The front-runner for the 2009 Best Foreign Film Oscar were Germany's The White Ribbon and Argentina's The Secret in Their Eyes. Both are dramas that deal with repressive communities where people must watch what they say and who they see. Michael Haneke wrote the story and screenplay for The White Ribbon, which he also directed. It's a strange film, shot beautifully in stark black and white with allusions to Ingmar Bergman in themes and characters and to the westerns of John Ford in images and compositions. A small village in northern Germany in 1913 begins to experience disturbing events: a doctor and his horse felled my a wire near his home, the local baron's small son tortured, a suicide. Is this a parable for what is to come for Germany or a commentary on the innate evil in men as seen in their children, a la Village of the Damned? Or is it just a really creepy movie with no clear answers. The director cuts from story to story without a seeming logic, but the feeling engendered is that of a vise that will finally strangle the community. The White Ribbon is worth seeing, but one is relieved when it is over and would not want to experience it again.
The same could not be said for The Secret in Their Eyes, the Argentinian film that surprised Oscar viewers by winning over The White Ribbon. Directed by Juan Jose Campanella, it is a moving meditation on politics, repressed love and speech, and the need to punish. This drama is in color and switches time periods as it releases the details of its mystery. It involves a low level legal counsel and his near obsession with solving a murder-rape case and his long unspoken love for his superior officer. After his retirement 20 years later, he tries to write a novelization of the crime. The more he investigates, the more labyrinthine and dangerous the search becomes. To say any more would perhaps give away too much, but this film is full of surprises, all of which are valid and work towards its stunning climax. The performances of the principal actors are deeply affecting so that they seem more real than most Hollywood film performances.
Both The White Ribbon and The Secret in Their Eyes are films that explore the darkness of repressed societies and desires that lead to violence and death, but only The Secret in Their Eyes offers redemption and even hope. If you rent any foreign film this year, make it this one.