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Oscars guide: We map out the 5 films nominated for best international feature

Enzo Vogrincic as Numa in<em> Society of the Snow</em>, one of five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature.
Quim Vives
Enzo Vogrincic as Numa in Society of the Snow, one of five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature.

This year's Academy Award nominees for international feature tackle their disparate subjects using vastly different approaches; go looking for a common thematic thread and you'll come away disappointed. But let's try anyway.

Three of the five tackle capital-I issues of going concern in the world: Io Capitano dramatizes the plight of migrants, and two (The Teachers' Lounge, The Zone of Interest) implicate the viewer by examining the complicity which allows fascism to thrive. The two remaining films (Society of the Snow, Perfect Days) share nothing in common in terms of subject (a plane crash and toilet cleaning, respectively), but both celebrate the preciousness of life, in their way.

Three of the nominees are directed by someone who is not from the country they're set in: a German directed Japan's entry, director Jonathan Glazer is a Brit, but the UK entry he directed is set in Germany, and while an Italian directed Italy's entry, its story is that of a young Senegalese man's harrowing journey across Africa.

All five films are worthy of your time, for different reasons. But here's what you need to know about each to fake your way through your Oscar party.

Io Capitano – Italy

Seydou (Seydou Sarr) is a cheerful, resourceful teenager in Dakar determined to make the journey to Italy so he can send money home to his family. He and a friend (Moustapha Fall) set out with high hopes (and false passports) and immediately face blistering deserts, corrupt cops, detention and torture.

Director Matteo Garrone's surprisingly tender film is by turns harrowing and heartening. In early scenes, he takes time to establish the warmth and joy of Seydou's home, not merely to offer the audience a sharp contrast to the miseries of his journey, but to supply his main character with a real choice: Why not turn back? In lesser hands, those scenes might come off as saccharine, even manipulative, but Garrone and his actors keep them firmly grounded. Which proves useful, because later, when the travails of his journey pile up, the film breaks with reality in small, hard-won ways that offer Seydou, and us, fleeting moments of comfort and hope. In theaters now.

Perfect Days – Japan

Perfect Days is, as the kids say, a mood. The first Japanese film to receive the international feature nomination that wasn't directed by a Japanese director, Perfect Days was helmed – and co-written, with Takuma Takasaki) by the acclaimed Wim Wenders(Paris, Texas; Wings of Desire). Wenders loads this tiny but multifaceted gem of a movie with his signature tendency to delight in the smallest details of daily life. Hirayama (the great Koji Yakusho) cleans Tokyo's public toilets for a living, bringing a reflective thoroughness and dedication to the task.

As we watch his days pass with metronomic regularity, he seeks out tiny joys – rock & roll music on cassette tapes, books, the play of light through leaves – that seem to fill him with contentment. But when an unexpected visitor arrives for an extended stay, his carefully constructed routines come under a new kind of scrutiny. Charming, meditative and wise, Perfect Days also earns the distinction of being the sole nominee in its category to which the term "wrenching" cannot be justifiably applied. In theaters now.

The Teachers' Lounge – Germany

It's true that The Teachers' Lounge can be read as a parable for fascism, but don't be fooled. A film this precise and specific in its tensions and tone functions chiefly and most efficiently as drama; all those allegorical aspects are very real, but secondary. An idealistic new middle-school teacher (Leonie Benesch) rallies to the defense of a student suspected of theft on school grounds. But her efforts to exonerate them only cause the faculty and students' baseline prejudices and mistrust to erupt into paranoia and violence. The Teachers' Lounge is a patient thriller that invites us to watch Benesch's well-intentioned character gradually make choice after choice that limit her options; by the time she realizes how much her world has closed in on her, it's much too late. In theaters now.

Society of the Snow – Spain

Several films have been made about the 1972 crash of a plane in the Andes that stranded a Uruguayan rugby team for months. It's easy to understand the enduring fascination; it's a story of harrowing, brutal conditions, and a testament to the human drive – emotional, biological, spiritual – for survival. The latest film to dramatize those events, Society of the Snow, never shies away from the grisly truths of the experience (the plane crash sequence will have you rethinking your upcoming vacation plans), but neither does it sensationalize them. The fact that the survivors turned to cannibalism is dramatized matter-of-factly, with an attention to detail that provides context without minimizing the horror.

Director J.A. Bayona's film concludes with the survivors' rescue, and you can't help but wish he'd seen fit to tackle their return to civilization, and how they dealt with the protracted public shaming they received. But Society of the Snow is more interested in the grim, immediate logistics of physical survival than in its lingering emotional aftermath. Netflix.

The Zone of Interest – United Kingdom

Rudolf (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) share a well-appointed home with their five children. Their existence is an idyllic one – they picnic at a nearby river, and Hedwig lovingly and proudly tends to her lush garden and greenhouse. Just over the garden wall, however, lies the Auschwitz death camp. Rudolf is Auschwitz's Commandant, whose days are filled with meetings about how to increase the camp's efficiency. Hedwig deals sharply with her domestic staff, and matter-of-factly takes possession of a mink coat confiscated from a prisoner.

Director Jonathan Glazer brings the same unsettlingly dispassionate eye to this family's life that he brought to 2013's Under the Skin – we watch them from a chilly distance, but we watch only them. We hear the screams of prisoners, we see the smoke rising from the chimneys, but our gaze remains fixed upon Rudolf and Hedwig, at their mundane, horrifying complicity. It's a storytelling choice that's divided both audiences and critics, but you can't deny it offers viewers a fresh purchase on the greatest horror of the 20th century. Streaming now.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 26, 2024 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Germany's entry to the Academy Awards' International Feature Film category was directed by a British director. The Teachers' Lounge was directed by Ilker Çatak, who was born in Berlin to Turkish parents.
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.

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