In between a few short but fun holidays and catching up on the season's latest mystery novels, I went on a foreign-film binge this summer, watching all the highly acclaimed cinema I’d missed over the past few years. Here’s a quick rundown of my favorites.
Storm (2009) is a stellar political thriller and courtroom drama that is so realistic, you will feel like an insider to some of recent history’s most shocking crimes, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and the mass rape of Bosnian women. You'll also feel privy to how the Hague International Criminal Tribunal really works. (Not very well, if the filmmaker got his details right.)
A German-made film that’s mostly in English with smatterings of regional Slavic languages, Storm is the story of two women battling impossible odds. Hannah Maynard (played by New Zealander Kerry Fox) is a female prosecutor at the Hague, whose key witness commits suicide before she can finish building her case against Serbian war criminal, Goran Duric. The deceased man had been one of the few victims, the only one in fact, willing to testify against Duric. The man's death threatens to derail Hannah’s entire case. When she finds out the witness’s sister had also been a victim of Duric’s brutality, Hannah tries to persuade the woman, Mira (played by Romanian actress, Anamaria Marinca), to testify against Duric instead.
But Mira is reluctant to revisit the past, not only because of her deep emotional scars but her fear of speaking up and against criminals who mostly walk free. In the midst of this, Hannah travels to post-war Bosnia to research Duric’s crimes, where she is met with stone-faced resistance and in some cases direct threats. Before long, the lives of both women are in danger, and the case threatened further by bureaucracy, corruption, and politics, the office variety as well as international. The women have to decide whether ultimately the price of justice is worth it.
The film is a first-class thriller, both gripping and startling, with the realistic feel of a documentary, covering an important but tragic chapter of our modern history.
The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos), a noirish psychological suspense from Argentina is also a kind of love story. The winner of both the prestigious Goya award in 2009 and the Oscar in 2010, the film tells the story of recently retired criminal investigator Benjamin Esposito (played by Ricardo Darin) who’s writing a novel based on one of his unsolved cases, the rape and murder of a young newlywed woman, in the 1970s. For about as long as he’s obsessed over this case, Benjamin has held a torch for his old boss, Irene Menendez Hastings, now married and a federal judge.
At the start of the film, Benjamin visits Irene at work to let her know that he’s writing about the old unsolved case and asks her to read some pages of his early draft. He also convinces her to reopen the case. At times, the two story lines overlap, both unresolved issues from the past that continue to haunt Benjamin today. After reading pages from his novel, Irene disputes part of his theory about the identity of the real killer. You can’t read a person’s secrets through their eyes, she tells him early on, ostensibly speaking about the killer. Benjamin disagrees. Much of what they want to say to each other, too, is conveyed through their eyes.
The title of this quiet, haunting movie, alternating between past and present, is apt: The history of the case becomes a sort of metaphor for Irene and Benjamin’s own personal history. The film is finely written and directed, and the acting is achingly beautiful. Often, I’m left scratching my head with hyped-up award winners, but in this case, the judges got it just right. So too, it seems, the public: The Secret in Their Eyes is the second top grossing film in Argentina.
The movie I least expected to enjoy was 2009’s Sin Nombre (Without Name). Most of the story takes place on a train moving north through Central America on its way to the United States (though the film was shot in Spain). On this train are a motley group of refugees fleeing their difficult lives in their homelands in the hopes of a fresh start across the border. The storyline sounds familiar, right? Remember the landmark El Norte (1983)? Yep, I wasn’t sure this movie was for me—we all know how difficult it is to get across this border, how hard their lives really are when they finally reach – if they reach at all. But Sin Nombre is a stunning surprise. In part, because it’s director, Cary Fukunaga, is a native Californian, born to a Japanese father and a Swedish mother. And yet he traveled the very trains he brings to life in the film, took scrupulous notes as he did so, and risked his life to learn the hardships encountered by those attempting this daunting journey. The result is breathtaking and brutally real.
The story tracks Willy, a Mexican gang member (played by Edgar Flores), whose violent and unpredictable gang leader, instructs him and his cronies to help rob stowaways on the train for cash and jewelry, and Sayra, a Honduran teenager (played by Paulina Gaitan), whose family hope to reach New Jersey. When Willy’s and Sayra’s paths cross, the story takes a new trajectory, one I don’t want to spoil as the film’s journey is as adventurous and surprising as the one it conveys. Another deserving award winner, Sin Nombre won prizes for directing and cinematography at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Here are links to the trailers for all three movies: