THE REPORTS ON SARAH AND SALEEM

Directing: A-
Acting: A
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

What do you do when you’ve told a lie in an official capacity to cover up one truth, the official lie convinces the authorities of a much broader, more sinister truth, and you endanger everyone you care about in the process?

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem is a modern, geographically specific take on the very idea of a catch-22, where characters are forced between two decisions that are equally horrible. It takes some time to get there, of course, and Palestinian director Muayad Alayan increases the tension in the meantime, so steadily you barely register it’s even happening until it’s been doing on for a while.

There are four characters, two married couples, and the story at first revolves around what seems like a pretty straightforward extramarital affair — straightforward, at least, in the context of the politics those involved naively think they can avoid: one couple is Israeli and the other is Palestinian. This alone could easily make for a compelling story, given the obvious prejudices at play.

But, here things are not that simple. This is the story of otherwise regular people making small but bad choices, which turn out to have huge and horrible consequences. Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) is a Palestinian man struggling at a low paying job at a delivery service, who is having an affair with Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), an Israeli bakery cafe owner in West Jerusalem. Both are part of communities in which extramarital affairs on their own have dire consequences. They meet in secret and have sex late at night on the side of empty streets in the back of Saleem’s delivery van.

But, they make two key mistakes, when Sarah agrees to go out for drinks with him in a part of Jerusalem where nobody knows them, where Saleem has agreed to make extra cash making nighttime deliveries, but Saleem gets into an altercation with a man aggressively trying to hit on Sarah.

It’s difficult to explain how things snowball from there without giving spoilers, but suffice it to say that official government reports — hence the movie’s title — are involved, they contain falsehoods intended to save Saleem’s livelihood and reputation, but the Israeli government takes them at face value and considers them a threat. Ultimately Saleem and Sarah both find themselves faced with a choice between either ruining the other person’s life to save their own, or ruining their own lives.

And that’s not to mention their spouses, both of whom bring greater richness to the storytelling here. Sarah’s husband, David (Ishai Golan), is a colonel in the Israeli army, unknowingly inching closer to the case against Saleem and therefore some version of the truth about his wife. Saleem’s wife, Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi), is very pregnant, very suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Saleem’s arrest, is pushed away as a nuisance at every turn as she attempts to uncover the truth, and is very tenacious. Of all these characters, Bisan is the most underestimated, although Sarah is a bit as well.

All of these actors deliver excellent performances. And it must be said, the tenuous relationship that develops between Sarah and Bisan is treated with a refreshing delicacy. There are no reductive clichés about women scorned or pitted against each other here; rather, they reach a sort of painful understanding of each other. I did find myself thinking about the Bechdel Test as I watched this movie, and it does pass it, albeit barely, and technically. The entire story is about an affair after all, so by default nearly any conversation between the two female leads is bound to be about a man. It’s worth remembering, though, that the Bechdel Test is more of a barometer than an indicator of a film’s quality. A lot of stories, even compelling ones, are simply about the relationships between men and women. That said, I would argue The Reports on Sarah and Saleem has a far more feminist bent to it than you’re ever likely to find in any other story like this. The two women here are the strongest characters, with the most dimension.

Best of all, Muayad Alayan does not pass judgment on any of these characters, the women or the men — one of each potentially seen, depending on the point of view of the observer, as a victim and as a criminal. Here Saleem and Sarah are each both at once, in over their heads because of very human mistakes. It’s easy to sympathize with every single one of them, and that’s what makes this movie great, as it offers no easy solutions and yet still provides a thoroughly satisfying movie experience.

Sometimes you don’t realize there was a fork in the road until it’s too late.

Sometimes you don’t realize there was a fork in the road until it’s too late.

Overall: A-

THE THIRD WIFE

Directing: A
Acting: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: A
Editing: A

When it comes to patriarchy, it seems it’s just the same shit, different day — and different place.

The Third Wife has a unique point of view for American audiences in particular. It’s one thing to get a window into other cultures through foreign films, and another for that film to be a period piece. Sure, there are history buffs with a working knowledge of history around the world. But this one gets pretty specific: late-nineteenth-century Vietnam. And although that country has a more recent history quite obviously inextricably linked to that of the United States, such events were far from even a glimmer on the horizon for the Vietnamese, say, 125 or 150 years ago.

The opening title card introduces us to May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), a young woman — to us, a child — who has become the third wife to “a wealthy land owner.” And this is indeed her story, skipping how she was chosen to be wed to this man and starting with the beginning of her married life. The custom of displaying her bloody sheet on her wedding night for all of her community to see, evidently, was widespread the world over. All the movies I have seen depicting this custom prior to this have been western, or Eastern European.

