Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite made history at the 2020 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! ****
During this series, it’s been interesting to discover thematic relationships between the Best Picture and its contemporary Best Foreign-Language film — there was the theme of forbidden love in The Shape of Water versus A Fantastic Woman, two different explorations of systemic abuse in Spotlight versus Son of Saul, and a stark contrast between pop-culture and art in Birdman versus Ida.
I have yet to glean a single shred of common ground between 12 Years A Slave and The Great Beauty — the former, a harrowing depiction of the pre-civil-war American slave trade; the latter, a bizarre character study of a pretentious and wealthy socialite in modern Rome. It is the slave versus the socialite.
Might be a tricky one, this.
It wasn’t a strong year for Best Picture nominees, let’s be honest. American Hustle was underwhelming, The Wolf of Wall Street felt shallow and mean, and Philomena and Nebraska were arguably too small-scale. I liked Her a lot, and its tale of loneliness and tech-obsession certainly felt topical for our Apple-adoring times, but perhaps it was a little too leftfield for the Academy’s most prestigious award. And then there was Gravity, for which Alfonso Cuarón won best director — a gorgeous thrill-ride that gathered the most accolades, but ultimately had very little to say.
12 Years A Slave was a deserving winner, I’d say — though perhaps an obvious one considering it’s based on a true story, the remarkable tale of Solomon Northup’s capture and lengthy bondage. The film is not without its problems, however — but I’ll come to those shortly.
A song of Solomon
Based on a 19th century memoir, 12 Years A Slave depicts the kidnapping and enslavement of Solomon Northup, a black free man from New York. The original text — if you’re interested — is available for download on Project Gutenberg, and will give you an immediate insight into the narrator’s humility:
“Having been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State — and having at the end of that time been kidnapped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years — it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.”
Coincidentally, that’s my review for the film: Not uninteresting.
Solomon is kidnapped by two men purportedly hiring musicians for their travelling circus; they get Solomon black-out drunk, and by the time he wakes, he is in chains and is being “broken in” with a beating by slave traders, who will sell him in the south. Solomon endures varying hardships at the hands of several masters, ranging from Benedict Cumberbatch’s “decent man” Ford to Michael Fassbender’s abusive and psychotic “nigger breaker” Edwin Epps.
That benevolent fair-handedness echoes the book’s uncomfortable message that “not all slave owners were bastards” (I’m obviously paraphrasing).
It’s interesting that the editor of the original memoir sought to declare the book’s independence from the slavery argument — “unbiased by any prepossessions or prejudices” — and assert that its sole intention is to accurately “give a faithful history” of Solomon’s experiences. But that was back in 1853, almost a decade before the slavery argument descended into civil war. It feels rather less of a contentious issue in the 21st century to say all slavers were bastards (even if that includes many of the revered founding fathers).
But Northup says in his memoir:
“It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.”
The film’s director, Steve McQueen, emphatically concurs with that boundless compassion, expressing in an interview with Vulture that, besides the slave girl Patsey, he has the most sympathy for her rapist slaver Epps, whose forbidden love for Patsey inspires in him the most brutal cruelty: “Epps is a human being. And, as much as we want to think of him as a monster, as a devil, he’s not.”
I suppose reality is much more complex, and centrism can be an uncomfortable act of empathy for those we would prefer to hold in disdain. But McQueen’s intention is clear, to depict the reality and not to judge, and allow the audience to come to their own conclusion — just as Northup did in his memoir. Thankfully, there’s Eliza there to reflect what most of us are thinking when Solomon says of Cumberbatch’s character “Mister Ford is a decent man” — she replies with venom: “He is a slaver!”
The film is relentlessly bleak and cruel, as you might expect considering the subject, and for the most part is thoroughly devoid of hope. It’s a gruelling watch, not least for the piteous fate of Lupita Nyong’o’s character Patsey, who suffers rapes, beatings and humiliation, and who is abandoned at the end when Solomon is granted his freedom.
That moment encapsulates the film’s evocations: It is a moment of joy and despair in equal measure, of hope and hopelessness. The film depicts a system that is in no danger of being overthrown and in which cruelty is as commonplace as profit — it is the reality, and delivering one victim from its grasp does absolutely nothing for those left behind.
We feel the same thing when Solomon is left to dangle by his neck from a tree on tip-toes, while the rest of the slaves in the background continue to go about their day, unable or unwilling to help; or as Solomon witnesses a lynching and has no power to intervene. The film is thus devoid of hope because its antagonist is not a specific person, but an insurmountable system.
12 Years a Slave also has an element of the “white saviour” to it, which I think is exacerbated by the casting of the film’s producer, Brad Pitt, in the role of a Canadian labourer who agrees to carry Solomon’s plea for freedom. It feels a bit schmaltzy to have this Hollywood superstar have a cameo appearance in the last act of the film to admonish his slave-owning peers and liberate the protagonist — neatly illustrated by the unauthorised Italian movie posters that featured Pitt more prominently than the lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor.
However, casting aside, the dialogue in the film is lifted almost entirely from the memoir itself, so Pitt’s reflections on the right of one man to own another, regardless of skin colour, is at least an authentic perspective of the time.
