Beyond the blockbusters

Among the holiday-oriented movies slated for this season, we find some quite unusual, fascinating fare, including a spy story, a silent movie, a couple of films from Iran and the latest project of the celebrated, though controversial, French-Polish filmmaker, Roman Polanski.

Polanski’s offering, “Carnage,” based on Yasmina Reza’s internationally acclaimed Tony Award-winning play, “God of Carnage,” strips the mask from our assumed middle-class civility.

The story centers on two couples in Brooklyn who meet in an attempt at conciliation after their sons have been involved in a playground fight, during which one of the boys broke the other boy’s tooth. Jodie Foster plays the victim’s mother, a liberal activist and writer married to a dealer in wholesale bathroom accouterments (John C. Reilly). The aggressor’s mother (Kate Winslett) is an investment broker whose husband (Christoph Waltz) is a high-powered attorney currently involved in a major lawsuit that has him talking on his cell phone throughout the proceedings. As the meeting goes on, the extreme politeness with which it started degenerates into a virtual brawl that has them all turning on one another.

Reza, who collaborated with Polanski on the film script, has previously worked with the director and said this kind of material is perfect for him, because she considers him a master at helming films that unfold within a confined space.

“I think he’s one of the best in the world for that. A lot of his former movies are set in close quarters. He also has a great sense of humor that he has made use of in the past, although not very much in his last movies. In addition, he is an expert at directing actors when they’re portraying people in a state of crisis. So, when he asked me if I would consent to making the play into a movie, I immediately thought, ‘Who could do it better than he?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ ”

There are no Jewish elements in the film, but both Reza and Polanski are of Jewish descent. Polanski, born in Paris in 1933, was raised in Kraków, Poland, and as a child was forced into the city’s Jewish ghetto following the Nazi invasion. His youthful experiences during the war were horrific; his father survived the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, but his mother died at Auschwitz. Polanski was sometimes hidden by various Catholic peasant families and at other times had to wander the Polish countryside, trying to remain alive on his own. He was barely 12 when the war ended.

Reza’s family was much luckier. “Thank God, my family was not victimized during the Holocaust. My father’s parents were Iranian and could pass as Muslim. They were sent to Drancy, which was a camp, but they survived. My maternal grandparents, from Budapest, were very influential and assimilated Jews. They had the means to buy their survival.”

“Carnage” begins its Los Angeles run Dec. 16.

Juan Pujol Garcia is “Garbo: The Spy.” Photo courtesy of Ikiru Films

The World War II years and a little-known double agent are the focus of the documentary “Garbo: The Spy.” The film chronicles the adventures of Juan Pujol Garcia, a Spaniard who offered his services to British Intelligence during the war, but was repeatedly rebuffed. He then volunteered to spy for the Nazis, convincing them that he had access to valuable information about the Allies through a global network of informants that was, in reality, totally fictitious. Under the code name Alaric, he fed the Germans outdated or false information.

Eventually, the British recognized Pujol’s masterful ruse and recruited him, giving him the code name Garbo because he was so adroit at playing a role. His most noteworthy accomplishment was his success convincing the Germans that the Allied invasion of Normandy was merely a diversion, and that the real invasion was planned for Calais, thereby causing the Nazis to concentrate the bulk of their forces in the wrong location.

Though the Nazis lost the war, they awarded their spy Alaric (Pujol) the Iron Cross, one of that regime’s highest honors. As Garbo, Pujol also received the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire), making him the only person in World War II to be honored by both the Allies and the Nazis.

“Garbo: The Spy” opens Nov. 25.

Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller in “The Artist.” Photo courtesy of the Weinstein Co.

From the thousands of words involved in being an informant, we move to the wordlessness of the silent black-and-white film “The Artist,” which hearkens back to Hollywood in 1927, when talking pictures were first making their appearance.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a vain, self-centered silent-film star. He meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) a young, ambitious extra, and gets her a job in one of his films, over the objections of producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman). Talkies are taking over the film industry, and Peppy ultimately becomes a major star, just as George’s career spirals downward.

“The theme is about someone who has to face a transition,” explained filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, “and I think that’s an issue that’s much larger than just what’s happening in the movie industry. I think this is a new issue. I believe that, before the industrial revolution in the 19th century, the world didn’t change very much in the span of a person’s lifetime.

“Now it’s very different, starting, I think, from the beginning of the 20th century. By that time, if you were born into a certain world, you died in a very, very different world, and that means we all have to face some changes, many times, and we have to adapt ourselves to those changes.”

Hazanavicius also intended his movie to pay homage to the classical Hollywood film period, which was the era of industry pioneers, most of them Jewish. The filmmaker, who is Jewish, said that while the religion of the characters is not really germane to his story, he gave the name of Zimmer to the character of the producer to suggest the man’s ethnicity.

