Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Foreign Films for the Dog Days of Summer

My Life as a Dog. My Life as a Zucchini. The two films stood next to each other on the foreign film shelf of my local library. I’d heard of both but never saw either. What I discovered is that the two films, while aesthetically very different, both deal smartly and tenderly with similar subject matter. Both explore the terrors—and the wonders—of childhood, from the perspective of a young boy faced with losing his familiar world.

My Life as a Dog (originally Mitt liv som hund) is a Swedish film from 1986 by Lasse Hallström, almost his first feature after years of churning out ABBA videos. So great was its international acclaim that it was nominated for two Oscars: for best director and best adapted screenplay. (Needless to say, it’s rare indeed for a foreign-language film to be in the running in these high-prestige categories.) On the strength of this production, Hallström went Hollywood in a big way. His directorial projects have since included such winners as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and most recently The Hundred-Foot Journey. All are marked by technical skill, deft acting, and a strongly humanistic outlook.

My Life as a Dog, adapted from a Swedish novel, focuses on a pre-teen boy, Ingemar, whose single-parent mom is dying of something like tuberculosis. Caught up in her own misery, she has no time or sympathy for his pain. So he’s sent to live with his uncle, a benevolent free spirit who lives in what seems to be a wacky community of glass-blowers. In his uncle’s village, he learns to laugh and to love. There are quirky neighbors to enjoy (the old man who gets his jollies by having young Ingemar read to him from catalogues of women’s clothing; the eccentric who decides to go swimming in the frozen lake in the middle of winter). And there are kids his own age, infatuated with soccer and boxing. It’s the era when Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson challenged world champion Floyd Patterson. One of the toughest, most enthusiastic local boxing enthusiasts turns out to be a tomboy just Ingemar’s age. Their interaction, both pugilistic and faintly romantic, is clearly part of Ingemar’s eventual path toward adult sexuality. The film is frank regarding the curiosity among pre-teens about the opposite sex. But (despite a topless scene that raised some hackles in the U.S.) it is never less than respectful of young people’s fascination with the adult world.

My Life as a Zucchini, based on a French-language novel called Autobiographie de Courgette, was a 2017 Oscar nominee for best animated feature. It’s done in stop motion animation, featuring exaggerated characters who have enormous heads, odd hair-styles, blue-circled eyes, and huge pink ears. The quirkiness of the film’s visual style softens a story that is in many ways brutal. Young Icare, called Zucchini by his mother, is not a happy kid. His mother, abandoned by his father, is a drunk who dies early in the film, partly as a result of a household skirmish. So Zucchini is taken by a local cop to live in a group home along with other deeply troubled children. At first it seems he’ll be bullied, but he and the other kids soon form a tightly supportive unit, helped along by kindly teachers who have the children’s best interests at heart. The fly in the ointment is an evil aunt who claims one of the girls as her own, but the kids’ cleverness saves the day. So heartening to see two films in which a child’s resilience overcomes personal tragedy.

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