Speaking of the performances, they are wrought with energy and passion, especially Ejiofor in the lead alongside Nyong’o’s suicidal Patsey, but Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano are also exceptional at being thoroughly hateful little bastards.
A white man’s tale
It was hard not to judge the corresponding Best Foreign-Language film through this lens of class and race, so contrasting were the fates of its affluent, white characters from the lives of black slaves.
However, seeing as McQueen would have taken offence at the notion that any group of people are undeserving of empathy, I shall have to set that aside.
The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) is an Italian character study set in Rome about a wealthy author, Jep Gambardella, who hasn’t written any fiction in decades and divides his time between parties and art galleries. We meet Jep during his 65th birthday party, atop a rooftop in Rome, complete with professional dancers, DJs and a group of Mexican mariachis painfully contrasting with the thumping Euro-house music.
It takes a long time to establish who the main characters are, so long is the scene and generous is the director with his extras’ screen time; but when Jep does finally turn to face the camera, his charisma is matchless and we finally have a focal point. I mean, just look at that grin:
These are not people with whom I would like to party, though. The guests are either shallow (blanking someone to speak with a famous actor), pretentious (deriding the music for not being the more fashionable “Ethiopian jazz”), or lecherous (an old man being lude towards a woman half his age) — and there is a prevalence of those in middle-age. These are people who made it, and never moved on — partying every night, with delusions of grandeur, growing old disgracefully.
Oddly, in a film chiefly about creative stagnation — of reaching a plateau upon which you sit dormant — it is filmed with constant kinetic energy. The camera is perpetually moving, tracking up, down, through crowds, panning left or right — and it exaggerates this otherwise unfounded notion of forward momentum.
Stagnation, then — but also regret. When Jep is visited by the widower of his first and only love, Elisa, he contemplates at great length his loneliness, his absence of family, and that moment of youthful romance that led nowhere but to sorrowful memories. Meanwhile, he projects his own disappointment onto others, eviscerating his friend with admonishments of her character when she has the audacity to be proud of her work.
All roads lead to moan
It’s difficult to connect with these characters — even Jep, played with abundant charisma by Toni Servillo — not because of their elevated class, but because of their endless moping from penthouse suites, or their pretentious interest in befuddling high-concept art installations, or their shallow betrayal of friends and lovers.
It’s also richly photographed, to the point of distraction, and the oddity of the lifestyle reflects on the narrative, producing an often bemusing series of scenes that do not feel like they move the story forwards. Take the weird botox doctor, whose lavish office welcomes the rich and famous as though to their religous guru, with a queue counter and a chime not unlike the one heard when entering a 7/11. It is a scene that builds the world, but has no effect on the story.
That fug of confusion persits. One moment we are listening to the characters bemoan the consuming nature of Rome, the next a naked woman runs head first into a wall, in a performance presumably rich in symbolism for those who can glean such things. Even Jep — a renowned art critic — is none the wiser, and asks what it means. The response felt like it came directly from the director’s mouth: “I’m an artist. I don’t have to explain shit.”
Still, some of the cinematography admittedly dazzles, from the shot of Jep smoking — practically becoming the smoke — to the manner in which his awakening on a sofa is framed to resemble the sunrise over a beach. Breathtaking…
When in Rome
One reason the storytelling feels so muddled is the adoption of Rome as its most prominent actor. Rome is both an awe-inspiring wonder and a hollowing prison to its denizens, and the director ushers our gaze towards random moments featuring people with whom we have no connection — they are but Romans, doing Roman things. Indeed, the movie opens with a Japanese tourist photographing the cityscape when he is seemingly overcome with awe and collapses — it is an event to which we do not return. Rome, then, is the point: it is bitter-sweet, enchanting, a honey trap from which one cannot escape. And only after forty years in its embrace does Jep’s friend realise: “Rome has really disappointed me.”
I suppose that’s the link between these two films — both Jep and Solomon find themselves in a system they steadfastly endure, but from which they long to be free, and in the final act are successful in escaping; Solomon back to his family, and Jep to his creative muse.
Bit of a stretch, but it will have to do!
This result might have been very different if The Great Beauty had been pipped to the post by Danish nomination The Hunt — a masterful drama starring Mads Mikkelsen as a teaching assistant who is falsely accused of sexually abusing a child. The tension in that film simmers with each passing scene, and is a remarkable example of tight storytelling in a small setting that evokes maximum impact. You should watch it.
Alas, The Great Beauty triumphed, but I don’t think it does enough to trouble McQueen’s faithful rendition of Northup’s story. Though uncomfortable viewing 12 Years A Slave may be, it is a vital film, and as relevant today as it was in 2013.
So, Hollywood pulls away to make the series 4 – 2. Will the international film-making community close the gap next time, with French film Amour up against Affleck’s surprise winner Argo?
12 Years A Slave
The Great Beauty
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
- 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
- 2007: The Departed vs The Lives Of Others
- 2006: Crash vs Tsotsi
- 2005: Million Dollar Baby vs The Sea Inside
- 2004: The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King vs The Barbarian Invasions