Oscars: Class Warfare and Culture Clashes Fuel International Feature Film Race

Passport- Publicity -H 2020

From 'Parasite' to 'Pain and Glory,' the five films nominated in the newly renamed category (formerly best foreign-language film) tell universal and explosive stories.

Bong Joon Ho's acclaimed Parasite, which also landed five other Oscar nominations including best picture, best director and best original screenplay, looks like the film to beat in the international feature film derby. The first Korean film ever to be nominated for any Oscar is joined by four European films in the international category: Pain and Glory, directed by Spanish maestro Pedro Almodóvar; French filmmaker Ladj Ly's debut, Les Misérables; Polish submission Corpus Christi from helmer Jan Komasa; and North Macedonian nonfiction entry Honeyland, from rookie documentarians Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov.

Unusually, this year the category formerly known as best film in a foreign language includes a total of three titles with other nominations as well. Besides Parasite's enviable haul of six, there's Pain and Glory, which also scored a best actor nod for Antonio Banderas, suggesting widespread support among the Academy's largest branch, the actors (regrettably, none of Parasite's large cast of superlative actors was nominated). And Sundance favorite Honeyland also scored a best documentary nod, becoming the first title ever to double-dip in these categories. Do multiple nominations make this trio the logical frontrunners? Or will they spread the love too thin as voters choose their top picks in different categories, allowing room for an unexpected Polish or French victory?

In terms of themes and genres, the nominees might at first glance look like an almost random cross section of world cinema. Parasite, about a near-destitute clan posing as valiant (and unrelated) new employees of a stinking rich family, combines genre tropes in black comedy and suspense with social commentary. Honeyland, on the other hand, chronicles the tough life of Hatidze Muratova, said to be the last woman practicing wild honey hunting in the Balkans, in a stripped-down, vérité style.

Quite the opposite, visually and thematically, is Almodóvar's highly stylized approach, familiar from his extensive filmography, which he himself mines in this thinly veiled autobiographical film (said to form a trilogy with Law of Desire and Bad Education). Banderas' protagonist is a celebrated film director with a hairstyle, apartment and obsessions that keep reminding us of the master himself. Unsurprisingly for someone who made a film called All About My Mother, there's an homage to his mother, played by Julietta Serrano and by Penélope Cruz in flashbacks that turn out to be a fictionalized enhancement of the original madre, all the while suggesting themes of personal struggle and the power of cinema for Almodóvar.

Unlike Pain and Glory, no knowledge of Jan Komasa's life or previous films (which include Berlinale hit Suicide Room) is required to deepen your appreciation of Corpus Christi. This soberly told and powerful story explores the predicament of a troubled young man who pretends to be a priest in a small community that is trying to get over a fatal car crash. Whereas the protagonists of Parasite might seem interested simply in bettering their own station by profiting from the stupidity of the rich, the 20-year-old, saucer-eyed Polish protagonist here almost accidentally morphs into someone both he and the village seem to need for different reasons. Monetary gain or even gainful employment aren't the young man's goal so much as salvation — or at least, mental clarity and peace. That said, both stories explore how easily an act of human deception can spread like oil until it becomes impossible to control.

Rounding out the five, Les Misérables offers a snapshot of malcontent, contemporary France through the eyes of three banlieue cops looking for — of all things — a lion cub stolen from a circus. Will they be able to defuse the mounting tension among different groups while searching for the feline? Or will everything go belly-up? Les Misérables offers a state-of-the-nation portrait of France as an angry, edge-of-your-seat experience that's not so much a warts-and-all portrait as a deep study of those warts, embedded in cracked fault lines between the lofty Republique and its professed but struggling ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood.

Ladj Ly's debut, which, like Parasite and Pain and Glory, was a Cannes competition title, is the film most directly concerned with society's bigger picture. The stolen cub is the pretext and not the subject of the film. Ly is interested in behavior, movements and systems that clash and cause despair, resentment and rot that can never stay hidden for too long. The film shares more than just its title and locale with the iconic novel by Victor Hugo, because in the current world ruled by one-percenters, there is the 99 percent who are miserable in one or more ways. Les Misérables represents all but the richest and most powerful in France and beyond — which is to say, almost all of us.

In this sense, Ly and Bong tap into very similar material. The action in Parasite is almost exclusively set in two homes; one only half above ground and the other towering over others on a hill (no points for guessing where the rich live). But the two homes and the families that live in them make up a microcosm in which the exploitation of the poor by the rich leads to a desire on the part of the poor to outdo the rich at their own game. This isn't even a particularly South Korean situation, as largely uncontrolled globalism experiments have led to enormous inequality in France and elsewhere around the world. In Parasite, there isn't a cub on the loose that should have been kept caged, but other ills lurking in the dark act as pointed metaphors for often-invisible experiences of exploitation and injustice. Ly's film is angrier and more immediate, while Bong masterfully uses genre codes to serve up a story about the ugly world we live in with nuance and finesse — before things also come to an angry boil.

Honeyland similarly keeps its focus on a very small cast of characters. But when new neighbors who also hope to make money with honey move in and ignore Muratova's insistence on respecting the balance of nature — she leaves half of the honey for the bees and they don't — a disaster isn't far off. As Sheri Linden points out in her review, the shambolic family, in their improbable dwelling-on-wheels, might as well be a multinational corporation destroying a nature sanctuary.

Les Misérables, Honeyland and Parasite explore inequality, injustice and environmental calamities and wonder out loud how we're supposed to live in a world that is unjust and seems to be getting worse instead of better. Pain and Glory and Corpus Christi join the other three films in trying to answer the question of how to live between the past and the present, between what we know, what we believe we know and the entirely unknown territory that is the future. All of these nominees represent facets of the complex world we live in. As an art form, movies, like the one Banderas' character makes to understand and improve on his own life, can offer pleasure and food for thought in equal measure. Though only one of them can win, viewers will recognize something of their complex and contradictory selves onscreen in each of them.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.