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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Global Glimpses: A Secret in their Eyes & The White Ribbon

Living in DC, I'm fortunate enough to take in the screenings of the foreign films at the National Geographic headquarters. This is the third year I've gone, and I caught two of the movies: The Secret in their Eyes (Argentina) and The White Ribbon (Germany).

The Secret in their Eyes

This Argentinian film is about Benjamin Esposito, a man writing a novel about a brutal rape and murder case that was closed 25 years earlier. Interspersed with the main story is the unrequited love between the man and his boss, Irene. The movie explores the meaning of justice and what it means in the corrupt Argentinian system of the time.

The movie was enjoyable to watch, but I expected a bit more from it. Rather than a complex story, it was basically a police procedural with a little added social commentary. Certain moments stretch the limits of plausibility, especially an interrogation scene. While the movie ends on a strong note, it gets there much too quickly, jumping around all kinds of plot points to get there. There is another reading of the film that makes it a bit more interesting, but I think the filmmakers could have done more with the ending. The lead actors in the film were all excellent, and there is an absolutely riveting tracking shot midway through the movie showing an exciting chase. Overall, an engaging and interesting movie, but not a great one.

Grade: B

The White Ribbon

Here's the great one. The White Ribbon is a story of a German town in 1913, told in stunning black-and-white, and telling a riveting and disturbing story. While the movie was fairly long, I wasn't bored the whole way through.

The movie concerns a set of violent acts that come upon this town. As the movie goes along, we get to know many of the citizens of the small town. Some, such as the young schoolteacher and the nanny to the baron, are full of youth and goodness. Others, particularly the doctor and pastor, are full of character flaws which infect the town.

Many of the main characters in this town are the children, and I've never seen a better group of child actors. Much of the point of the movie is how the behavior and values of the adults are transferred on to the children in this town. As I said, this movie takes place in 1913 in Germany, so travel 25 years into the future and imagine what place in history these children will take..... That said, I don't think director Michael Haneke is making a simplistic morality tale. He makes you think about what children take from their surroundings and when innocence ends. In typical Haneke fashion (he made the brilliant but ambiguous Cache in 2005), The White Ribbon does not end with easy resolution. As a great director and provocateur, he forces us to draw our own conclusions about many of the events of the film. In a traditional film, you get the answer and leave it at the movie theater door. In The White Ribbon, you are guaranteed to talk about it for long afterward. I'm a bit disappointed I already published my Top 10 list, because The White Ribbon would easily make the Top 5.

Grade: A

I'm really struggling with my thoughts on what will win the Foreign Language Oscar. In the past few years, many critically-acclaimed films that are slightly offbeat (Pan's Labyrinth, Waltz with Bashir) have been pushed aside for more traditional narratives. Will they recognize the filmmaking qualities of The White Ribbon despite its unconventional narrative? The enjoyable narrative of A Secret in their Eyes despite its somewhat lightweight familiarity? Or perhaps the widely acclaimed crime drama A Prophet despite its violence? I can see them going any way this year.

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