“But, also, some of the greatest people who built Hollywood were Jewish, and they were not just the moguls. I’m thinking, for example, of Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch, and a lot of other directors. In addition, and this is really important, there were the composers: Bernstein, Steiner, Franz Waxman. A lot of these guys came from Eastern Europe, and they were Jewish. There’s something about the music of Hollywood that is deeply Jewish and Eastern European. We took this reference, and I think you can feel that flavor in our music.” 

“The Artist” is scheduled to open Nov. 25.

From Hollywood, we move to the Middle East with two films from Iran.

Tahereh Azadi as Katie in “Dog Sweat.” Photo courtesy of Deluxe Art Films

Director Hossein Keshavarz went underground at great risk to shoot “Dog Sweat,” which reveals aspects of a youth culture lived in secret rebellion against the strictures of fundamentalist Islamic society. The film depicts the lives of six such youths, including a feminist engaged in a clandestine affair with her cousin’s husband, a gay man in an arranged marriage with a woman who has been recording illegal pop songs, two lovers looking for a place in which to consummate their relationship, and a man whose mother has been killed in a car accident violently confronting fundamentalists who are listening to religious music.

Keshavarz, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., frequently traveled to Iran with his parents when he was a child, and lived there from 2006 to 2009. He said he made the movie to show what he described as the real face of Iran.

“The images we see of Iran are distorted. Outside Iran, the country is often seen as a threat — a nation of fundamentalists. Inside Iran, because of censorship, films feature idealized Islamic families that don’t really exist, or parable films that show life in faraway villages. But Iran is mostly urban — Tehran is a city of 20 million people. Whenever I come back to New York, I find it absolutely tranquil. It is also a very young country, with two-thirds of the population under the age of 35. The majority of the country is well educated, urban and young. Living in Iran is full of contradictions — yes, there are a lot of restrictions — but there is also a lot of life.”

“It was very difficult making the film,” Keshavarz continued, “and we had to be with whom we trusted. There are many great Iranian filmmakers and artists in jail because of their works, with Jafar Panahi being the most prominent example. 

“There were several close calls that we thankfully escaped. The danger of filming was always hovering around us, and we just had to get used to it. Making the film underground also presented us with a host of more mundane problems, because we didn’t have the control over production that you’d normally have doing a film.” 

When asked how these rebels view the United States, the filmmaker replied that young people in Iran have very favorable attitudes toward America.

“They consume American culture: TV shows, movies and music, you name it. This puts them at odds with the government, which spouts a steady stream of anti-American rhetoric.”

As for their feelings toward Jews, Keshavarz said, “there is a large population of Iranian Jews. The history of Iranian Jews is an ancient one. It dates back to when the king of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great, overthrew the Babylonian empire in the sixth century B.C. and allowed the Jews, who were in captivity, to return to their native lands. The Persian kingdom is historically known to be very tolerant. Actually, the first known declaration of human rights — the Cyrus Cylinder — was proclaimed by Cyrus the Great over two and a half millennia ago, and it still exists and can be seen at the British Museum.”

He added: “Due to this history, people, by and large, have positive images of Jews. Their attitude toward Israel is more complicated; many people criticize Israel because of what they feel is the country’s unfair treatment of the Palestinians.”

“Dog Sweat” opened Nov. 18.

Leila Hatami (left) as Simin and Peyman Moaadi as Nader in “A Separation.” Photo by Habib Madjidi ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The fallout that occurs from the disintegration of a marriage is at the heart of the second Iranian film, “A Separation,” which depicts a slice of modern-day life in that country. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran to assure a better future for her daughter (Sarina Farhadi). She tries to obtain a divorce after her husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi), refuses to go because he has to care for his father (Ali-Ashgar Shahbazi), who suffers from Alzheimer’s. 

When Simin leaves the home, Nader hires a woman (Sareh Bayat) to help with his father, but a cascading series of events forces them all to become adversaries before the law.

The juxtaposition of up-to-date conveniences, including home appliances and new automobiles, with traditional practices, such as wearing headscarves and paying “blood money” as reparation for an injury, is particularly noteworthy. So is the rather old-fashioned depiction of legal hearings, presided over by a judge in ordinary clothes, during which the opposing parties address him directly, while squabbling vehemently with each other. Also significant is the more fundamentalist orientation of the working class as opposed to that of the middle class.

The movie is scheduled to open Dec. 30.

Two additional films worthy of mention are examined in more detail elsewhere in this issue.

“A Dangerous Method,” opening Nov. 23, explores the turbulent, questionable relationships between psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender); his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen); and his onetime patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who herself became a psychoanalyst.

Finally, “In Darkness,” from director Agnieszka Holland, tells the true story of Jews who try to flee the destruction of the ghetto in Lvov, Poland, and pay a sewer worker (Robert Wieckiewicz) to hide them underneath the city. In the course of the ensuing catastrophes, the worker undergoes a profound change. The film is slated for a Dec. 9 release.