When distributors form a crowd begging attention for umpteen individual films during the year-end season of “best” lists and awards, many of those films can’t be shoehorned into the annum’s final weeks, which is invariably cluttered with such releases. So they do the bare minimum to qualify for the expiring year’s honors, while holding off on a wider release until after the holidays pass—sometimes well after. Thus tree new movies by well-established foreign directors are opening this week, though they’re all in contention for 2021 awards. (Two of them in a relatively high-profile way, France not so much.)
The best of the trio is this latest from leading Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. As usual for him, it’s a complex and engrossing tale of ethical-moral conflict in which there are no easy solutions. Though at first, Rahim’s (Amir Jadidi) situation seems simple enough: He has been granted a short leave from prison, his sentence a consequence of an ill-considered deal with a loan shark that wound up ending his marriage and sinking his in-laws into debt. He’s trying to orchestrate an early release, promising he’ll fully repay the money he still owes. The former father-in-law he left ruined (Mohsen Tanabandeh) seems motivated mostly by sour grapes when he grouses that Rahim has “been bullshitting people his whole life.”
Yet eventually we begin to suspect that damning judgment may be correct. Handsome, personable Rahim becomes an unexpected “inspirational human interest story” sensation when he apparently finds a woman’s purse with gold coins in it. Rather than use those contents to solve his own problems, he takes pains to return it. This classic “convict with heart of gold” tale gets him on TV, but also invites scrutiny, and soon it is noticed that some details don’t quite match up. Indeed, the more attention he draws, the more likely it seems that Rahim’s penchant for fibbing may drag him and his loved ones (now including a stuttering son, a married sister, and a woman he’s secretly involved with) into a mire of scandal yet again.
A Hero, which won the Grand Prize at Cannes last year, is suspenseful not in the typical way of a thriller, but in unease that gradually turns to dread as we grasp that this situation can only escalate in the worst way. Rahim’s intentions may (arguably) be good, but he is one of those people who cannot understand that it is always better not to lie at all, rather than having one lie necessitate another, then another and another. He is not an unsympathetic figure, but much of this finely crafted film’s drama lies in how we gradually go from rooting for him to regretting that we no longer can. Though perhaps not quite up there with Farhadi’s best, it’s still a strong rebound from the mixed rewards of his last (and first non-Iranian production), 2018’s Everybody Knows with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. A Hero opens Fri/7 at area theaters including the Embarcadero, Shattuck and Rafael; it begins streaming on Amazon Prime Jan. 21.
While her offscreen spouse Bardem is currently attracting awards consideration for Being the Ricardos and Spain’s Oscar submission feature The Good Boss (plus a role in Dune), Cruz is again starring for Pedro Almodóvar, that nation’s most famous living director. His 23rd feature comes on the heels of 2019’s Pain and Glory, arguably his deepest, most graceful, best-ever film. Mothers is not an extension of its melancholy self-examination, nor is it a return to the campier realm of his farces and hothouse melodramas. Instead, alas, it is Almodovar in my least favorite mode: As the man who crafts soap-operatic excuses for actresses like Cruz to weep at length.
She plays Janis, a Madrid commercial photographer (cue gratuitous montages of fashion shoots) whose affair with a married man (Israel Elejalde) runs its course, but leaves her pregnant. She decides to keep the child, and winds up befriending teenager Ana (Milena Smit) when they give birth in the same hospital on the same day. Their paths continue to cross, eventually entwining as intimately as possible—though of course it cannot work in the long run, because that would deprive the actresses of crying scenes.
Almodóvar tries to weave in larger themes, notably the nation’s lingering, greatest 20th-century wound: The toll of the Spanish Civil War and repressive Franco regime, with Janis involved in ongoing attempts to uncover political victims’ mass graves. But sincere as this element may be, it always seems extraneous to the contrived central “weepie” plot, which eventually hinges on one of the hokiest narrative devices imaginable (hint: “switched at birth”).
Mothers will be enjoyed by those who like the director and star in this telenovela mode. But compared to his ample better work, it is a long, sluggish, nonsensically glam fraud—a Joan Crawford movie too humorlessly tastefui even to allow any real diva hamming. It opens this Fri/7 at the Embarcadero, then begins expanding to other venues and cities the following week.
“Glam fraud” might be the job description for Léa Seydoux’s titular character in this latest by French director Bruno Dumont. Her France de Meurs is a celebrity TV journalist who hosts a chat show, is willing to provoke President Macron at a press conference, and even frequently wades into active war zones—though in each milieu she seems more interested in staging self-promoting dramatics than reporting the news or addressing real issues. She is a symptom of our times, the vain “star” masquerading as a neutral observer, her lines frequently fed by an omnipresent minder (Blanche Gardin). Even France’s private life, with a famous novelist husband (Benjamin Biolay) and neglected young son (Gaetan Amiel), feels like a prestigious role she plays sans conviction.
But when she accidentally rear-ends a motorcycle messenger while distracted in traffic, that incident somehow knocks her self-confident drive off balance. She grows atypically over-emotional, sensing the hollowness of her much-envied career. Finally forced to recoup at an elite spa (where she still can’t escape autograph hounds), she meets a fellow rest-cure patient (Emanuele Arioli) who seems to offer the simplicity, idealism, and love she didn’t know she was missing.
That plot development may or may not owe something to Jean Harlow vehicle Bombshell, the still razor-sharp Hollywood satire that incredibly will turn 90 next year. Only in that film, a near-identical twist is played for hilarious satire, while by this point in France, the film is taking itself more and more seriously. By the end, it’s rather unclear just what Dumont intends: Are we really meant to care about the redemption of this soulless-climber heroine? His script doesn’t quite have the depth to pull that off, and his energetic direction is much more incisive in its satirical mode earlier on. (He does, however, provide one whale of a car-accident sequence in the late going.)
Nonetheless, Seydoux lends her role impressive commitment. And if some of the commentary here may fly over the heads of viewers less-than-fully-immersed in current French politics and culture, the movie still has an intriguingly complex agenda. Not just in terms of themes and tones, but stylistically—for starters, there’s an original score by “Christophe” that sounds like someone’s demented cousin attempting to “do Radiohead.” Dumont remains an unpredictable, hit-and-miss director, but thank god he’s come a long way from the tortured pseudo-profundity of such early Cannes-embraced deadweights as La vie du Jesus and Humanite. Now his quirks are endearing even when they don’t quite hit target. France opens Fri/7 at the Opera Plaza and Rafael Film Center.