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Unlikely Oscar Chances for Brazil and Venezuela with 'The Way He Looks' and 'The Liberator'

Glenn here to take a look at two of this year’s official foreign language film selections from South America. They couldn’t be more different if they tried: from Venezuela we have The Liberator, a historic epic, while Brazil has submitted the rather small-scale gay teenage romance The Way He Looks. The latter is a particularly interesting selection for Brazil, a country that hasn’t been nominated since the one-two punch of 1998-1999, yet it follows in the path of last year’s even more adventurous selection Neighbouring Sounds, which hadn’t a hope in hell, but kudos for that country’s committee choosing quality over what’s perhaps perceived as an easier sell to Oscar voters.

Venezuela would have been wise to do the same. While the exquisite Bad Hair probably wouldn’t have made the Oscar cut even if it had been selected, passing it up in favor of the transparent and flat filmmaking of Alberto Arvelo’s The Liberator disappoints. The cynic in me from my early days of Oscar-watching would have thought this film a shoe-in given its grand war sequences, low-heat romance and exotic vistas, but doesn’t it feel like we’ve somewhat moved away from this sort of film with Oscar voters showing unique bravery in recent years of this category. Maybe the Venezuelan selection committee thought the sight of handsome Édgar Ramirez floating above a swath of flag-waving revolutionaries on the poster would pique AMPAS interest.

Arvelo’s film is the story of Simon Bolivar, a man whom the opening credits tell us fought in over 100 battles and traversed 70,000 miles, twice the terrain of Alexander the Great. “His army never conquered – it liberated.” An early scene of Bolivar returning to his home in Venezuela with his new wife even shows that the  slaves on his plantation all think of him as a wonderful, noble man and he joins them in a late night dance by a bonfire. He’s basically a perfect human being. A man of the people. That doesn’t exactly make for the most interesting character. Nor does it make for a believable one.

More The Liberator and Brazil's gay romance The Way He Looks after the jump...

The Liberator follows a fairly straight-forward path. Born into apparent wealth beyond comprehension, he meets a woman on travels to Spain. They’re a perfect fit for a cinematic romance because he’s cheekily defiant in the face of royal authority while she bows her head in coy femininity and together they speak in bland romantic platitudes that make them sounds as if they spent their formative years reading tawdry romance novels in the hopes that one day they too could compare their lover to the sun and the stars or whatever. It’s not too long before he takes charge of an army to liberate Venezuela from Spain. Danny Huston is in there too, and everybody recites their dialogue as if reading from classroom text books, knowing that everything they say is of grand Historical Importance.

Not at all interested in realistically portraying the horrors of war or going off on directorial flights of fancy, The Liberator is a big misfire. The director is seemingly far too reverential towards its lead, afraid to do anything risky, and it severely dampens the drama. With a musical score that swells in all the right places and beautiful photography of the South American landscape, it all comes off as too neatly precise. Nary a hair is out of place in the search for perfection, but the film comes up well short and lacks the magic to make the material pop. Only one sequence, a treacherous trek across the Andes, approaches any sort of transcendent scale.

In comparison, it’s nice to think back to The Way He Looks, which I saw at NewFest a couple of months ago and which I enjoyed greatly and remember far better than The Liberator, which I only saw two weeks ago. This film, a boutique assemblage of teenage coming-out drama and subtle romance, was adapted from a lovely short named I Don't Want to Go Home Alone with the same actors (which can be viewed on Vimeo and I recommend it) and director Daniel Ribeiro was wise to keep the scope of his story streamlined and to focus more on character. The film follows Leonardo, a blind high-schooler, and his best friend Giovana whose comfortable lives are upturned by the arrival of Gabriel. The film won both the FIPRESCI Prize and the Teddy in Berlin.

While, yes, the gay romance at the center is what ultimately makes the film the special little gem that it is, I also enjoyed the way it tied in Leonardo’s sexuality with his desire of independence from an over-protective mother and home-life. Being a closeted gay teenage isn’t always about angst over sexuality – in fact, especially these days, it’s a natural thing that isn’t much of a struggle at all. Sometimes the biggest problems with being a teenager involve simply not wanting to feel as if our lives are being dictated and that we have some semblance of a say into what we do.

