Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite made history at this year’s Academy Awards, becoming the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture.
In this series, in reverse chronological order, I compare previous years’ Best Picture and Best International Feature to see how many other foreign-language films ought to have been given the top gong.
**** This article contains spoilers! ****
79th Academy Awards
The Departed versus The Lives Of Others
I defy you to find a Best Picture winner similar to The Departed. It stands alone as a plot-heavy cop movie, teeming with blockbuster bombast and clichéd characters. To come close, you’d have to go back to the 1970s just to find another winner about gangsters — back then, the Academy was in a phase of honouring mob movies, with the first two instalments of the Godfather series either side of 1973’s The Sting.
But Francis Ford Coppola’s Italian mob classics are a far cry from this much more conventional, low-brow cops-and-robbers caper. It’s more The Usual Suspects than The French Connection — more fun than philosophical — and is rather less devoted to character development than contrived plot coincidences and narrative duality.
Based on the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau, the story intertwines the lives of a gangster’s mole in the police department and an undercover police officer in the gangster’s inner circle. After a bust goes wrong, it becomes clear to both sides that they’ve been compromised, and the spies must find their opposite number before being uncovered themselves.
At the time, Scorsese was continuing his run of films starring Leonardo Di Caprio, after great success with Gangs of New York and The Aviator. Di Caprio plays stressed and squinting cop Billy Costigan, sent undercover to infiltrate Jack Nicholson’s Boston-based gang. Of course, no film based in Boston can be made without Matt Damon — he plays the opposite mole, Colin Sullivan.
Boys will be boys
The cast is extremely skewed towards men, with Hollywood heavyweights Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone and Mark Walhberg in supporting roles. With all these blokes bowling around, it’s no surprise a prominent theme in the film is toxic masculinity, featuring incessant alpha bants about fucking each other’s mothers, grabbing dicks, and sticking cocks in each other’s mouths, like proper heterosexual men.
It all becomes increasingly tiresome, though, and only briefly (and inadequately) addresses actual psychological symptoms of this masochistic machismo, when Sullivan’s girlfriend tries to talk to him about his erectile dysfunction (while subtly holding the shaft of a peeled banana — nice; I’m surprised there’s no swanny-whistle).
With all this testosterone spunked over every scene, one feels sorry for the “love” interest, Madolyn, played by Vera Farmiga. Madolyn is a police counsellor who begins a relationship with Sullivan, but is simultaneously treating Costigan, with whom she has a brief affair. It’s hard to fathom what she sees in Costigan — as far as she’s concerned, he’s an angry, abusive ex-con, liable to violent assault and generally unpleasant to be around.
Mama’s baby, Papa’s maybe
Confusingly, their fling precedes Madolyn’s announcement to Sullivan of a pregnancy. Considering we are previously presented with Sullivan’s sexual inadequacy, are we meant to wonder: ‘who is the father?’ Why then is he so happy that his girlfriend is mysteriously up the duff? And why does she reveal the pregnancy to him using a scan of the baby — one that she claims can identify the sex? That would mean she’s three months in, and had kept it a secret from Sullivan while giving up wine, shellfish and hot baths. He’s not much of a detective, is he?
Don’t think too much! The film demands further entanglement, no matter how ludicrous the coincidence might seem. Unfortunately, the net result sees the only prominent female character being reduced to little more than a convenient story node.
Besides relegating women to bit parts, the rampant male chauvinism also informs several insufferable performances from its cast — Leo does his best, but his best remains a shouty, whiny, unrelatable mess; Mark Wahlberg channels his inner scowling Marky Mark to tell everyone they’re mother-fuckers (a performance for which Wahlberg was bafflingly nominated for best supporting actor); and Jack Nicholson hadn’t hammed it up this much since playing the Joker in 1989. Meanwhile, Alec Baldwin plays police captain Ellerby like a “cool” substitute teacher you had at school who wanted to be “down with the kids”, cracking jokes and being mildly vulgar for cheap laughs.
It’s not awful across the board. Martin Sheen does an OK job as Cop Dad, and Ray Winstone is suitably menacing as Nicholson’s right-hand man French. But probably the finest performance is from Damon, who has fewer cock jokes than everyone else, and is given the chance to add some subtlety to the character — something Di Caprio is woefully short on here.
