Three Films from Around the World

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SON OF SAUL (Saul Fia, Hungary)

This winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar has just come out in our cinemas here. A little late, but never too late. The first time I saw this film, seeing its unusual style, my first thought was, “Please don’t let the entire film be like this!” But it is.

It is shot very closely to the main character Saul Ausländer, the camera never leaving him even an inch. It will make you wonder why – why most things in the background are blurry, why everyone speaks in whispers, why Saul looks confused all the time. It is only somewhere at midpoint that you begin to understand.

And this is an important juncture in your journey towards knowing the character of Saul, which is why I don’t understand why most, if not all, reviews and synopses give away this very essential piece of information.

Son of Saul is about a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando work units at the Auschwitz death camps who is tasked with the disposing of bodies. It is grim work, but Saul seems unperturbed, because he has only one thing on his mind – to find a rabbi to perform last rites so that his son can have a proper burial. In an overwhelming environment of death at a Nazi camp, where the deceased is indistinguishable from one another and treated like dead cattle, Saul’s one simple goal seems to be his way of holding on to the last shred of human decency left in his life. But there is more to it than apparent, when it is revealed who Saul’s son really is. Or isn’t.

The camera, so closely following Saul, becomes our window into his psyche. And when the final scene comes around, it is a harrowing, devastating finale revealing just how really damaged Saul is by all the atrocities and desecration around him. It’s simply unforgettable.

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EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (El Abrazo de la Serpiente, Colombia)

I’d heard of this film for a while before finally coming round to watching it. It’s coming to Astro A List soon. It surprised me because I didn’t expect an accessible adventure film.

Shot in beautiful black-and-white, the film and its story are like Joseph Conrad-meets-Werner Herzog. The journey of its characters, two historically real (anthropologists Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes) and one fictional (the indigenous shaman Karamakate), is somewhat of a journey into the heart of darkness. Two parallel stories are told, about 40 years apart, but both are journeys down the Amazon river in search of a healing plant. The effects of colonisation are witnessed by the characters on their arduous voyage, meeting cruel missionaries and insane, self-proclaimed prophets, while the heavy sense of greed and loss is felt throughout, when they encounter a local tribe with, at first, a celebratory air, then a quiet menace as the tribespeople covet their belongings.

The whole scenario of an indigenous person trying to impart knowledge of the mystical power of the land to a white man may seem painfully cliched and contrived to some, but the film is intriguing and engaging enough to overcome the weight of its own obvious machinations. The idea of a tribesperson, who is the last of his kind, looking for a plant that is also the last of its kind has its own romantic appeal, but set against the heavy burden of history and colonialism, becomes a signpost marking the turning point when everyone lost something in the avarice of so-called progress.

And if you’re wondering why the film is in black-and-white, a scene at the end will provide the answer.

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THEEB (Jordan)

It took me a while to catch up with this film. It’s hard to believe that this is a debut feature film, as the actors are non-professionals from the Bedouin community, yet they pull off the demanding task effectively.

Channeling Lawrence of Arabia, this so-called “Jordanian western” (guns, bandits and horses!) takes place during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. A young boy named Theeb and his older brother act as guides for a British officer who has to travel along the pilgrims’ path to a Roman well in the punishing Wadi Rum desert. Along the way, they encounter mercenaries, and Theeb ends up having to fend for himself in the desert environment and forges an unlikely alliance by convenience with a mercenary who had attacked them.

It’s an exciting, suspenseful thriller with a lot of tense moments. Although director Naji Abu Nowar has denied that there’s anything political in his film, it’s difficult not to draw conclusions about the film’s ending and connect the various elements to discern the swift undercurrents about Arab relations and the constant upheavals in the Middle East that continue till today.

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