Written and directed by Ash Mayfair, who is herself Vietnamese, The Third Wife is quite deceptively serene in its storytelling, from its gorgeous cinematography depicting rural 19th-century Vietnam, to the quiet delivery of the dialogue and action. Only in rare cases do the proceedings get overtly dramatic, and they are always brief. This is a depiction of a quiet way of life, and it seems that is the point: the way girls and women fit into this society is not just something everyone is resigned to. It’s literally all they know.

Some details are only heartbreaking in retrospect, and regarded by many with neutrality at the time. Mayfair includes a subplot wherein it’s a young man who is devastated to be expected to marry a girl chosen for him, when he is in love with another. And here, even when it’s the man who breaks from tradition and accepted moral codes, it is the girl who gets blamed an punished: her father refuses to take her back, and asks her what she did to keep the man from wanting to touch her.

But his reasons are obvious but unspoken. May is herself only fourteen, learning the ways of her wealthy yet still repressed life as she goes along, and spends much of the story pregnant. This other girl is even younger. Her age is never stated, but she hardly looks older than ten. The man, himself young but still much older than her, is quite understandably not even interested. The girl attempts to undress for him on their wedding night and he barks at her to stop.

Mayfair treats her characters, to a person, with unusual empathy. It does not feel pointed that none of the men in this story are villainized, only that it was unnecessary. The men, by and large, are acting according to cultural strictures, just as the women and girls are. No one here is depicted as especially malicious. The caning of a young man who impregnated a woman out of wedlock is not so much a conscious evil as it is simply part of the rules. This is a society of people who lead otherwise peaceful lives, albeit in a deceiving way, given the subtle cancer that is sexism the world over.

It’s hard not to love Mayfair’s choice of perspective here. This is not the story of men who oppress, but rather the story of women who are barely even aware of the oppressive society in which they live. As such, The Third Wife features all of about three male speaking parts, and their combined dialogue is very limited. The husband to the three wives in question, who form a sort of sisterhood amongst themselves, is barely heard talking at all.

I can think of nothing negative to say about The Third Wife. I can think of nothing wrong with it — even though it caused some controversy in Vietnam itself, which pulled it from local release. One might have some ambivalence about the age of the lead actor, who was only 13 years old during shooting. I did not learn that particular detail until after seeing the movie, during which I did wonder how old she was — never thinking she could be that young. This may make little difference to some, but by all accounts the young actor is a precocious one, with a nuanced understanding of the script, and even though she was involved in some “intimate” scenes, none of them were outright sex scenes and none involved nudity. Well, now that I think about it, there is one scene in which she french kisses one of the other wives, who is much older than her. Any sane person would feel ambivalent about that at best.

I have no idea how much leeway to give cultural differences here. If nothing else, there is some comfort in the director having been a woman, with a clear vision of the story she was telling and an intricate understanding of the sexual politics involved. How appropriate was Nguyen Phuong Tra My for this part, then? That’s hard to say. I’m choosing to separate that knowledge from the final product onscreen, which is sublime in its presentation. It’s too bad its local theatrical run is limited to three days, and ends tomorrow. Its quiet, melancholy beauty is certainly best appreciated on the big screen.

A girl arguably too young for the part plays a girl too young to be married.

A girl arguably too young for the part plays a girl too young to be married.

Overall: A

DIAMANTINO

Directing: B-
Acting: B-
Writing: C-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B
Special Effects: C

Try to imagine how a movie gets to this point: A disgraced star soccer player, who has grown breasts, is approached by a young woman he thinks of as his adopted refugee son, who reveals her own breasts hidden under bandage wrap. This is when said soccer player, who, and I cannot stress this enough, had thought of the woman as his son, is seduced by her, and then they “make love,” even though Diamantino has heretofore been presented as a man with an otherwise empty, childlike brain that is completely sexless.

Wait, what? Conceivably someone with more capable skill than co-writer-director duo Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt could have brought us to this point in a way that was at all satisfying or at least made some sense. This team doesn’t quite make it, always presenting a story that merely flirts with making sense, that’s somewhere two steps to the left of innocently bizarro fun.

And that kind of “fun” seems to be what Diamantino is going for. Instead, it tackles disparate topical issues by examining them, and mixing them, in vaguely uncomfortable ways. It starts innocently enough, introducing us to Diamantino (Carloto Cotta, nailing the “dumb jock” look) on the soccer field, playing in the World Cup for Portgual (from which this movie comes), getting “in the zone” by imagining he is surrounded by giant fluffy puppies moving through a pink mist that looks sort of like viscous cotton candy.

