Thanks to my new personal god, Netflix InstantWatch, I was lucky enough to view two foreign films that, given my recently established criteria, make the list for 2010. I've had a lackluster year in foreign language viewings (The Millennium trilogy and I am Love), and I'm desperate to find something worthwhile to put in my personal rosters. And while I didn't necessarily love either of the two films I watched, they're certainly better than the four mentioned above, and they feature two wonderful performances. And as I watched them, I had eerily similar reactions in regards to what I thought were the strengths and weaknesses.
What I liked:
The standouts from both films are their leading ladies: Mother's Hye-ja Kim and Vincere's Giovanna Mezzorgiorno. One fictional, one real, both rich, complex, surprising (especially Kim) performances that rank among the year's best. Were they both in English (and actually given a campaign), I have no doubt they would have taken in a sizable heap of critics awards at the very least (Kim managed to claim one, I believe from LA).
The production values, especially the cinematography. Vincere's visuals are certainly more obviously striking, and it fits with the bombastic tone of the whole film. Among its best is a shot of an open air structure as light and smoke filter through after a bombing, while the silhouettes of civilians run in panic. There's also a fabulous sequence involving Ida (Mezzogiorno) hanging onto an iron gate while snow pour down that stands as one of the loveliest visuals of the year. That said, Mother's camera work has its own, less flashy, pleasures, namely a handful of wide landscape shots. And of course, the final shot is a (very strange) thing of beauty.
The second halves. Both films run a tad over 2 hours, and both films also improve as they move along. As Mother enters its second hour, the story becomes more intriguing, and the mystery becomes more prominent. The tone also becomes more consistent, as does the type of music used in the score. The last 30 minutes take the film in an unexpected direction that's both twisted and satisfying. As for Vincere, it improves a little earlier (close to the 45 minute mark) when the historical aspects of the story have been cleared and the script narrows its focus down to Ida Dalser's confinement to an insane asylum. Though it sometimes becomes a little repetitive, Mezzogiorno is always there to keep the story worth sticking with, even if it does conclude with all-too-predictable historical title cards.
What I didn't like:
The first halves. Though Mother opens strongly, the remainder of the first hour feels uncomfortable, and in places simply strange. There are some very weird attempts at humor that don't really connect at all. As for Vincere, it can be strangely edited and even verges on confusing in spots. And when it's not doing that, it's being wildly bombastic, with intrusive (and sometimes repetitive) title cards and music that at one point resorts to having a chorus shriek "GUERRA!" over and over again.
The music. While both films have some fantastic music in their scores, there's also a fair amount that doesn't quite work. Mother's score occasionally jumps into this awkward Jazz-lite style that seems to want to wring some sort of forced deadpan comedy out of the story. Vincere's score on the other hand gives in to the urge to be as bombastic as one of Mussolini's speeches.