I have now seen all five of the 2008 nominees for Best Foreign Film Oscar. As a reminder, the other nominees were: The Baader Meinhof Complex, The Class, Departures, (the winner), and Waltz With Bashir. The last to be seen by this reviewer in the Austrian entry, Revanche, directed by Gotz Spielman.
In many ways Revanche is an unusual film to be included in this sweepstakes. So often we hear that the films that end up getting nominated are those that appeal to older sensibilities, and are over-saturated with sentimentality, melodrama, and old-fashioned Hollywood values. Revanche, while resolutely rooted in Hollywood's belief in the power of redemption, is also a crawl through some unsavory parts of Vienna. The hero is a ex-con, and his girlfriend is a prostitute, and the sexuality is frank, the nudity casual. Perhaps the voters who liked it were reminded of American films from the seventies.
I knew nothing about this film before seeing it, so I am reticent to share much of the plot. We are introduced to a small group of characters--Alex (Johannes Kirsch), an ex-con who is now working for a brothel, and is in a secret relationship with one of the girls, the Ukrainian Tamara (Irina Potapenko). They dream of breaking free of their tawdry lives--Kirsch knows of a fellow who would let him buy into a bar on Ibiza.
Intermixed with the scenes of these two, which show the dehumanizing lives of the sex-workers, we are introduced to a policeman (Andreas Lust) and his wife (Ursula Strauss), who live in a rural town. They are friends with an old farmer, who happens to be Alex' grandfather. These groups of characters will intersect after tragic consequences. Suffice it to say that when Alex reveals his plan to rob a bank, it doesn't take more than a few brain cells to know it won't go as he thought it would. Has any bank robbery in cinema history gone off without a hitch?
Revanche means revenge, and to know that one watches wondering how what form the vengeance will take, and by whom. The key moment of the plot doesn't occur until well into the film, as Spielman allows the film to unfold slowly, enhancing the freshness and originality of the story. The first image shows an object plunking into a body of water, but we don't know what that is until the scene is replayed at the end of the film. It is the moment when a character has achieved his redemption.
I guess what I found most interesting about this film is that the point of view is largely told through the eyes of Alex, the criminal, rather than the policeman, who is a secondary character. It is Alex's complexity and self-doubt that fuels the story (he is told by the brothel owner that he is "too soft.") I think this makes the film much more interesting than a typical cops and robbers flick would ordinarily be.
Now that I've seen all five, I conclude that if I had a vote it would have been for The Class, slightly ahead of Waltz With Bashir. I would rank Revanche third, Departures fourth, and The Baader Meinhof Complex fifth.