This week we have three films from foreign countries that both inform and entertain.
French film,“Cézanne and I” is in theaters now. If you weren’t aware (and I was not) that Emile Zola and Cezanne were lifelong friends, despite opposing temperaments, childhoods and life experiences, this will tell you all about it. Well, not all; it occurred to me while watching it that I might appreciate it at a deeper level if I were either well-versed in French history and art of the late nineteenth century, or — better yet — were an educated Frenchwoman. But at any level, it’s worth a viewing. The pacing is slow, which was fine for me as it’s a physically gorgeous film, steeped as it is in the architecture and sun-soaked colors of Aix-en-Provence and other locations set in the amazing French countryside. It is also an intimate close-up of the creative process of true genius-the self-doubt, mood swings, manic periods of self-absorption. Zola and Cezanne were geniuses for sure, the first with words and ideas, the second on canvas. Zola, up from poverty, is the steadier of the two, while Cezanne is a complete mess as a human being: Cruel, misogynistic, deeply driven. He didn’t achieve success until later in his life and he sorely tested his friend Zola with his bitterness and destructiveness. If you love art, history, France, meticulous camera work and some fine acting, “Cezanne and I” is for you.
Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, “The Salesman,” is just about gone from theaters, but will soon to be available on streaming channels. A complex, compelling film from Iran — modern day Iran as we Americans never get to see it — it well deserved its win. It’s about real people, regular and interesting people, living their lives in much the same way we do, students who talk back to their teachers, cell phones, in-laws. The story involves a loving couple — he’s a teacher by day, an actor by night — whose existence is upended by one incident that moves the story and their relationship onto a different, less pleasant path. Yes, religious restrictions are obvious in both the story itself and in what the filmmakers were permitted to show: Not once is there any physical contact between the husband and wife shown onscreen (although their affection is obvious), and the element of censorship about women’s clothing and behavior is apparent in the concessions that must be made as the couple’s theater group mounts a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Death of a Salesman.” I don’t want to reveal too much; suffice it to say that this is a subtle, complex story about the need for revenge which has, at its core, a compelling mystery.
“The Women’s Balcony” is still playing in some art theaters, but will soon be streaming on TV. Another slice of life from the Middle East, this is a charming yet serious story about a small, close Orthodox community in Jerusalem whose existence is upended by a substitute rabbi who insists on a much stricter interpretation of the Bible. His teachings deny the females in the congregation the separate-but-equal rights they’ve taken for granted for years. The women are furious, their men are torn between what the rabbi is telling them and what their women are saying, and no one is totally wrong or totally right. The gifted cast and script bring much warm humor to this story of the people of modern Israel: The deeply observant, the thoroughly secular and everything in between.
One quick note: I loved “Beauty and the Beast,” had a smile on my face the entire time. Don’t miss it.