The Case for ‘Champions’ and ‘Capernaum’

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Today is the deadline for nations to submit films to the Oscars for consideration as the Best Foreign Language Film of 2018. Last year, Chile (for the first time) won the annual global honor, and at this year’s fifth annual Miami Film Festival GEMS, you can see nine of this year’s strongest contenders. Which country should/will succeed Chile for the crown? (No country has won the award in successive years since Denmark did it in 1987 and 1988.) See all nine to improve your chances of guessing the finalists for the shortlist – and the eventual winner. Here’s my take on a couple of the candidates:

Spain – Like the heroes of the movie itself, Javier Fesser’s Champions at first appears to be an extreme underdog. The film opened in Spain last April without the benefit of any advance buzz from film festival playdates, and only recently has begun travelling internationally. Yet it’s only an underdog until you see it, which is why it has been a true box office phenomenon (currently the 13th highest grossing Spanish film in Spain’s domestic history).

This is a misfits-bond-together-to-overcome-the-odds story with an incredible difference – the story is told from the point-of-view of a basketball team made up of people with disabilities, and you see how the “mainstream” world really looks incredibly abnormal to this group, who patiently wait for us to catch on to their framework. I can’t think of another feel-good comedy-drama that ever taken this kind of approach, and it makes the movie entirely unpredictable. The characters, and the film, have a heart as large as the ocean, and does what all movies should do – remind us of something we have lost: perspective. Without manipulation, it uplifts us. I’ve seen it twice already and would happily sit through it a third time. I think Champions is a real wildcard in the Oscar race and could sneak a nomination right under the nose of all the prognosticators who are not yet including it in the Oscar conversation.

Oscar voters are known for voting with their hearts, and not according to any cannon established by critics and curators. Champions has already surprised many in just being chosen as Spain’s submission – it beat out another film that is in GEMS this year, the star-studded Everybody Knows (you can see both films and form your own opinion of Spain’s choice). Director Asghar Farhadi has won 2 Oscars for Iran (A Separation in 2012 and The Salesman in 2016), yet he set and produced Everybody Knows in Spain with a cast that includes Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darin. Perhaps Spain’s film industry insiders felt Champions ultimately has more of a Spanish sensibility between the two films; or perhaps Champions simply slam-dunked itself into everyone’s heart. The champions of Champions have a knack for melting away even the sternest resistance.

Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum

Lebanon won its first ever nomination last year with Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult, and I predict a happy repeat for the nation this year with Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum.  At times a sobering look at the plight of those left to fend for themselves on the margins of Beirut, the film ultimately soars on the theme of created family. In this fractured world, our families become those who we spend our time with, and upon those we come to rely.

Capernaum’s main focus is on Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a 12-year-old street kid grubbing by with his hand-to-mouth family. When his parents agree to give one of Zain’s young sister to the family’s landlord as a child bride, Zain rebels and is forced to flee. He stumbles into the life of an Ethopian refugee who is working illegally as a cleaning woman while trying to care for her 2-year-old son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole).

In the great tradition of films like De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves or Hector Babenco’s Pixote, the genius of Capernaum lies in the casting of its child actors. Zain Al Rafeea has a face for the ages; he weathers every blow, every disappointment with a ripple of sensitivity that you can see him suppress before your very eyes. Even more astounding is the toddler actor. Even at the age of 2, Yonas has a distinct and strong personality and contributes as much character to the movie as any of the adult actors. Undoubtably aided by the skill of director Nadine Labaki and editor Konstantin Bock, these two ragged misfits take on the world – and despite everything they lose in the process of the story, they win our hearts completely.

This could be the most emotional Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar race in years.

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Jaie Laplante

Jaie Laplante is the Miami Film Festival's executive director and director of programming. Learn more about Jaie on Programmers.