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Beyond Hollywood: Border and Capernaum

Beyond Hollywood: Border, Capernaum
Hollywood’s biggest party, the Oscars, is coming up and will no doubt indulge in some of the usual self-congratulation.  So it’s good to look beyond the tinsel of an American-dominated industry, especially in a year when a “foreign-language” feature—Roma—has a decent shot to win best picture. 

Border (Sweden/Denmark)
Iranian-born director Ali Abbasi’s bizarre Scandinavian tale was tops in the Un Certain Regard sidebar of the 2018 Cannes film festival and Sweden’s entry to the Oscar foreign-language category.   It did manage one Oscar nomination—for makeup and hair styling—as well it should. Based on a short story, the central character is Tina (Eva Melander in a raw, fearless performance) who works as a Swedish custom agent at a seaside port of entry.  To say that this is not a movie with beautiful people is an understatement. Tina has forbidding, Neanderthal-like features and quite literally a nose for sniffing troubled human emotional states (along with a kinship for wild animals). The job makes use of her uncanny ability to sense border-crossing offenders (both physical and ethical)—from illicit booze to child porn. Tina lives with a long-haired housemate Roland who raises attack dogs but at best it’s an arrangement of convenience not romance.
            Then Tina does a border check of a transgender insect-loving, maggot-eating character named Vore (Eero Milonoff) who shares similar caveman-like features and believes that “humans are a disease”. So begins a very strange gender-bending relationship that culminates in an ecstatic sexual encounter that while explicit is not gratuitous.  With Vore, Tina is able to confront her addled father and discover her true troll nature and origins.  But that connection is broken when Tina discovers something more terrible about Vore than what is in his fridge, leading to a grim nightmarish turn that could be out of Grimm’s fairy tales.
            Some may find Border too weirdly off-putting.  I found it one of the most astonishingly unusual movies I’ve ever seen.  A-

Capernaum (Lebanon/France/U.S.)
Child actors do amazing work in three of this year’s Oscar nominees for best foreign-language film; the other two being Mexico’s Roma and Japan’s Shoplifters.  But this absorbing story from Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, in which a child is the central character, stands out, awarded the jury prize at the 2018 Cannes festival.
            Capernaum (meaning “chaos” not a biblical reference) focuses on Zain, a skinny boy of about 12 years of age (he has no birth certificate) from the mean streets of Beirut’s underclass.  The unusual aspect is a court case in which Zain, imprisoned for stabbing the man who was given his beloved deceased 11-year old sister Sahar as a child bride, sues his parents to demand they stop having children.  Mother Souad and father Selim make for an impoverished pathetic pair who seem unable, or unwilling, to comprehend their responsibility. Most of the movie is the backstory to this broken family confrontation before a judge.
Zain runs away when Sahar is taken, joining children living by their wits on the street. He meets an Ethiopian menial worker Rahil whose undocumented infant son Yonas is still nursing. Finding shelter with her in a shantytown, Zain looks after Yonas during the day. When Rahil is arrested for lacking a valid permit and risks deportation, Zain becomes the caregiver and protector of Jonas.  In some of the most affecting scenes Zain jerry-rigs a stolen skateboard with cooking pots to transport Jonas while navigating an urban jungle rife with exploiters of the vulnerable.   
            Zain is played by Zain Al Rafeea, actually a Syrian refugee now living in Norway.  It’s an incredible performance, and the depiction of dire circumstances includes the dream of escaping to safer “pretty places”.  The movie is a timely reminder of the struggles that too many of the world’s children face. Still it ends with a note of hope as Zain manages a smile for the first time.  Maybe a better future is possible?  A


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