Gorgeously lensed to maximize Brazil’s sunlight and with keen affection for its characters without making them saints, The Way He Looks is a charming and affecting film. I doubt Brazil will have any more luck getting a nomination for it, but I appreciate the gamble. Alongside Canada’s Mommy and Portugal’s What Now? Remind Me, representation of gay characters and filmmakers is surprisingly strong this year and if the country’s selection of this sweet film means more people are aware of it and see it then that’s a nice reward, too.

The foreign language film Oscar submission charts - fully updated. Explore and share with friends!

Pt. 1 Afghanistan through Ethiopia - 15 official submissions thus far
Pt. 2 Finland through Panama - 23 official submissions thus far including the first ever submission from Panama called Invasión
Pt. 3 Peru through Vietnam -15 submissions thus far

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Reader Comments (13)

As gay pira!

September 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJanildo

lol janildo.

yes at "hoje eu quero voltar sozinho" ("the way he looks")! the movie might be 'simple' - I even read complaints about the characters being 'privileged' and I'm like "well, there IS a middle class in brazil!") - but it's so sweet and the central trio is great. I loved all the silliness (which is of course very serious for the people involved) with friendship preferences, jealousy etc. and the final scene is wonderful in its simplicity and effect.

September 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

Brazil... We make some good films nowadays, especially in the Northeast part of the country. But they're not AMPAS's cup-of-tea and their filmmakers are miles away from worldwide arthouse auteurs such as Ceylan, Dolan or the Dardennes. As the reviewer said, chances of a nomination are slim to none.

September 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGustavo

gustavo - I agree with you. and sometimes those good films we produce aren't even released properly here, mainly playing at festivals. there's a whole list of films I hear are fantastic and I never get to see them (some are not even available through ~alternative~ sources).

September 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

something related to this difficult with distribution, the short "eu não quero voltar sozinho" ("I don't want to go home alone") was actually made with the intent to generate interest to produce the feature film, because financing was a problem I believe.

also, the short was at some point censured at the state of acre when it was shown in an educational project at schools, because religious leaders pressured the local politicians.

September 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

I have a suspicion that Venezuela's chances might not be as slim as you think, Glenn. I don't know about a nomination, but I won't be surprised in the least to see it pop up on the nine-wide shortlist. It's the most expensive production ever filmed on the continent, I believe, and similarly mediocre-but-glitzy films have made it onto the shortlist in recent years-- Even the Rain, Warriors of the Rainbow, Kon-Tiki, and The Grandmaster come to mind.

Just a guess...

September 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

I also give Venezuela a better than passing chance at going pretty far. Edgar is a known quantity, very well known quantity, Bolivar is HUGE in South American history, bio pics of a true hero (and he was, even if the film embellishes the truth) and it's a pretty film by all accounts.

September 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Evan - You lost me saying The Grandmaster is mediocre-but-glitzy...

September 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJanildo

I don't understand this "Unlikely Oscar chances" article at all. Venezuela's pick is CLEARLY in the running for the shortlist at least and The Way He Looks won prizes at Berlin, a festival whose prizewinners frequently show up in the category. It also sounds like you really enjoyed the latter film, so why the negativity?

September 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

I wasn't wowed by "The Way He Looks" - it adheres to high school coming-of-age tropes a little to closely and a little too tidily for me - but it's such a sweet and big-hearted film it's almost impossible to resist all the same.

September 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Squasher88 - What arguments do you have to support your claim that "Venezuela's pick is CLEARLY in the running for the shortlist"?

And about "The Way He Looks", how many teenagers gay romcoms have won the oscar before?

September 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJanildo

@Janildo Everything I read about it makes it sound like a contender for the shortlist. It reminds me of glossy Hollywood-like productions in the vein of Warriors of the Rainbow, Kon-Tiki. Having a familiar face in the lead role and a US distribution ahead of the nominations is a big plus too. Whether the film is actually high quality tends not to matter as much in those cases.

As I said, The Way He Looks did pretty well at Berlin and that festival is a mainstay in the category. Winning audience audience awards is a good sign of popular appeal too. It also has a US distributor to give it that publicity advantage as well. Finally, I never said The Way He Looks was going to win. I just feel that writing a headline "Unlikely Oscar Chances" is unfairly pessimistic for a film that has so many positives in its favor.

September 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

If "Neighbouring Sounds" was totally ignored last year, forget about "The Way He Looks". Not saying this is not a good film, but is far away from being one of the best Brazilian films ever. I guess this year we don't have any strong possibility by the way. Brazil makes good films, but never as good as the other "foreigners".

September 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

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