It’s not a hopelessly shallow film, to be fair. There’s a preoccupation throughout with the Catholic church: the title is derived from a prayer (“Heaven holds the faithful departed”); the theme of guilt is ever-present; and there are several references to systemic child abuse among Catholic priests, a scandal that was brought to light a few years earlier by Spotlight journalists. However, the convoluted plot of the film monopolises your attention, and all the rest is colour.
Settle the Scorsese
If it weren’t for the apparent widespread acclaim for the film, I would have assumed the Academy voted for The Departed as a corrective to those previous years in which its director, Martin Scorsese, had a film nominated for Best Picture that didn’t win. Indeed, Scorsese had endured an astonishing series of snubs — and of films that are now considered some of the finest American movies ever made: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Place those films next to the ones that beat them to Best Picture — Rocky, Ordinary People and Dances With Wolves — and you start to wonder what voters had against him.
However, it is much harder to comprehend the film’s editing accolade. There are frequent cuts that chop and change too swiftly, or where speech from one take continues over another in which the speaker’s mouth is visibly moving out of sync. The editor, Scorsese’s filmmaking partner of fifty years Thelma Schoonmaker, also dabbles with abrupt music cuts when someone shouts, or answers a phone — the overuse of which I found inordinately annoying. Meanwhile, from a broader perspective, the passing of time is difficult to comprehend, and points of narrative are rendered bemusing by their order (like the question of the dubious pregnancy). Schoonmaker is a celebrated master of film editing, I freely admit, so I don’t know what the hell was going on here.
It’s also quite comical how the scenes from the 80s have to bend light away from Jack Nicholson’s face, so that he’s perpetually in the dark, even when standing outside with the sun on his face in one shot, only to be in shadow for his close-up. We were a long way from Scorsese’s de-aging dream technology used in 2019’s The Irishman.
I am bemused by the reviews The Departed received. Though not garnering universal acclaim, many prominent critics pronounced it the best film of the year, and one called it a “masterpiece”. I dispute that claim.
The funny thing about toxic masculinity, though, is that I — a man — suffer a subconscious twinge of shame for preferring fellow 2007 Best Picture nominee Little Miss Sunshine to this violent homage to the obscene.
Up against this hot mess is German film The Lives Of Others, a tense examination of life in the German Democratic Republic during the 1980s. Under the socialist regime, state officials use the secret police (the Stasi) to spy on enemies of Communism, reporting any infringements of political thought, and imprisoning dissidents without trial.
A Stasi captain, Wiesler, is asked to spy on a prominent playwright, Dreyman, despite the author’s professed Communist beliefs and artistic renown. Something is fishy, says Minister of Culture Hempf, who orders the surveillance — but Hempf’s motivation is not the glory of the republic; he covets Dreyman’s girlfriend, Chirsta, a popular stage actress.
Wiesler and his team bug Dreyman’s apartment, and he soon discovers the playwright is distraught over the suicide of his friend, Jerska, a black-listed director who can never work again while the GDR regime is in place. To honour his friend, Dreyman is inspired to write a story for a West German magazine about how suicide in East Germany has gone completely unreported since the 1970s, and is depressingly commonplace.
The Stasi captain spends his evenings listening to the artistic couple’s conversations, and becomes increasingly obsessed with them, with their politics, their love for each other, and their passion for the arts. When Wiesler realises the mission is based on a corrupt official using his authority to sexually abuse a woman, the spy tries to subtly intervene.
It’s remarkable how the theme of secrecy is woven into every thread of the film. You’ve got the secret police, within which Weisler keeps secrets from his superior; the rape that Christa keeps from Dreyman; the writer’s wish to reveal the GDR’s secrets to the west, to release the truth; the Stasi bullying Dreyman’s nosey neighbour into keeping their visit to his apartment a secret; and Dreyman asking that same neighbour to help with his tie behind Christa’s back, so his girlfriend doesn’t know he isn’t capable of tying it. Can the neighbour keep a secret, Dreyman asks. “Of course” is the reply, laced with dramatic irony.