But, he misses a penalty kick and thereby loses Portugal’s chance at the World Cup title. In the wake of this, he decides he wants to give up soccer, and after he helps his father take some refugees of a raft onto his yacht, he sets his sights on adopting a refugee child. This guy is presented as so dumb, when discussing this on a nationally televised interview and asked where he might adopt a child from, he replies, “Anywhere! Maybe Canada.”

Suspected by the government of laundering money, a lesbian couple who work for the Portuguese Secret Service pose as a nun and the aforementioned refugee boy. They make this deal in an empty underground garage, because of course, that’s where nuns frequent. Then again, Diamantino is just a lovable idiot, after all.

I haven’t even mentioned his evil twin sisters yet. They are awful from the moment they first appear onscreen, and never in a fun way. All you can do is actively hate these women. They treat Diamantino, as well as their father, like shit; they are insanely entitled “rich bitches” (which they use as the password for their joint computer account, on a computer they share with their brother, like all spoiled rich kids, right?); who spent a lot of time literally screaming at people in unison for no particularly good reason. They are such awful characters they nearly make the movie unbearable on their own.

Somehow, Diamantino has gotten this far without ever developing a mean bone in his body, oblivious to getting duped at every corner, to the point where his sisters sell him out to experiments meant to clone him to make an entire new national soccer team. The aim? To replicate his “genius” on the field (aside from that last mistake, I guess) to the point of whipping up Portuguese nationalism, with the ultimate aim of “making Portugal great again” and leaving the European Union. That’s right: all of this is in service of a broader plot point about the evils of nationalism. The people who run these experiments, which Diamantino has been led to believe are “physicals” — he does find them weird, at least — are like bad carbon copies of Bond villains.

As over the top as it is, Diamantino as a film seems to think it’s being subtle with its “topicality.” Instead, it uses themes of ethnic tensions and sexuality in vaguely dubious ways. It can’t seem to decide between a “white savior” complex, a crisis of conscience, and its uniquely bizarre take on gender-bending. It does not engender much faith that it could tackle any one of those things, should the focus be narrowed down, with much finesse.

I can’t help but wonder how this movie plays to Poruguese audiences. To be fair, there is a clear undercurrent of satire that quite possibly works better in cultural context. Some of it is easier to pick up, such as Diamantino’s omnipresent underwear campaign, on billboards and such. But again, Diamantino is prestented as completely sexless, except for the one point where, to put it bluntly, he fucks the woman he thought was his son. The rest of the movie is so platonic in its explorations of everything about him that, even when a later fantasy sequence features him nude on the soccer field with the giant fluffy puppies, it is in no way erotic. He’s just like an overgrown, little boy.

And I just don’t get it. Maybe this entire movie is genius and I just don’t have the IQ for it. Otherwise, it’s a rare example where I am more in line with the befuddled audiences than the other critics who have surprisingly quite liked it. It’s the audience interest that really matters, though, and no one in the U.S. is really rushing out to see this movie. They don’t need to, and just trust me, neither do you.

A man who can use a little self-reflection.

A man who can use a little self-reflection.

Overall: C+

THE FAREWELL

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-

I guess there are two things a movie needs these days to be successful, even if it’s only an independent or foreign film. It’s not enough just to be good — it has to be marketed well too. The people over at A24 Films seem to know what they’re doing: last weekend, The Farewell managed the year’s highest per-screen average to date, even higher than Avengers: Endgame. Granted, last weekend The Farewell only played on four theatres. But it’s clearly a strategy that worked: several publications ran stories about it. People on pop culture podcasts talked about it.

I fully expected the 6 p.m. showing I went to at The Egyptian Theatre on Seattle’s Capitol Hill might be sold out. I pre-purchased my ticket last night for that very reason, and arrived twenty minutes early. In the end, the house was not sold out, but it must have been at least 80% full. I found myself wondering if it might have been even fuller if not for the Capitol Hill Block Party going on all of one block away.

The hope, clearly, is that The Farewell can rely on word of mouth, so here I am telling you about it. Honestly, I’m not convinced the film quite lives up to the expectation. I grabbed three napkins on the way in, fully expecting a massive tear jerker. I only wiped away a couple of tears.

But it’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. I’m just a white guy in America whose only window into Chinese culture is precisely movies like these. As the opening title card says, it’s “based on an actual lie” — the typical practice of Chinese families not to tell a terminally ill family member that they are sick. In this version of the story, written and directed by Lulu Wang, it’s the family matriarch, the grandmother they all call “Nai Nai” (Shuzhen Zhao, who is wonderful, in her sole acting role). She has cancer and is given three months to live.

