Sin Nombre (2009, Mexico)
Dir: Cary Fukunaga
Stars: Edgar Flores, Paulina Gaitan, Diana Garcia and Kristian Ferrer
Terribly Happy (2008, Denmark)
Dir: Henrik Ruben Genz
Stars: Jakob Cedergren, Lene Maria Christensen, Kim Bodnia and Jens Jorn Spottag
A Prophet (2009, France)
Dir: Jacques Audiard
Stars: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif and Leila Bekhti
I was reviewing some of my old posts and I just couldn’t believe I hadn’t made any entries for foreign films yet! In my opinion, foreign films are really fun because the rules that apply to American films don’t apply to foreign films. I’ll elaborate as I go along here, but I’m going to comment on these three that I’ve seen over the past several weeks as a starter: long and short, I hope you decide to try a foreign film from Netflix or your local rental store soon, particularly if you feel “bored with the same old stuff” you’ve been seeing lately. See the links below for trailers to these three titles, too.
When I was in high school, I went on a summer Mission Trip to San Antonio, TX and Matamoros, Mexico. We did a lot of good, but I bring it up because Sin Nombre reminded me of the little trip we took into south San Antonio and neighborhoods run by street gangs. Our tour guide, an outreach/non-profit manager and ex-gang member, was calling out points of interest: “There’s the basketball courts. Those guys playing are the lieutenants in the NDs – they’re called NDs because they like Notre Dame – and those kids watching by the park benches are guarding them. See how they got backpacks on? School’s out, man…” We went up another couple streets and suddenly we were in another territory. And so it went for the whole afternoon.
It seems gangs work much the same way in Honduras, where we meet “El Casper”, also known as “Willy” to his girlfriend, who does whatever tasks his leader asks him to do. Talk about an intimidating supporting actor: the leader of “La Mara” gang has an “M” and and “S” tattooed all the way down his face (see the trailer link below). Much of the leader’s body is covered in tattoos (like the Maori warriors of New Zealand, I think?). An example of one task given to El Casper, is to have the new little kid they’re recruiting shoot a captured rival with a homemade shotgun. As an initiation, most of the gang punches and kids the new kid for a full 13 second count. Lovely. There is another storyline, which involves a Mexican girl named Sayra and her father and uncle as they try to ride the trains north to Matamoros and then somehow find their way to New Jersey where the uncle’s family lives.
And now we come to one reason I love foreign films so much: the two stories are intertwined when La Mara’s leader takes El Casper to hop the train and rob the immigrants headed north! Of what, I’m wondering? Who would have seen this coming? Not only am I learning about how others live by Sin Nombre, but the film is keeping me on my toes by using unconventional story techniques: if you can’t tell, I highly recommend this title (but if you’re not into violent stories, SKIP).
If I was a producer from Denmark trying to convince a U.S. distributor to pick up Terribly Happy, I’d simply say, “It’s Thornton Wilder’s Our Town meets the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. Here’s a pen for you to sign.” This movie is about a Copenhagen cop who “made a mistake” and has been demoted to the post of marshall at a creepy little village in the north. The townspeople are downright rude. The weather is offensively cold. The town is like a Lego town: small. There’s one of everything: one bar, one doctor, one general store, one road… But, one thing there’s plenty of is trouble. There is a “bog”, where apparently many of the town’s problems are handled. There is a promiscuous, maybe even mentally ill, beautiful woman who’s married to a drunk. Whenever this husband beats the wife, their little girl walks around town with her teddy bear in her baby carriage, which squeaks ever so softly! And everybody is aware of what’s going on… yet no one does anything about it until the marshall arrives.
I love Terribly Happy because it provides such great support of why you should try a few foreign films: you can never count on who’s going to live and who’s going to buy it. If you’re watching a Tom Hanks film, chances are he’s going to live. With foreign films, no one is safe: and furthermore, you have no predetermined notion of who this character is. Think about that: you know how a “Tom Cruise role” should go. But with a foreign film like Terribly Happy, you’re watching and kinda getting the hang of the storyline and then someone dies: someone who’s been built up and you’re invested in and you never would have guessed would die. The resolution of this film was interesting too in its creepiness, and if you see it I’m sure you’ll agree.
I’ve done a bit of reading on true crime and how criminals think: this film is essentially a study in the transition from a “B Dog” prisoner/convict to the “A Dog”. Did you know that in France, once you’ve served a large portion of your prison term – and you’ve been a good boy during that time – you actually get to leave jail for a day and come back to it at 7pm? I sure as hell didn’t know that!
But the convict who runs the jail in A Prophet definitely knows this rule: and he needs this new prisoner, who straddles the worlds of Arabs and Corsicans, to keep business running for him. We never know what the young man, named Malik, was convicted of, but we know very well that he wants to survive. He does just that – survives – as the film moves along… as more Muslims enter the jail… as the Corsicans try to betray him… as other “A Dogs” perish in knife fights… and as “the Godfather” of the jail grows older. I find it absolutely incredible how a film maker can make me care so much about a prisoner in a French pen: despite the ultra-violence and length of play, I think you’d appreciate watching A Prophet.