There’s also this wonderful dichotomy between culture and propaganda. The two strands are constantly at loggerheads, and Dreyman is uniquely untouchable because he is one of the few genuine talents to tow the government line. His friends — most notably his stage-directing friend Jerska — are either ruined by the party for unacceptable behaviour, or clandestinely strive to overthrow the regime. And in perfect Orwellian doublespeak, Hempf describes the Ministry of Culture as the party’s “sword and shield”, while perpetually undermining the voices of free-thinking artists in the republic.
Art struggling to breathe under the boot of Soviet Communism is poignantly summarised by Hempf congratulating Dreyman on a play and saying, “Writers are the engineers of the soul” — a favourite quote, it turns out, of mass-murdering shithead Joseph Stalin.
The character of Hempf is one of the most vile in cinema — he rapes women, abuses his power for personal lecherous gain, and permeates paranoia through his insistence that even loyal comrades are surveilled — and to compound those horrors, he remains completely unrepentant when the Berlin Wall falls and the GDR is liquidated. Was he a zealot for the cause, or just a despicable abuser? Either way, he endures no comeuppuance. It’s frustrating from a narrative perspective — we often expect villains not to prosper (and it’s even legislated against in Chinese films) — but it’s also reflective of the fact that most retrospective prosecutions of Stasi agents and GDR officials fell apart in the courts.
As our protagonist is a Stasi agent, the film presents the machinations of that profession in an unusually humanistic light. The film begins with members of the secret police interrogating a prisoner, but we cut to a lecture hall, in which prospective Stasi agents are listening to a recording of the interrogation. It’s a scene quite unlike any I’ve seen in a film — a stale education environment in which students ruminate over the most reliable (and potentially torturous) methods of information extraction. Quite chilling, even if one of the students professes his disgust.
Forgive and forget
Speaking of this humanistic approach, criticism in Germany of the film was concentrated primarily on the character of Weisler, who is shown to be somewhat redeemed (and far from punished), despite having enthusiastically participated in the GDR’s climate of fear and oppression. His small acts of resistance certainly don’t weigh greatly on the scales of redemption; in fact, his interventions to save Dreyman inadvertently harm Christa. Nevertheless, he is rewarded with the dedication of Dreyman’s book years after the Berlin Wall falls.
Weisler is certainly presented in a sympathetic light. His loneliness, for instance, is apparent after a brief sexual encounter with a prostitute: he asks her to hang around for some company, but she declines in order to attend her next appointment. He is alone, ashamed of his work, and largely powerless to act in a system that identifies scepticism and punishes it vigorously.
All in all, it’s an excellent film, if not perfect. I found some of the dialogue between the lovers a bit melodramatic — a bit too poetic — and the tension in the film, while heightened, falls short of making your hair stand on end.
It also had one unintentional laugh (for me): when the Stasi search Dreyman’s apartment for a hidden typewriter, they leave disappointed, but they return when they extract information on its whereabouts. That second search reminded me of Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian, when the Romans repeatedly search the hideout of the Judean People’s Front, with hilarious ineptitude: “We found this spoon, sir”.
I expect you know to which film I’m going to give the victory. I’ve rarely been this scathing about one of the winners before — Argo, maybe? Green Book, sure — so you’d be right. The Lives of Others is a worthy winner.
I sort of enjoyed The Departed — it’s popcorn chow, after all — but I also found it consistently annoying, like fingernails on a blackboard. For two hours. Sorry Scorsese, you may have a Best Picture Oscar, but I’m afraid you’ll likely never have an International Oscar Showdown triumph.
Big things happening for the international filmmakers in this decade. They take the lead to 6–8. Will South African drama Tsotsi do enough to beat Crash, one of the most derided Best Picture winners in Academy Award history?
Find out next time!
The Lives Of Others
Also in this series
- 2019: Green Book vs Roma
- 2018: The Shape of Water vs A Fantastic Woman
- 2017: Moonlight vs The Salesman
- 2016: Spotlight vs Son of Saul
- 2015: Birdman vs Ida
- 2014: 12 Years A Slave vs The Great Beauty
- 2013: Argo vs Amour
- 2012: The Artist vs A Separation
- 2011: The King’s Speech vs In A Better World
- 2010: The Hurt Locker vs The Secret In Their Eyes
- 2009: Slumdog Millionaire vs Departures
- 2008: No Country For Old Men vs The Counterfeiters