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Recap 2023: The 10 Best Foreign Films Of The Year – An Alternative List

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Recap 2023: The 10 Best Foreign Films Of The Year - An Alternative List

A still from Four Daughters.

New Delhi:

In 2023, several established masters articulated or responded to the anxieties and strife that relentlessly stalked the world. Loach, Kaurismaki, Scorsese, Nolan, Wenders and Ceylan delivered films that ranged from the stunningly masterly to the unerringly essential. The real surprises, however, came from less-fancied directors, a few of them first-timers. Marked departures from norm, daring formal experiments and striking thematic sleights informed these small but sparkling gems. Barring Hong Sang-soo and Denis Cote, the directors in this ‘best of 2023’ selection (in no particular order) may not command instant recall. But they deserve to. For the reasons, read on…

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In a fractured world, Belgian director Bas Devos revels in mining the minutiae of life in quest of connections and inspirations that sustain humanity. Here, his fourth film, extends his concerns. It depicts a mingling of two worlds – one represented by Stefan, a Romanian construction worker in Brussels, the other by Shuxiu, a Chinese-Belgian bryologist working on a doctoral thesis on mosses. Stefan is about to return home. He makes a pot of soup with vegetables left in his fridge and distributes it among his friends. He defers his departure after a chance encounter with Shuxiu in a restaurant. Her attention to the tiniest of things and her innate ability to feel the warmth of Nature capture Stefan’s fancy. A beautiful, delicate bond evolves between the two. Devos, working with the 4:3 format, captures the blossoming through pure images that speak louder than words. Here is cinema that soothes and heals.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

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Candour and authenticity of a rare kind underpin Estonian filmmaker and singer Anna Hints’ SmokeSauna Sisterhood. The 90-minute documentary uses a culture-specific phenomenon to delve into the souls of women who bare their bodies and hearts in a smoke sauna. They share their innermost thoughts and personal experiences. The sorority thus formed is more than just skin deep. The film abjures sexualization of the female body. Hints, Sundance best director prize winner, films the bodies with deep empathy – mostly from the neck down – as the women shed shame, guilt and doubt. A fascinating soundscape – created by Hints in collaboration with Icelandic composer Edvard Eglisson – complements the conversations. A magnificent breakout.

In Our Day

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Once you have warmed up to the cinema of the prolific South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, it keeps on giving. In Our Day may not be as instantly hypnotic as 2022’s Walk Up, but its rumination on art, relationships, everyday conundrums and hot pepper sauce has the power to cast a spell once you grasp the languid rhythm of leisurely meals and freewheeling conversations. Hong peppers the film with intertitles – a deviation from his usual style – to indicate what is on in the minds of the two principal characters. One is an actress who has just returned from a stint abroad. The other is a septuagenarian poet who wonders if he is still relevant though his work has found a new generation of followers. And between the two are the actress’ friend (whose house serves as her temporary home), visitors and a couple of cats – one dead, the other lost and found. In Our Day is another little marvel with Hong’s unmistakable signature.

Mademoiselle Kenopsia

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No film captured the impasse caused by the worldwide Covid-19 lockdowns quite as consummately as Mademoiselle Kenopsia. It is crafted with uncompromising visual purity by Quebecois director Denis Cote. His 15th narrative feature explores the human engagement with disused public spaces. A woman played by Cote’s frequent collaborator, Larissa Corriveau, goes through the motions of watching over an abandoned space. Acutely aware of the inexorable ticking of time and the physical dimensions captured in carefully-composed frames, the film performatively and cinematically examines the line separating solitude that cleanses and loneliness that disconcerts. The title refers to a neologism signifying deserted spaces that once bustled with life. In the film’s whimsicality is tempered with profound method.