Although maybe three quarters of the dialogue is in Chinese, The Farewell is actually an American production, presumably with an eye for both American and Chinese audiences. That bridge comes in the form of the central character, Nai Nai’s granddaughter who has lived in the U.S. since she was little, Billi, played by Awkwafina in a breakout performance. Awkwafina managed to shine as well in movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, but those were “cool, fun” supporting parts, often quite funny. Here is a dramatic role which, although very much part of an ensemble cast, is the central character around whom the story revolves. We start and end with Billi, following her from New York City to Changchun, China and back, watching her as a very Americanized young woman struggling with this choice made by her extended family. In one scene, she notes that in America this would be illegal.

The family schedules a wedding for Billi’s one cousin, Hao Hao, and his Japanese wife, as a means of getting all of the family back together one last time with Nai Nai. Hao Hao lives in Japan because his father long ago moved him there, after all; Billi’s parents have themselves lived in the U.S. for many decades. But this wedding is the one area where Lulu Wang’s storytelling gets a little awkward, as both Hao Hao and his wife are barely utilized — as members of a relatively small extended family, it would have made sense to give them a bit more dimension as characters. Instead, Chen Han as Hao Hao doesn’t even have an audibly spoken line until what feels like halfway through the movie. Aio Mizuhara, as his wife who only speaks Japanese and does not speak or understand Chinese, never gets any lines at all, but for a brief scene in which she and Hao Hao sing a song together. It’s a little odd, given the extended sequence at a wedding everyone is pretending to be in their honor.

But if some of the supporting parts are not as fleshed out as they could have been, the relationships between Billi and Nai Nai, and also between Billi and her parents (Tzi Ma as the father with a sporadic drinking problem; Diana Lin as the mother who has a strained history with her mother-in-law; both actors are great), are as compelling as you could ask for. Nai Nai also has a sister (Hong Lu, also her only acting credit), who also has few lines even though she’s the one spearheading the secret. The whole scenario is deeply fascinating and poses a valid philosophical question. If this were an option for you, to keep their own terminal illness a secret from your own mother or grandmother, would you do it?

There is a certain difficulty in assessing a film like this for me, being so completely removed from the culture from which its premise comes. It seems entirely possible it would speak to people with Chinese families in a completely different way, and perhaps speaks most directly to American children of Chinese immigrants. The Farewell is genuinely moving, regardless of such nuances. It may not have made me cry as much as I expected it to, but perhaps that just means it makes the refreshing choice of avoiding emotional manipulation.

In fact, by and large this film is rather understated and subtle, which works very much in its favor. It’s quiet and contemplative, aided in large part by Awkwafina’s restrained performance. Its polished cinematography and tight editing conspire to make this a story, full of as much heart and humor as there is sadness, easy to fall into.

A family that lies together . . . won’t have to cry together?

A family that lies together . . . won’t have to cry together?

Overall: B+

CAPERNAUM

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

You might call Capernaum the “feel-bad movie of the year,” which is perhaps not the best way to sell people on it. It’s absolutely worth seeing, though, even if it’s by virtue of its subtle defiance. Director and co-writer Nadine Labaki seems to be insisting we face the truth of what we’re doing to ourselves.

And it’s not in the manner you might expect. The story revolves around young Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, excellent in his resigned stoicism), who is so scrawny and small he appears much younger than his apparent twelve years of age. He doesn’t even know for sure how old he is; his parents don’t either. No one has any official papers to prove it, and his parents (played by Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Yousef) never bothered to care.

And therein lies the point: Zain is suing his parents. His reason? Because he was born.

When it comes to kids who are brought up in crime and squalor, this is honestly an impressively clever idea. Zain didn’t ask for this life, and he has no choice in having had it foist upon him. He’s currently serving five years in a juvenile jail for stabbing a man — or, as he says in court, “a son of a bitch.” This elicits giggles from people in the courtroom, and even from the movie’s audience. Then it slowly dawns on you what the true reason behind the attack may have been.

Zain has too many siblings. He still cares about them, especially Sahar (Haita “Cedra” Izzam), who he helps, in vain, try hiding the fact that, at 11 years old, her menstrual cycle has begun. Before long there is talk of marrying her off to the young man who lets them all live on his property rent free. Zain, understandably, doesn’t trust him. His and Sahar’s parents characterize it as a survival move, that they are doing Sahar a favor.

A rather long stretch of Capernaum — which, in the title credits, is translated as “chaos,” a colloquial use of the word that also doubles as the name of a doomed Biblical village — follows Zain after he gets fed up with his family and runs away, surviving on his on on the streets of Beirut. He is taken in by an Ethiopian woman, Rahil (Yardanos Shiferaw), working in Lebanon illegally and with her own infant in tow. Capernaum really takes its time with Zain’s day to day life, particularly the one he settles into with Rahil, and the infant he winds up having to take care of on his own.

