On Body and Soul.

On Body and Soul (Testről és lélekről) is one of the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the tenth time a Hungarian submission has made the final cut since they began submitting films in 1965. A film that alternates shockingly brutal imagery with a lyrical, otherworldly story about two of the shyest people you could imagine, the movie is a starmaking performance for actress Alexandra Borbély, who won the Best European Actress award in 2017 for her work here. It’s exclusively available on Netflix.

Borbély plays Maria, the new health inspector at a Hungarian cattle slaughterhouse, replacing the unseen Bori, who left early for maternity leave and appears by implication to have been a fairly lenient inspector. Maria is shy, lacks the ability to read social cues, and often seems emotionless to the workers at the facility, who make halfhearted attempts to connect with her. The factory’s CFO, Endre (Géza Morcsányi, a playwright in his first film role), is also shy and awkward, a well-meaning man who has lost the use of his left arm and keeps most of his colleagues at arm’s length. We realize before they do that the two of them are sharing the same dreams night after night, where each is a deer in a snowy forest, a fact that only becomes apparent to them when a theft at the factory leads to psychiatric interviews with all of the possible culprits. The discovery changes both of them, driving Maria to try to figure out how to relate to another person, while Endre rediscovers the sense of empathy he seems to have lost through years of disappointment.

Director/writer Ildikó Enyedi is unafraid to jar the audience with images of cattle being chained, killed, and bled, although many of these images have parallels to the strange journey of Maria and Endre, especially Maria. She has many aspects of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome or who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, although her condition is never named; these facets of her personality include extreme organization and cleanliness, which makes her perfect for her job … as long as she doesn’t have to interact with other people. Borbély, who had some TV experience and just three or four previous film roles, is marvelous in every way in this role, giving Maria both the affect-less expressions and intonations of a person who can’t read social cues or sense emotions in others, as well as the innocence, trepidation, and wonder of a child seeing or experiencing things for the first time. The role requires her to walk a tight rope to avoid Rain Man-like caricature without giving Maria too much emotion or sensibility, as if a relationship could ‘cure’ her. Even when the story hits its dramatic climax near the end, Borbély does not veer outside the character’s boundaries, reacting at one point in a matter-of-fact way to something awful that it became a darkly humorous moment instead.

Enyedi’s script offers a meditation on loneliness, especially for people who were, perhaps, not made for this world, like Maria, or who have grown tired of its letdowns, like Endre. Even with this utterly improbable link between them, the two find it difficult to communicate with or understand each other, and that disconnect threatens to leave them lonelier than they were before they discovered their shared experience. The script does lose steam a little in the final quarter of the film, because the setup is so strong – two people with no apparent connection are simultaneously dreaming the same dream, in an otherwise rational world where such a thing should be impossible. Resolving that story in an interesting way, other than simply having Maria fall into Endre’s arms, is difficult, and Enyedi gets it about halfway right. The big twist is also a bit predictable, and yet honest at the same time, because one character’s reaction to pull away from the other is understandable in the context of the film. I thought this would end up happening, but I also couldn’t tell you a more realistic resolution, either.

On Body and Soul won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival, as did Spirited Away, A Separation, and the 2016 documentary Fire at Sea; like A Separation, it also took the Grand prize at the Sydney Film Festival, so in theory it should have a reasonable chance at the Oscar. Instead, the betting site GoldDerby gives it the worst odds of the five nominees, with A Fantastic Woman considered the favorite – although neither that nor Loveless has played anywhere but New York or Los Angeles so far. Having seen four of the five Best Actress nominees, however, I will say Borbély more than deserved a nomination – it’s not unheard of, with Isabelle Huppert getting a nod for the French-language film Elle just last year – and I’d vote for her over both Meryl Streep and Saoirse Ronan.

Fire at Sea.

