Monday, March 26, 2012

A World Without Hollywood Endings (Spoiler Alerts Ahead!)

I didn’t realize what a creature of Hollywood I am until I checked out two of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign-Language Film. No question: they are worthy examples of international filmmaking, but both left me frustrated. The problem, I realized, is that neither has a Hollywood ending.

A Separation is the first Iranian film ever to win an Oscar. Not only was it nominated in the Best Foreign Film category, but it also earned a nomination for its original screenplay, a rare honor indeed for a film made in a foreign language. By no means overtly political, A Separation tells the intimate story of two married couples, whose destinies become intertwined. Still, in the course of telling a small personal story, A Separation touches on the social, political, and religious issues that are roiling Iran today.

At the heart of A Separation is a middle-class couple, not especially religious, who are on the brink of divorcing because she wants to give their eleven-year-old daughter a better life in America and he feels an obligation to his elderly father, caught in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease. When wife Simin moves out, husband Nader hires a housekeeper – a devout chador-wearing young woman – to tend his father while he goes to work. Complications, including a miscarriage, end up embroiling two families in a series of lies, half-truths, angry outbursts, and appeals for legal justice. Without giving away all the twists and turns of the plot, let me simply say that the film ends with a young girl asked to decide with which of her two parents she wants to live.

I waited breathlessly for her answer. I didn’t get one. The film was over. Which is probably terrific in prompting post-film discussions, but I went alone.

Footnote, from Israel, is as visually inventive as A Separation is austere. The story of father-and-son Talmudic scholars may sound dry, but there are moments of great wit here, as well as a profound understanding of human nature. Eliezer Shkolnik is a zealous researcher, and a curmudgeon with little use for his fellow Talmudists. These include son Uriel, a much more expansive thinker, as a well as guy who's quite comfortable shmoozing his fellow academics. With a major prize at stake, all hell breaks loose. At base, Footnote is an exploration of the intricate bond between father and son. It climaxes just as the big prize is about to be awarded. We in the audience know who is going to receive the prize, and who really deserves it. The characters know it too.

I was certain the film was moving toward a satisfying twist that would right all wrongs and end in a heartfelt reconciliation. So much for my Hollywood expectations. Footnote simply left the viewer hanging. I waited through the credits, all in Hebrew, hoping SOMETHING would resolve itself. Nope!

The one foreign film nominee I saw that conformed to my Hollywood expectation of a happy (or at least a tidy) ending was In Darkness, a Holocaust drama from Poland. It’s the true story of a small group of Jews, facing Nazi extermination, who are hidden beneath the streets of Lvov by a Polish sewer worker who seems to have mixed motives. There are horrors aplenty, but the film ends with the survivors emerging at last into sunlight. The joy with which they’re greeted by their former neighbors is pure Hollywood, though this film would have been heartbreaking without it. The ending’s not entirely upbeat, though. A caption tells us about the real-life fate of that good-hearted sewer worker – not so Hollywood after all.


  1. It's intriguing to me to watch any old movie - and enjoy it to whatever extent I'm going to - but realize - that thanks to the Hays Code the bad guy isn't going to get away with it, no matter how machina the deus ex must get. It is then really wild to see Hollywood stretching itself in the mid-to-late 60's away from the Hollywood ending - until the downbeat ending of almost every film in the 70's - then back to happy endings in the 80's - then ironic downbeat or non-endings in the 90's to now - when you might get anything under the sun as the last few minutes of a movie, including climaxes that can only be deemed so by their proximity to the end credits rather than any noticeable wrapping up...these films would probably have frustrated me terribly. Interesting spotlight on three movies I might not have come across otherwise - thank you, Ms. Gray!

    1. Mr. Craig, well put! I'd love some favorite examples of movies whose climaxes "can only be deemed so by their proximity to the end credits." I'm sure I've encountered some of those too (despite my care in choosing movies to see), but their names escape me. Mercifully, perhaps!

  2. Well, most of them were z grade horror and scifi movies - but Hollywood movies now often just stop, as opposed to end - so we can clear the theater and go home to wait for the inevitable sequel.

  3. Hi, Beverly. Nice post as always. The FOOTNOTE film sounds very interesting, especially curious is its place of origin. I never really thought about there even being an Iranian film industry!

    A bit off topic, but Asian cinema is/was (in)famous for its non Hollywood approach towards its films, particularly the Shaw Brothers productions; despite modeling their style of film on old Hollywood movies and its contract player studio system. Chang Cheh, whom Roger Corman cut down his historical epic WATER MARGIN from 120 minutes to 79 minutes as 7 BLOWS OF THE DRAGON, totally reinvented HK cinema in the late 1960s in several ways. One such way was a breath of fresh air to me as a child. That was his treatment of the screen hero. Popularly in Hollywood films, the hero would always get the girl, or triumph in the end. Well not in Cheh's world.

    His heroes often died by the end and the audience was generally left wondering how many, if any at all would survive the last shot. I thought this was incredibly innovative and only added to the suspense; that is if you enjoyed that type of cinema. It also had some social relevance as well, at least in my eyes. Cheh's heroes, whether just one, or more than one, often stood against many whether that be government corruption, some rampaging warlord, or some other colorful villain and his forces.

    As in real life, when one, single, devout individual stands against insurmountable odds, they often "succumb" to sheer numbers against them, but ultimately their "voice" is heard, and often documented for posterity in many cases. Cheh's treatment of honor, integrity and standing up for what you believe in was viewed as such, but also as a stubborn defiance in the face of failure or worse, but it was this willingness to defy odds and never veering from one's ideals that always stood out to me and reflects a lot of what oftentimes takes place in the real world we live in.

    1. Very interesting, Brian, about Hong Kong cinema. I was around for the marketing of "Seven Blows of the Dragon," but I'm sure I never actually saw it. Regarding Iranian cinema, it's actually much admired. Obviously, many topics are off-limits, but directors have been very creative in finding small stories that suggest (to those paying attention) larger issues. One curious point: Iranians were very excited about the Oscar win for "A Separation." Writer-director Asghar Farhadi was supposed to be feted by Iranian officials, but at the last moment the ceremony was called off, with no reason given.

  4. All the more fascinating about Iranian cinema particularly with the current political situation going on right now.