Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Catch these "Best International Feature Film" Oscar contenders

The 96th Annual Academy Awards are on March 10. This weekend Digital Gym Cinema is showing two of the "Best International Feature Film" Oscar nominees, plus another that should have been in the running.

'Io Capitano' (Italy)

There was an embarrassment of riches from around the globe last year. One of the five foreign films to garner an Oscar nomination for "Best International Feature Film" was Italy’s "Io Capitano."


Being a border city, San Diego is familiar with migrant stories and will have an opportunity to appreciate them with the upcoming San Diego Latino Film Festival. But increasingly, Italy’s filmmakers are also telling stories of the immigrant experience. In this case, "Io Capitano" tells a story of two young boys from Senegal who dream of a better life in Italy. But as with people trying to cross the border from Mexico, the journey can be expensive, difficult and dangerous.

The film features a harrowing and heart-breaking journey that tests the courage, strength and compassion of a boy named Seydou. Although it’s a story fueled by hope and resilience in many respects, it also reminds us that immigrants like Seydou will still face challenges and danger once they reach another country.

The film is directed by Matteo Garrone who previously delivered an epic chronicle of the Mafia in "Gomorrah" in 2008. He details the boys' lives and journey with great care, and although he focuses on the specifics of their particular world, he also reveals how universal the story of immigrants can be.

Leonie Benesch stars as a teacher pushed to her limits in "The Teachers' Lounge. " (2023)
Sony Pictures Classics
Leonie Benesch stars as a teacher pushed to her limits in "The Teachers' Lounge. " (2023)

'The Teachers' Lounge' (Germany)

I reviewed "The Teachers' Lounge" earlier this year. But with the Academy Awards coming up on March 10, and the film being brought back for a run at Digital Gym Cinema, I just wanted to remind people to seek it out.


"The Teachers' Lounge" introduces us to a young teacher named Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch). She seems dedicated to her students and to have a good rapport with them. Her day in the classroom starts with a good morning song, and she tries to see each student as an individual. But when one of her students is suspected of theft, she feels compelled to try and clear him. Fueled by idealism and activism, she wants to challenge the racial stereotypes she feels are in play. But things are not so simple. Her good intentions quickly go awry and the consequences of her actions shake her to her core.

Leonie Benesch makes Carla a complex, flawed, naïve, brave and above all human character. Director and co-writer Ilker Çatak displays an assured hand that only falters at the end. He explores politics (Carla is of Polish descent at a German school, and she has Muslim students), school policies and human nature, showing how difficult it can be to navigate the modern world. Her actions unintentionally stir the ire of her students as well as their parents.

As with fellow Oscar nominee "Anatomy of a Fall," "The Teachers' Lounge" feels a bit Hitchcockian in how it builds tension and suspense. One particularly good scene occurs when one of her students threatens her with retaliation and then we see her look out the window to see the students coming together as if in some conspiratorial gathering to plot their revenge. It is such a simple scene, yet so well executed to make us feel uncomfortable.

"The Teachers' Lounge" creates a stress-filled narrative and builds tension that feels much like the beats of a horror film.

Mads Mikkelsen plays Ludvig Kahlen in "The Promised Land." (2023)
Magnolia Pictures
Mads Mikkelsen plays Ludvig Kahlen in "The Promised Land." (2023)

'The Promised Land' (Denmark)

Unfairly missing from this year’s Oscar’s ranks is "The Promised Land," featuring an award-worthy performance by Mads Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen is an actor who can do no wrong ... at least not so far. He tends to smolder on screen rather than chew scenery, and is riveting to watch.

"The Promised Land" offers a historical drama in which Mikkelsen plays Ludvig Kahlen, a real soldier in 1755. He arrives on the barren Jutland heath to cultivate the land in the hopes of finding wealth and honor. But Kahlen faces the dual hardships of a harsh land and a cruel neighboring aristocrat who looks down on the former soldier.

Fair warning, none of these films offer anything conventionally feel-good. "Io Capitano" is the most uplifting of the three, but only after a grueling journey involving imprisonment and torture.

But all three of these films are crafted with such intense care that it is hard to turn away from the screen, even when we see people are at their worst. "The Promised Land," however, may deserve an award for displaying the most horrific of human behavior from the vile aristocrat, yet the film comes with a modicum of revenge.

All three of these remarkable films display passionate and impressive skill from foreign filmmakers, and are well worth seeking out this weekend in advance of the Academy Awards.

I cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.
What do you wonder about that you’d like us to investigate?