Critical Zone

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A subversive look at drugs and despair in the Tehran underworld, a reality that Iran’s cinema rarely reveals, Ali Ahmedzadeh’s Locarno Golden Leopard-winning Critical Zone is a revelatory piece of cinema with the makings of a cult film. It careens through the streets of Tehran as it follows a lonesome, insomnia-afflicted drug dealer Amir (Amir Pousti). The man navigates the city with the help of his car’s GPS and provides hope (like a present-day messiah) to broken souls cut adrift by a regime bent on strangulating individual urges and instincts. Ahmedzadeh’s previous two films – Kami’s Party and Atomic Heart – are banned in Iran. Critical Zone, filmed without official permission and populated by real people, is another act of rebellion. Worth celebrating. Its voices – and words of wisdom – deserve to be heard.

Mami Wata

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C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi’s Mami Wata is rooted in West African folklore. Shot in luminous high-contrast B&W, the hyper-stylised film is visually arresting and narratively solid. It represents a revolt against both Nollywood and Western filmmaking practices. It ventures into a creative zone that Nigerian filmmakers have hitherto steered clear of. Mami Wata is about two sisters who fight for peace and harmony in a fictional seaside village ruled by a messenger of the eponymous water goddess. The community is on the brink of being robbed of its traditional belief in the deity that has ensured its well-being for generations. A probe into power, divinity and the plight of people caught between conflicting philosophies, Mami Wata is a unique and gripping film.

Four Daughters

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A startling documentary-metafiction hybrid, Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters was one of the most unusual films of 2023. But that isn’t the only reason why it is on our list. Daring in form and emotionally affecting, the film dissects the impact of radicalization on a Tunisian mother and her four daughters. Her two elder daughters joined the Islamic State in 2015. The director engages a pair of professional actors to play the sisters who left. This artistic choice sets up a delicately porous and remarkably effective exploration of the mind of a mourning mother (in parts of the film actress Hend Sabri impersonates her) swaying between comforting memory and unsettling anguish. Four Daughters, co-winner of the Cannes Golden Eye, is a sharply chiselled essay that delves into family dynamics and the pain of hard-to-fathom separation.

Grace

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A reticent man and his daughter struggle to make ends meet in Ilya Povolotsky’s bleak and dark road movie Grace (Blazh). Using sparse dialogue and suffused with melancholy, the film follows the duo as they drive across the vast landscapes that abound in Russia. Their camper van contains everything they possess, including a film projector for their travelling cinema, the principal source of their meagre income. The Cannes Directors’ Fortnight title heralds the advent of an exciting new Russian filmmaker. It is, in significant ways, reminiscent of compatriot Kantemir Balagov’s 2017 powerful debut, Tesnota (Closeness). The film’s raw beauty stems from the power that it draws from the vast vistas the camera captures and juxtaposes with the bleak interiors of the vehicle that carries father and daughter from place to place.

Creatura

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Barcelona-born actress Elena Martin Gimeno’s second directorial venture, the Catalan-language Creatura, is an astoundingly astute take on a woman coming to terms with her body and repressed sexual longing in a society where fathers and partners alike assume paternalistic postures in the face of female desire. The film, co-written and starring Gimeno, homes in on Mila, who moves to a family summer house in a coastal town with her boyfriend. She is ill at ease with the male touch, a legacy of unresolved issues of her childhood and teenage years. The unflinching, sobering and intimate coming-of-age drama is focussed not only on Mila navigating the fallout of a history of suppression but also, inevitably, on how men respond to the power that resides in the bodies of women.

The Dreamer

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Art seen from a purely female perspective is at the heart of The Dreamer, French filmmaker Anais Tellenne’s debut film. It centres on Raphael (Raphael Thiery), a one-eyed man of Cyclopean proportions. He looks after a countryside mansion in which nobody lives anymore. Just shy of 60, Raphael lives with his aged mother in a small house at the gates. Burdened with monotony, he hunts moles, plays the bagpipe and goes on an occasional ride in the local postwoman’s Kangoo van. The heiress of the manor (Emmanuelle Devos), a performance artist whose installations include a collection of her own tears, arrives out of the blue one night and proceeds to change everything inside the mansion. Raphael’s life, too, changes. She decides to use him as a model for a sculpture. The artist-Muse relationship, shorn of sexual dynamics and gender reversed, goes far deeper than a physical transaction and into the realms of the quaintly ineffable. The Dreamer is a wondrously entrancing film.

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