Zain is just trying to make the best of his situation, with an even mix of resignation and determination. Once he moves from life with his family to life with Rahil, it becomes less certain who it was he stabbed. This is one of several details that don’t become quite clear until the end, with some creative editing that slightly plays with the story’s timeline and is also borderline contrived. The majority of the story is told in flashback, from relatively odd scenes in the courtroom in which Zain insists his parents should not be allowed to have more children. And we’re left to think about how right he is, whether it’s his Lebanese parents or parents in the world beyond.

Capernaum ends on a hopeful note, albeit one that is as bittersweet as it is emotionally affecting. The last image of Zain’s face will haunt you.

Nothing cute to see here.

Nothing cute to see here.

Overall: B+

COLD WAR

Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-
Music: B+

I don’t usually call out the music in a movie unless it’s a musical — or, as in the case of A Star Is Born, barely short of a musical because it’s about singers who are performing original music. In the case of Cold War, one of its many pleasures is its music, which features far more than expected. It doesn’t quite veer into even “almost a musical” territory, but the female lead, Zula (a captivating Joanna Kulig) is indeed a singer. It’s how she meets her star-crossed lover, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, mostly stoic), as he is a music director and she cons her way into a group of young musicians scouted from the Polish peasantry in the early 1950s.

These two are mismatched, their backgrounds are incompatible, they cannot let each other go, they cannot stand each other, they are doomed to love each other beyond all others even as their lives dissect intersect, though many years, well into the mid-sixties. This is an incredible time span to cover in a run time of all of 89 minutes, but somehow director and co-writer Pawel Pawlekowski (Ida) manages it.

From the Polish folk music beginning, the narrative moves to Berlin to Paris to Yugoslavia and back to Poland again, Zula’s career as a singer and Wikto’s career as a musician figuring prominently every step of the way. There are moments when the music subtly reveals itself to be subtly quite pretty, even when Zula is merely singing scales.

As you might have guessed, the Cold War is the literal backdrop of this romance that somehow manages to be epic even within a brief run time. If Cold War proves anything, it’s that a movie has no need for en endless run time to convey true depth. Granted, this is still a stylized foreign film, shot in black and white no less, that will test some short attention spans. It’s also a feast for the eyes of anyone who appreciates a striking and start aesthetic, as even without color, Cold War is beautifully shot.

I kept expecting something more overtly political to the story, but Pawlekowski keeps the narrative grounded firmly in romance, with Eastern European sociopolitical issues merely as its framework, or its lens. Perhaps there is a more overt metaphor at play here, a bit of food for the pretensions of film studies majors. I did not find anything particularly cold about the fire between these two, though — burning passions that veer between romance and resentment.

And then Zula is singing into a microphone at a club, and the sequence is captivating. She drinks a little too much, jumps into a crowd dancing to “Rock Around the Clock,” and the choreography and camera work are impressive. I can’t say I found Wiktor to be the most compelling character; he spends a lot of time staring expressionlessly. He looks good, though. That said, literally everyone in this movie does.

The ending takes a turn that will stay with me a while, especially with a uniquely perfect final line of dialogue. It seems to be the only fate for these two, who forge entire lives independent of each other and yet keep returning to each other, that makes sense. Cold War didn’t quite speak to me with as much profundity as it evidently is with most critics, but it certainly has a sensibility all its own, a point of view from a time and place that reverberates beyond its own confines. It somehow turns a universal concept into a singular experience.

A couple in stark relief.

A couple in stark relief.

Overall: B+

ROMA

Directing: B+
Acting: B-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A+
Editing: A-

It may be that you have to be a bona fide cinephile to appreciate Roma, which is unique in both its subtlety and depth, and really takes its time. If you’re not given to noticing impressive feats of cinematic execution, you might genuinely be bored. The Venn diagram of lovers of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” and lovers of foreign intellectual meditations like this one must have the tiniest sliver of overlap.

Distributed by Netflix, Roma has had an unconventional rollout. It opens in theatres today (December 6), only one week before it will be available streaming. Advocates for the film insist it’s an immersive experience that must be seen on the big screen — I took them at their word, and shelled out $17 to see it at Seattle’s unparalleled best movie theatre, the Cinerama. The guy who came out to introduce it raved about its sound mixing: “This will be the best movie you’ve ever heard,” he said. What an odd selling point. So it’s like a radio play, but with pictures?

I have to be honest. I watched the first half or so of Roma wondering what all the fuss was about. Alfonso Cuarón, who serves as cinematographer for the first time on a film he also directs, keeps his camera lingering on a 1970 middle-class Mexico City family living in the neighborhood the film is named after (which is never actually mentioned onscreen). We see them go about their day to day lives.

