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! ****
The Oscars witnessed the biggest cock-up in its history in 2017, when the award for Best Picture was mistakenly given to La La Land — the impending losers had made it up to the stage and were giving their acceptance speeches when stage managers informed members of the cast there had been a mistake. The farce only ended when La La Land’s producer, Jordan Horowitz, declared the real winners — with considerable humility it must be said — were in fact the makers of Moonlight.
Oddly, it was widely anticipated that La La Land would clean up, being a self-congratulatory back-patting movie about the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and putting art before love, but it was the film about growing up black and gay in Miami that ultimately won the Academy over.
It’s not hard to understand why; the film is magnificently shot, from the piercing close-ups and circling steady-cams to the vibrancy of its sun-baked locations. And the performances are staggering across the board.
Told in three chapters that chronicle the coming of age of a black boy growing up in poverty, Moonlight is a study of repressed sexuality, rampant homophobia and performative identity.
Chiron is bullied at school for acting differently, and finds no solace at home, where his mother’s moods can swing between affection and meth-addled frenzy. Naomie Harris gives arguably the best performance of her film career here, transitioning from desperate fragility to menacing ferocity in the blink of an eye.
Chiron is taken in by Mahershala Ali’s golden-hearted drug dealer Juan and his girlfriend Teresa, played with comforting charm by Janelle Monáe. The young boy is thereby introduced to the emotional dichotomy of being cared for by loving surrogate parents who simultaneously make their money from selling the very drugs that are destroying his mother’s mind.
The three actors chosen to play Chiron as boy (Alex Hibbert), teen (Ashton Sanders) and man (Trevante Rhodes) are perfectly cast, as can be ascertained from one of the most striking film posters the Oscars has ever seen. It takes a closer look to notice there are three separate faces in the image, constituting Chiron’s three narrative epochs. In the film, each actor adroitly exhibits the character’s shy persona, and his persistent earth-shattering fear of being exposed.
There’s not much respite for poor Chiron, who lives a loveless life of emotional abuse, internment and crime, but perhaps we can infer something of a brighter future from the ending.
Movies about LGBT people have enjoyed greater recognition over the last decade, with films like Call Me By Your Name, A Fantastic Woman and the musical biopics Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman all receiving recent accolades. The Academy has certainly progressed since 1985, when the first award was given to an actor playing a gay character (William Hurt won best actor for his role as a gay prison inmate in Kiss of the Spider Woman). Moonlight takes its place among the best of them.
With Hollywood still reeling from the election of Donald Trump mere months prior to the 89th Academy Awards, many believed the 2017 Oscar winners were chosen politically. In the shadow of Trump’s travel ban from Muslim-majority countries, Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar (for Best Supporting Actor in Moonlight), while Best Documentary went to The White Helmets, about the eponymous Syrian civil defence volunteers. Furthermore, Best Foreign-Language Feature went to Iranian production The Salesman, whose director, Asghar Farhadi, boycotted the awards in disgust that his country was one of those included in the ban.
But to say Hollywood awarded The Salesman an Oscar merely as a rebuke to Trump does it a mighty disservice. It’s a powerful tale of masculine frustration, undermined revenge and societal insouciance that exposes Iran’s conservative culture while examining its relationship with American art.
A middle-class couple, Emad and Rana, are forced from their home when nearby construction work damages the foundations of their apartment block, and the entire building is hurriedly evacuated.
At short notice, they manage to secure a recently vacated apartment in which to live temporarily, but the previous tenant’s disreputable history (prudishly never referred to as prostitution but otherwise heavily implied) leads to a frightening assault on Rana as she showers.
Rana, played by Taraneh Alidoosti, cannot be convinced to report the incident to police, too aware she’ll be blamed for mistakenly letting the intruder into her home, so Emad attempts to hunt down the perpetrator and exact the most heinous revenge upon them that he can conceivably and legally inflict — namely: familial shame. This is not the blockbuster hero of American thrillers, kicking down doors and beating the shit out of someone, but the very real domestic dilemma of a frustratingly empathetic man — played with sympathetic conviction by Shahab Hosseini.
Play within a play
Without much subtlety, schoolteacher Emad also has the lead role in a Persian translation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Indeed, poor Emad is rather typecast, portraying the same impotent frustration as Willy, the disaffected salesman, as he suffers off stage, struggling to come to terms with his wife’s apparent rape and his own inability to ameliorate her suffering. This leads to the tragic denouement of a muddled revenge — undermined by the surprise frailty of the rapist — and Rana’s insistence that Emad forgives her attacker.
The frenzied opening scene of the evacuation is the film’s only moment of heightened tempo, but the moments leading up to the assault are so coated with dramatic irony it feels like a gripping nail-biter. We know precisely the danger Rana is in when she unlocks the door of the apartment and leaves it unattended to slowly drift open with lingering menace. We know she has not buzzed in her husband, who we see still buying groceries. The ensuing mystery of who was Rana’s assailant is shrouded by her lack of recollection, which we are never sure is genuine or a result of misplaced shame.
The film is shot with impressive competence, punctuated by the odd artistic flourish, and the performances are convincing and evocative. I found it a little slow in the middle, but it is a film about neutered rage, so perhaps that’s to be expected.
I also enjoyed the rehearsal scenes, both in the conservative farce of having a woman purportedly naked in the play portrayed by an actress in a raincoat; and the moments in the wings, where conversations are held while anticipating cues. Meanwhile, the final shot of the emotionally exhausted couple being aged with makeup might be a little on the nose, but it still left a lasting impression of what the film hoped to convey.
There’s a lot going for both these movies, so it’s hard to pick a winner. On the one hand, The Salesman is potentially more interesting with its undercurrent of socially conservative victim-blaming. On the other, Moonlight is a more visually arresting piece of work; the last shot alone — of Chiron as a boy, bathed in moonlight, his skin glowing blue — is a poignant and beautiful image.
I also found The Salesman a little hard work in the middle; it’s a bit like Hamlet in its inactive thinking-man’s revenge, and suffers slightly from its sullen tone and pedestrian pace.
So I’m giving this one to Moonlight, which makes the tally 2–1 to Hollywood.
Next week it’s journalistic drama Spotlight versus Hungarian concentration-camp tear-jerker Son of Saul. Follow to find out if the International movie community can draw one back on the Anglosphere!
Also in this series
- 2019: Green Book vs Roma
- 2018: The Shape of Water vs A Fantastic Woman
- 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
- 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
- 2003: Chicago vs Nowhere In Africa
- 2002: A Beautiful Mind vs No Man’s Land