The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is notoriously imperfect. Snubs happen (I’d like that on a t-shirt), and 2019 was no exception. Setting “Green Book” aside, I’d like to focus on an often overlooked (and personal favorite) category: Best Foreign Language Film. In short, “Roma” won, “Shoplifters” should have. Alfonso Cuarón’s (“Gravity,” 2013) “Roma” is a technical masterpiece charged with intense emotion. Each scene is composed with care: Cuarón is an artist, employing digital monochrome to paint each scene with vivid and vibrant tones. “Roma” made me cry in a way few other films ever have. That said, the film lacked a certain cohesion. The film exists as an isolated unit, a contained memory. What lies beyond the credits is inconsequential. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s (“Our Little Sister,” 2015) “Shoplifters” is different.
While a more subtle plot and presentation than “Roma,” Kore-eda finds poignance in subtlety. “Shoplifters” strips away the overt cultural structures so integral to the plot of “Roma,” revealing a vulnerable humanity we don’t often see in even ourselves. In “Shoplifters,” sex is about love and loneliness. Rain purifies. Death is not given special attention; it is as mundane as life. “Shoplifters” is about that mundanity. About a cloudy day at the beach. About sacrifice, longing, good and bad. “Shoplifters” addresses the ills of society quietly and seriously. “Roma” shows us those ills without much ado. This is one such example of the film’s self-contained nature. These structures and societal ills aren’t the subject, but rather an element of the story. Cuarón is certainly making a statement about the relationship between domestic servant and employer, though this statement is lost somewhat, perhaps fading behind the vignette edges of memory. Here, the boundary between film and world is uncrossable. “Roma”’s restricted nature, bound only to the plot and bracketed by the first and last frame, ensures inconsequentiality; this deep rift between film and world is damning. The film lacks thematic applicability outside its original setting. It lacks commentary, statement and impact. It is little more than fabulous cinematography. I do believe Cuarón rightfully won Best Cinematography, but Best Foreign Language Film is about more than direction and artistry. To win for Best Foreign Language Film, I believe you must not only show differences between cultures, but rather show what are the inherently human experiences that unite us. Today, this is particularly important. “Shoplifters” probes a common humanity. “Roma” is a tale of one household in a particular socio-political era. The former is the film we need in 2019.
Artistic or technical skill cannot resurrect a lifeless memory. Tear-jerking scenes cannot undo the film’s detached nature, or make up for viewer’s position an arm’s length away from the story. On the contrary, “Shoplifters” is powerfully consequential. The viewer is invited into the fray, taken by the hand and guided towards empathy through honest discomfort discomfort. This film doesn’t ask for pity, but it does demand respect – respect for those less fortunate, respect for the family who knows hunger and understands what being human is all about. “Roma” establishes a class divide, shows it to us and moves on. We are not asked to respect or revere; we are at a physical and intellectual distance from the student riots as they erupt into violence. In “Roma,” Class Struggle is an extra; in “Shoplifters,” Poverty takes the first bow alongside vulnerability and empathy after the curtain falls. While the Oscar need not be awarded to the most culturally aware nominee (this is obvious, re: “Green Book”), the lackluster and almost obligatory inclusion of Class Struggle seems more in the service of historical accuracy than as a moral question to the viewer.
Whereas Cuarón is interested in grand gestures and gut-wrenching visuals, Kore-eda’s directing genius emerges in the unannounced. It’s a simple image – a young man, the brim of a baseball cap pulled just low enough to hide his telling eyes from our sight – reiterated to encourage the viewer to question how our senses of self and worth are formed and deformed. Nudity, unfiltered and unrefined, asks the viewer to explore the meaning of love. This is sex without fanfare or soundtrack; eroticism is used as a tool to investigate that which motivates us.
“Shoplifters” is a portrait of human experience. It begs of the viewer empathy towards his brethren. The plot revolves around a young girl, ostensibly rescued from abuse and delivered from a melancholy fate. This little girl learns how to love; Kore-eda wants us to take note, too. It is through this little girl that the film reaches beyond the credit roll. She is one of the many loose ends of a suddenly frayed plot. These ends are intentionally unresolved. Life seldom offers a satisfying conclusion, a poetic synthesis of disparate forces into a polished finial. “Roma” attempts to create that unrealistic ideal: A too-large organza bow atop a poorly wrapped package, trying in vain to mask the miasma emanating from within. Life cannot be bracketed into neat parcels. “Shoplifters” is an earnest composition, a presentation of the human condition. “Roma” is a pretty picture to the epic poem that is “Shoplifters.” Leaving the theatre after seeing Kore-eda’s masterpiece, I felt as though he might be a thoracic surgeon in disguise. Cuarón made me cry, but Kore-eda cracked open my chest cavity and kindly sat me before a mirror to watch my own heart expand and contract. It is for these reasons I know “Shoplifters” deserved the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.