Fire at Sea is about as far from a typical documentary as you can get; it feels for much of its two hours like you’re watching something unpackaged, an actual slice of life (and death) that hasn’t been cleaned up and edited for maximum impact. The film, which just hit iTunes two days ago, has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and became the first feature-length documentary to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, all the more remarkable to me for how peculiar a film it is. It’s available now on iTunes, but not yet on amazon.

Director Gianfranco Rosi wanted to show the real impacts of the migrant crisis, including the massive losses of life among those attempting to cross the Mediterranean in substandard boats, often after the refugees have paid hundreds or even over a thousand dollars for passage. They come from all over Africa, but they’re all fleeing war and/or extreme poverty, from failed states like Somalia and Libya, Islamist-held northern Nigeria, war-torn Syria, or just countries kept poor by repressive regimes in Chad and Eritrea. Rosi shows the boats arriving on the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost part of Italy, about 200 km south of Sicily and closer to Tunisia than to any other country. With a population of just over 6000 people, Lampedusa has been overwhelmed by the inflow of migrants, and over 1500 migrants died at sea just in the first four months of 2015, part of the period where Rosi shot this film.

There are three intertwined narratives in Fire at Sea, but I found one of them never quite connected with the other two. The first involves the ships themselves – the Lampedusan and Italian authorities’ responses to distress calls from ships, efforts to bring them in safely, and their organized processing of migrants when the ships come into port. (Forgive my surprise, but as someone who’s ¾ Italian with quite a bit of family still there, I can say organization is not something for which Italians are known.) One ship, with 150 or so people on it, never arrives. Others arrive with some migrants dehydrated, burned, beaten, or dead, having traveled for a week in inhumane conditions. Rosi does nothing more than show their misery, to put faces to the statistics, and even show a few moments in the migrant camps, like what appears to be an impromptu soccer league organized by country of origin.

The second involves the main doctor who helps in the rescue efforts, and who speaks of the human tragedy he witnesses. He describes the conditions in the boats, the way that one boy is near death because of chemical burns, the corpses he has to count. It’s clear the job is taking an emotional toll on him as well, but he views helping the migrants as a moral obligation. But that third narrative, of a local family, a fisherman, his wife, and their misbehaving, obnoxious son, who is obsessed with making slingshots and slurps his spaghetti when he eats – seriously, I had to mute that scene – never tied into the rest of the story. Lampedusa is a small place, so it made sense to try to show us the migrant crisis through the eyes of the locals, like the doctor, but I never could figure out how the fisherman and his son or the radio station taking requests from older spouses tied into the bigger story. Rosi told NPR that he wanted to show the separation of the local population from the migrants and the operation that processes them, but I thought the result was just disjointed, and the kid is so unlikable that it detracted from the rest of the movie. (One exception: when he’s describing being short of breath to the doctor, there’s some unintentional comedy, because he’s clearly mimicking adults in words and gestures.)

The good stuff in Fire at Sea is Oscar-worthy – it’s an important topic, and one that provokes anger, xenophobia, and compassion in different people, but Rosi stays out of the way of the story. There’s no narration. There’s minimal conversation, period. You’re a witness to sordid history, which is something every documentarian should aspire to give the viewer. And I found it hard to see the migrants or hear them talk without imagining how awful the places they left must be that they would cross the Sahara, pay their life savings, and accept being packed into a tiny boat like anchovies in a tin just for the shot at something better in Europe – if they don’t die trying. That’s the real story of Fire at Sea and I would have been glad to have more of it.

I don’t think I’ll get the fifth Best Documentary Feature nominee, I Am Not Your Negro, before the Oscar ceremony, but of the four I have seen, I think ESPN’s own O.J.: Made in America is clearly the best, even if I discount it a little for being almost four times longer than the other nominees. It tells its story better than the other three told theirs, which is more important to me than the broader scope it achieves through its length.

A Separation.

My notes on Yu Darvish, Zack Greinke, C.J. Wilson, and Brandon Belt are up, as is a short piece on Baltimore promoting Dylan Bundy. I also chatted on Wednesday.