The central character is the family maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), and when we first see her, she is gathering laundry. She cooks, she makes tea, she gathers dishes — she’s part of the family, at least so far as the four children, three boys and one girl, are concerned. In one scene, in the middle of gathering dishes as the family sits on a couch watching TV, she sits on a discarded couch cushion on the floor next to the couch. Within minutes, however, the kids’ mom is asking her to get them a drink.

The many wide, tracking shots packed with astonishingly well-choreographed action in Roma don’t quite register for some time after they’ve started — in some cases, after the movie has ended — because so much of the first half of the film is in quiet observance of this family. The basic beats of the story arc could not possibly be simpler. Then comes the gripping, tense scene of Cleo giving birth, and its one-shot chaos is reminiscent of the birth scene in Cuarón’s jaw-dropping Children of Men (2006). This time, however, instead of being a ray of light in a truly bleak world, that dynamic is inverted.

The key difference between the feats of editing, cinematography and production design of Children of Men and Roma are that in the former film, one could argue that Alfonso Cuarón was showing off. This time, the details are so subtle they are easy to miss, as you very slowly yet very assuredly become invested in the goings-on of this family. Even the truth about the kids’ mother and father’s marriage takes its sweet time to reveal itself.

And then, a string of visual set pieces, seamlessly woven together. Cleo looking on dumbstruck at babies in a hospital nursury when an earthquake hits. Witnessing “El Halconazo,” or the 1971 massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City, through a set of second-story windows while crib shopping. A New Year’s Eve forest fire fought by nearby revelers suddenly tasked with passing buckets of water to splash upon the flames, in a chain stretching from a nearby lake. An unbroken shot from shore, well into the waves of the ocean, and back to the beach again, as Cleo goes out to retrieve two kids who swam out too far, even though she herself can’t swim. Details here and there making lasting impressions: earthquake rubble on top of a hospital nursery’s baby incubator. Onlookers at the New Year’s Eve fire calmly sipping from their champagne glasses.

Almost entirely constructed as recreations of Cuarón’s own memories, Roma is packed with detail, but because he refuses to sensationalize any of them, they can be easy to miss. Cleo’s life is marked by hardship, but she herself barely seems to notice. The problems of the family that employs her seem almost laughable by comparison, but she serves as a sort of rock for them.

Roma has clear sociopolitical implications regarding where class and race intersect — Cleo is of indigenous descent. One wonders how this presentation plays within activist circles in Mexico, and what might be considered offensive or overwrought. The story is plainly told from Cleo’s point of view, though, and its presentation seems to be devoid of cliché, at least from my admittedly limited, white-American perspective.

If anything seems to be typical of Alfonso Cuarón movies, it’s that they tend to be marvels of cinema in nearly every way except one. That one flaw seems to vary. Children of Men suffered from glaring implausibility. Gravity (2013), a stunning achievement in visual effects, was thin on story. Roma suffers no such problems, but the acting is . . . not the best. Not only are all the actors (who speak both Spanish and indigenous languages) completely unknown to American audiences, they seem to have no real acting training either.

One could argue that the actors are themselves often props, part of a succession of elaborately designed action-dioramas. It’s easy to go back and forth on this, the idea of “authenticity” when it comes to the acting in Roma. They may not seem schooled in acting technique, but maybe that makes them somehow more real. I found the acting far less compelling than the presentation at first, but — well, that birth scene is really an emotional gut punch, from which no one, in the film or in the audience, quite recovers.

All this is to say Roma can catch you off guard, provided you have the patience for the time it takes. It seeps into you slowly, its roots slowly digging into your soul. It somehow justifies itself after the fact, well after the credits have rolled, as it slowly dawns on you how much better it is than it seemed in the midst of it.

A family fits as only they can in  ROMA.

A family fits as only they can in ROMA.

Overall: A-

THE CAKEMAKER

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Here is a truly rare film that refuses to put a person's sexuality into a clearly defined category, places no judgment on it, and makes some room for the joy in it. Being a bit removed from typical American puritanism, as a joint Israeli-German production, probably has something to do with that. The Cakemaker, as the title might suggest, also features so many luscious shots of pastries that my mouth is still watering as I write this.

Far more sensual than erotic, this movie really takes its time, but in a way that lets you settle gradually into it, this world of characters who all have a somewhat deadpan delivery, at least until a key moment when one of them breaks down sobbing. These sorts of performances can be difficult to gauge, and are often typical of independent or foreign films. Do none of these people just act like normal, chill people? They're all sort of waiting quietly, perhaps for their moment, when they do something deceptively minor but specifically consequential.

