Mustang" to connote the image of freedom.
"I wanted one word which would encapsulate the spirit of the girls — which was untamable, wild, free. There is a strength, there is the visual rhyme of their hair, when they're running around the village, they're like little wild horses. I looked for different names of wild horses around the world, and this one generated the most in terms of imagery. Then we made the word ours. Now when I see a little girl running freely, I think 'mustang.'"
Tobais said his film — like the others nominated — was about individuals and societies coming to terms with larger, inexorable forces.
"Denmark jumped right into the war with the U.S. and Britain. It came as a shock to everybody. We had no idea what it was to go to war," he said. "What we knew was the pain we felt after 9/11, an attack on the free world. We had to do something."
He added: "But now in Denmark — and this film's part of it — we're going through a small-scale Vietnam phase trying to understand what we have been part of. Who are these [soldiers] we now have to bring back into society and understand again. How do we justify what we've done? Helmand in Afghanistan [where the Danish soldiers fought] has fallen back to the Taliban. It seems right now that nothing helped, but all these people have died."