The Iranian film A Separation won universal acclaim from critics on its release last winter, landing the top spot on Roger Ebert’s list of his favorite films of 2011, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and prompting Will Leitch to harass me to see the film. (He’s since moved on to taunting me about Trouble With the Curve.) I did finally see it this week and it is among the best movies I have ever seen, and had it been filmed in English it would have been a lock for a Best Picture nomination – and should have gotten one anyway.

The separation of the title refers to the dissolution of the marriage between Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (the beautiful Leila Hatami), a schism spawned by Simin’s desire to leave Iran permanently and raise their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) in another country, while Nader refuses to leave his ailing father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and is rapidly fading. The film opens with Nader and Simin arguing in front of a judge who refuses to grant her petition for divorce, because Nader doesn’t consent and she lacks sufficient grounds. Simin moves out, so Nader hires a woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat, frumped up to appear less attractive), from a lower economic stratum to take care of his father during the day. Razieh struggles with the job, leading to an accident that draws her, her volatile husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), Nader, and Simin into a legal battle that threatens to tear both of their families apart.

The power of writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s script, which was nominated for Best Original Screenplay but lost to something written in English, is in its simple, unsparing realism. At several points the film seems to move as if in real-time, with painfully rendered arguments between Nader and Simin, Nader and Razieh, Hodjat and pretty much everyone in sight, and eventually Termeh, who naturally finds herself caught between the warring sides. The drama is organic, growing inevitably about of a few small misunderstandings, many of which are never cleared up (as they might not be in real life), each of which adds exponentially to the misery of the people involved.

This degree of attention to the mundane aspects of the conflict allows Farhadi to populate the film with small, intense details that punctuate the pervasive despair of the central characters. Nader doesn’t want to leave his father, who doesn’t recognize his own son but asks several times for his daughter-in-law, and feels her absence more than he would Nader’s. Hodjat’s fury is driven by his own unemployment and lingering resentment over the injustice done to him by his former employers. Nader tries to comfort Razieh and Hodjat’s young daughter, Somayeh, played by a first-time actress, Kimia Hosseini, who probably should have won the Academy Award for Best Eyes. And the final plot point hinges on something so small and so brilliant that a simple request unravels the entire resolution, leading to a final scene that may just rip your heart out for good, assuming you still had it after the first 110 minutes.

Truth, or the futile search for it, lies at the heart of A Separation, as every crime or offense that takes place in the film leaves room for doubt about culpability or even whether a crime was committed, with unreliable witnesses and dubious motives shading nearly every character’s words and actions. With the truth thus obscured, Farhadi gives us terrific portrayals of human responses to this uncertainty – usually interpreting events to fit their predetermined notions. The five principal actors are all superb in roles that demand that they show a broad range of emotions and convince the viewers that there is real empathy underlying much of the suspicion and the senses of betrayal.

It’s a small miracle that Farhadi was even allowed to make a film that is far from subtle in its criticism of life under an autocratic government in Iran. The oppressed status of women is central to the plot, in Simin’s inability to unilaterally leave her husband, in her (never fully elucidated) reasons for wanting to raise Termeh somewhere else, and in Razieh’s difficulties in finding and holding a job. The absurdity of the justice system and the stark differences between economic classes – especially Hodjat’s fear that he will be and Razieh will be treated unfairly by the authorities – also play significant roles in the story, and the overall picture painted of Iranian society is quite unflattering.

A Separation blows away most of the other 2011 films I’ve seen; of the four Best Picture nominees I’ve seen, only The Descendants comes close, yet a head-to-head comparison makes the Clooney vehicle seem ham-handed and superficial. I don’t know if A Separation was the best movie to come out in 2011 – I still haven’t seen Shame, for example – but it is the best I’ve seen from that year by far, and the presence of subtitles shouldn’t deter anyone from watching such a precise, heart-wrenching work of art.

If you’ve seen A Separation already, check out Children Of Heaven, another Iranian film that shares this film’s subtle approach and deep empathy for its main characters.