The Cakemaker of the title, named Thomas (Tim Kalkhof, a curiously attractive bit of beefcake), is certainly the most calculated in this endeavor. He runs a cafe in Berlin, where he embarks on an affair with a married Israeli man, Oren (Roy Miller), who comes to Berlin from Jerusalem once a month or so for work. But when Oren dies in a car crash in Jerusalem, Thomas takes off for Jerusalem and, without them knowing who he is, gradually befriends Oren's widow Anat (Sarah Adler, also in this year's excellent Foxtrot) and their son, Itai.

There is obvious historical tension in a relationship between an Israeli and a German, which writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer cultivates with effective subtlety. Perhaps my favorite thing about his layered script is how incidental the sexuality of the characters are. This story would play no differently if the affair were between a man and a woman. It just happens to be between a man and a man. Not one person in this movie ever even draws attention to that fact.

Instead, the prejudice on display is by Anat's brother Moti (Zohar Strauss), who bristles at a German working in the kitchen of Anat's certified-kosher cafe. Still, he gives Thomas a chance, offering him an apartment in the building he manages, and over a lengthy period of time, Thomas takes small steps toward relationship territory with Anat herself.

Now, I do have some questions. Who the hell is running Thomas's cafe back in Berlin? He tells us his parents are gone but not why, and that he was raised by his grandmother. is he independently wealthy? What small business owner can just go live in another country for an indeterminate period of time to pursue a bit of borderline skeevy stalking?

Maybe there's a sort of obsession going on, although The Cakemaker never makes that overtly clear. Does he simply want to become the man he was in love with and lost? Graizer refuses to spoon feed his audience, and okay, I can respect that. There's a couple of great scenes with Oren's mother that strongly suggest she knows what's up ("You knew my son?" she asks, innocently), but again, this is never made explicit.

As this story unfolded, I found myself deciding I would like it best if in the end, Thomas just lived the rest of his days as part of this new family with none of them being the wiser. The way it ends isn't exactly an inevitable alternative, but then, The Cakemaker ends without the satisfaction of a hard resolution.

There's that refusal to spoon feed us again. Graizer -- and Thomas -- are too busy with rolling pins in hand instead, letting tension build gradually and steadily, until a love triangle involving a dead man reveals itself to the living. It's fascinating -- and satisfying -- to see such sociopolitical elements explored in a movie that makes absolutely nothing of its inclusion of a same-sex relationship. I'm not even sure if there is any deliberate metaphorical strain to Thomas unwittingly using the oven in Anat's cafe at the wrong time, thereby threatening her kosher certification.

A fair focus is put on Anat and her family's Jewishness, and Anat's being comparatively non-religious, not eating kosher at home, only applying that to her cafe because it makes business sense. None is put on Thomas's religion, if he even has one; only his being German. Nothing even makes direct reference to Nazi history; Graizer lets the obvious speak for itself. His script, in fact, reveals itself to be more impressive upon further reflection -- a few burning questions notwithstanding. I'd have liked the performances to feel a little more natural, but, as with everything, I suppose that's a matter of taste.

Thomas lays it all out in Tim Kalkhof's flat performance.

Thomas lays it all out in Tim Kalkhof's flat performance.

Overall: B+

THE LAST SUIT

Directing: B-
Acting: B-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

I'll give The Last Suit this much: it has a novelty to it I had not yet encountered -- namely, a story about Polish Jewish immigrants in Argentina. Typically movies about Jewish people are either seen through the lens of American perspectives, or if they are foreign films, either German or Israeli -- for obvious reasons. Conversely, most films from Latin America are specific to the Latino experience. This movie combines those two things.

Beyond that, however, Argentinian director Pablo Solarz oversimplifies things a tad, in so doing somewhat cheapening the truly tragic history of the Jewish people. Even though we learn that the elderly Abraham Bursztein (Miguel Ángel Solá) once witnessed the Nazi execution of both his parents as well as his sister, this movie never truly succeeds in bearing down the weight of the Holocaust. It's too busy following this eccentric man's travels and exploring diversions with people he comes across.

We do learn that he was born in 1927. A reference to the iPhone 6 by one of his great grandchildren establishes the present day to be fully modern: the story is set now. Being released in Argentina in 2017, that would make Abraham 90 years old. Miguel Ángel Solá was born in 1950, which means the actor was significantly aged for the part. I'll admit the movie's makeup department does a good job here.

Abraham, disillusioned with grown children who now want to put him in a retirement home (he's ninety, for fuck's sake), skips town in Argentina and takes flight to Europe, on his way to the Warsaw of his youth to reunite with the best friend who nursed him back to health after returning from a concentration camp. The first stop is Madrid, where his one estranged daughter still live. He travels, over the course of the story, from Madrid through Germany -- much as he tries to get to Poland without having to set foot in Germany -- to Warsaw.

