March marks the end of what I call the foreign film season. Following the announcement of the Oscar nominees, the season begins in early January and ends shortly after the Oscars ceremony in late February or early March. An Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film immediately makes a film more marketable, and so film distributors, hoping to capitalize on the buzz surrounding a nomination, often delay releasing the year’s best foreign films until this time of year.
Locally, the best venues for foreign films are The Chelsea Theater, in Chapel Hill, and The Carolina Theater, in Durham. Currently, the Chelsea is playing the widely acclaimed and Oscar-winning Hungarian film Son of Saul. In addition, Chelsea filmgoers can see the British films 45 Years and The Lady in the Van as well as the Icelandic Rams, which won the Un Certain Regard award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Opening this weekend at The Carolina Theater is the Norwegian film The Wave, followed next weekend by the Oscar-nominated Danish film A War. (The Wave will also open at The Chelsea on March 11.) Magnolia Pictures is the distributor for the two films and recently sent me advance screeners. Below are my reviews of both.
The Wave is a conventional disaster film about a geologist and his family living in small Norwegian village. The village populates the shores of mountain fjord and appears at risk of destruction when the geologist begins to suspect an impending landslide that would cause a tsunami. Of course, no one believes him at first, but everyone watching the film knows what’s going to happen, and we’re not surprised when it does.
Although The Wave reflects the formulaic plot of typical Hollywood disaster films, it nonetheless avoids the accompanying sensationalism. The film’s visual effects are stunning without being overproduced, allowing the film to maintain a surprising feel of authenticity. The characters are relatable, and their relationships familiar. In other words, we are spared the trite machismo, sappy romance, and corny humor of many blockbusters in the same or similar genres. If nothing else, The Wave makes the disaster film genre palatable.
The Wave isn’t typical of most foreign films viewers will see at The Chelsea or The Carolina. It neither addresses pressing social or political issues, nor offers a new understanding of a particular culture or era, nor presents an insightful view into the human condition. Yet it’s an entertaining film that accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish and could provide a needed break from the weightier films arthouse patrons are used to seeing.
The Oscar-nominated A War, on the other hand, does address pressing political issues by presenting an original and moving examination of battlefield realities. A War is the story of Claus Petersen, a military officer committed to his soldiers’ safety and well-being. Petersen’s company is patrolling in Afghanistan when they come under heavy fire, compelling him to make a spontaneous decision to save his soldiers. However, Petersen’s decision leads to the death of civilians, and Petersen is subsequently charged with a war crime.
Yet even after the consequences of Petersen’s decision are revealed, viewers will likely be reluctant to criticize his actions. Technically, he violated the military code of justice, but, considering the situation he was in, how could anyone have expected him to do otherwise?
After returning home to await court-martial, Petersen is conflicted over how to plea. He knows he violated military law, but his wife believes he was justified and urges him to give false testimony to avoid prison time. Again, viewers will likely be reluctant to criticize his wife’s reasoning. Although he would have to commit perjury, should he really be punished for choosing his soldiers’ lives over others?
A War thus reveals the moral complexities of combat and exposes the impossible situations in which soldiers find themselves on the battlefield. War is inherently unfair not only to the civilians caught in the middle but also to the combatants fighting for a purpose they don’t understand. Evenhanded and thought-provoking, A War makes a critical contribution to discussions about war and international conflict.
Combined with the films playing at The Chelsea, The Wave and A War provide local filmgoers with a satisfying finish to foreign film season.