Other characters come and go through his travels. The young man sitting next to him on the airplane, who gives him a ride to his hostel. The older woman working the front desk at the hostel, who takes him out. And potentially the most problematic, the middle-aged German woman he meets on the train who seems to exist only as an avatar for German's national shame about the Holocaust. "Things have changed in Germany," she says, after speaking to him in Yiddish because she studied it in college, and then spends a good portion of the film being a sort of German Good Samaritan for his benefit.

All of this is readily engaging, but never really gets to the meat of the issues, or particularly the history at play. Furthermore, it's maybe halfway through the film before we get flashbacks to 1945 Warsaw, and the scenes of Abraham being nursed by the young friend he's now searching for -- the lack detail and context, to the point that they fail to ring true. Those scenes in particular feel a little like watching an amateur play.

The Last Suit does have its charms. It's about a cranky old man bringing a suit back to a friend, now a taylor (hence the film's title), he hasn't seen in seventy years. Those charges are incongruous with the horrors in the man's past, barely touched on, mentioned almost in passing. Those family murders are only brought up as justification for Abraham's hatred of all Germans. Predictably, his heart softens with the German woman after a while.

It's all just too tidy. As a film, there's nothing terribly wrong with The Last Suit, but neither does it ever feel quite right.

Still waiting for all this to come together satisfyingly .

Still waiting for all this to come together satisfyingly.

Overall: B-

FOXTROT

Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: A
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A

Foxtrot is presented in three acts, each pretty radically different from the last, almost as though watching three separate 35-minute short films. They are inextricably linked, however, and as such do not feel so separate, in spite of the jarring change of environments.

The first and third act feature the same characters, but a different focus. The first is on middle-aged father Michael Feldman, played by Lior Ashkenazi, who looks rather like a cross between Christoph Waltz and Steve Carell. Writer-director Samuel Maoz takes an almost uncomfortably intimate look at a father's grief when he is told his son was killed in action, Ashkenazi showing a shattered vulnerability rarely seen with men onscreen.

In this first act, Michael's wife, Daphna (Sarah Adler), has been drugged and spends much of the time incapacitated in bed. I began to wonder if Foxtrot would be a disappointment in its sidestepping of its female characters. But when the story returns to these two in the third act, the focus shifts much more on her.

In between, the story shifts suddenly to the military post where their son, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), is stationed with three other young men manning a checkpoint out in the middle of nowhere. Just as often as the gate is raised for Palestinians passing through, it's raised for a camel meandering down the road.

In spite of these soldiers' general lack of emotion, this entire second act is hypnotic in its pacing and in its stark imagery. Grimy computer equipment is used to scan passport photos to check for clearance; makeshift tools are used to keep a run-down radio working. It all feels like an old vision of a dystopian future, distant echoes of films like Blade Runner, as if to demonstrate that such dystopian visions are very real, current realities in certain parts of the world.

The soldiers have an eerily dispassionate approach to their jobs. In one memorable sequence, a middle-aged Palestinian couple dressed in formal attire is asked to step out of their car. They wait as their passports are scanned, drenched quickly under a sudden torrential rainfall.

Foxtrot is full of fairly obvious metaphors, not least of which is the title itself, with separate characters at different times literally dancing the Foxtrot to demonstrate how they always wind up right back where they began. The young Israeli soldiers hang out inside an abandoned shipping container, which is slowly lowering into the ground at one end. One of them says, "We're sinking." Indeed. Somehow, though, obviousness notwithstanding, these metaphors stop short of feeling forced.

With another carload of young Palestinians, something goes terribly wrong, a simple mistake turned into tragically fatal error. Jonathan is involved, but the way he fits into the broader story arc of Foxtrot is not quite what you first expect. Sudden turns of events that alter people's lives and fates can come out of nowhere, quite randomly, with no apparent link to moral cause and effect. In the real world, there is no karma -- only senselessness.

There's a sort of elusive perfection to this movie, a clear precision, a unique finesse, without spelling out exactly what Samuel Maoz is trying to say. Certainly plenty of Israelis feel they understand it, as this movie has proved controversial in its country of origin. That's hardly surprising. For the rest of us, further removed from those cultural biases, it's easier to take Foxtrot as a beautifully artistic portrait of familial grief, and how perception can radically alter meaning. Jonathan's parents observe one of his drawings left behind, of a bulldozer moving a wrecked car, as a representation of themselves. They have no idea the drawing is a straightforward representation of a life changing event.

Foxtrot is the kind of movie that stays with you, both provocative and deeply moving. It reminded me in certain ways of The Hours, otherwise very different but also a portrait of emotional pain, from varying perspectives that click into place like a psychological puzzle. Its themes are definitively depressing, but there's something extremely satisfying about it.

It's a dance that just brings you back to where you started.

It's a dance that just brings you back to where you started.

Overall: A-