This month’s picks include a deadpan Moroccan comedy, a Polish film about an influencer, a nail-biting Indian crime thriller and more.
By guest author Devika Girish
In the age of streaming, the earth is flat — screen-size, with travel to faraway destinations only a monthly subscription and a click away. We’ve journeyed through the world of options and chosen the best new international movies for you to watch.
‘The Unknown Saint’
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In the prologue of Alaa Eddine Aljem’s charming comedy, a robber-on-the-run hides a bag of cash in the middle of the Moroccan desert right before he’s picked up by the cops. When he returns after some years in prison, he finds that there’s now a mausoleum dedicated to “The Unknown Saint” on top of his loot, and an entire village around it.
Milking the quirks of small-town life and the strange workings of faith and superstition, “The Unknown Saint” embroils a cast of droll, deadpan characters in amusing high jinks. There’s the thief and his dolt of a sidekick, ironically nicknamed “the Brain”; a newly arrived doctor faced with a daily parade of petty hypochondriacs; and a barber who doubles as a D.I.Y. dentist.
Undergirding the film’s playful satire is a sincere regard for the things that often fuel belief: survival, sustenance, hope. We soon learn that the villagers are migrants from a neighboring drought-stricken town, where a lone farmer still prays for rain, while the explosions from a nearby construction project signal fast-approaching change, though they’re sometimes mistaken for signs from God. Rich with such revelatory details, “The Unknown Saint” turns its slight, sketch-like premise into a deceptively profound parable.
That life on social media can be lonely and shallow is not a revelation, but in “Sweat,” a behind-the-screens glimpse into the life of a Polish fitness influencer, the director Magnus von Horn pushes past moralistic presumptions to get at the heady emotional rushofthe digital realm. Right from the first scene, a bootcamp-style workout session at a mall, the camera plunges us deep into the weird intimacies of internet celebrity, staying close to Sylwia (Magdalena Kolesnik)as her trainees swarm around her with almost religious fervor.
Like the hundreds of savvy self-marketers who have built empires on Instagram, Sylwia seemingly subsumes every aspect of her life — her meals, her shopping, her choice of taking the stairs instead of the elevator — into her brand. Is she conning her fans or herself? “Sweat” poses this not as a judgment but as a genuine existential question. A particularly candid post muddies things even further as fans eager to overshare accost Sylwia in public spaces, while a stalker parks himself outside her apartment.
These developments take some dark turns, but “Sweat” is more a character study than a drama, following Sylwia closely as she goes through her daily routines. The camera remains trained on Kolesnik’s face, which masterfully conveys the currents of emotion that ripple under a stoic, camera-ready surface.
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“Nayattu” unfurls a labyrinthine cat-and-mouse chase amid the venal world of police and politicians in the South Indian state of Kerala. Three small-time cops are caught up in a road accident that results in the death of a man from a lower-caste community, and with the local elections just around the corner, the incumbent chief minister demands that the unlucky officers be made scapegoats. As they flee across the state, other police on their tail, the rot of systemic corruption slowly reveals its horrifying depths.
Even with its barreling, twist-a-minute narrative, the film abounds in dense, scene-setting detail — such as the tug-of-war contest that opens the film. The thrilling sequence foreshadows the macho posturing and one-upmanship that color this world. And a later moment pithily drives home the chasm between the vested interests of the powers-that-be and the needs of the people they serve: When the cops-on-the-run suggest to a farmer involved in a raucous water dispute that the police might be of help, he replies: “The police will ask for documents, witnesses, evidence. All we need is some water.”
This magical-realist mystery from Angola is resounding proof that to make truly inspired cinema, all you need is resourcefulness and a vision. A marvel of low-budget world-building, the film unfolds in a sweltering Luanda struck by a most unusual techno-disaster: Air-conditioners keep falling from buildings, causing injuries and worsening the already unbearable heat wave.
On the radio, we hear politicians make grand statements about import bans and trade wars, while on the ground, the poorest of the poor are forced to bear the brunt of the problem. Two such folks, the security guard Matacedo and the maid Zezinha, are tasked with fixing a wealthy apartment owner’s air-conditioner. Their quest leads them into the ramshackle shop of an eccentric electrician — a kind of Luandan Doc Brown — whose crazy experiments seem to summon the ghosts and lost memories of Angola’s civil war.
But don’t go into “Air Conditioner” expecting clear answers and resolutions. Set to a transcendent jazz score, the film moves unpredictably between fantasy and gritty reality, summoning historical trauma and contemporary malaise through a séance of melding moods, colours and sounds.
‘Lina From Lima’
“Lina From Lima” is the rare film about immigrant labor that is as attuned to the vibrant inner lives of workers as it is to their hardships. Maria Paz González’s exuberant indie follows a Peruvian maid, Lina (Magaly Solier), who works for an affluent family in Chile. As Christmas approaches, Lina tries to scrape together enough money to buy presents for her teenage son, who seems to be drifting away from her in their WhatsApp and video calls. Lina burns with yearning — for her son, for home, for love, sometimes just for sex — and finds her escape in glamorous musical daydreams in which she pictures herself as a synchronized swimmer, a cabaret dancer, even Our Lady of Sorrows.
Real life has its own adventures, too, mostly with the other immigrant workers Lina encounters at her hostel and at work, and sometimes invites for hookups on the plastic-covered beds of her employer’s swanky, in-construction house. These moments of breezy comedy don’t blunt the blow of Lina’s disappointments, as when she realizes she can’t afford her trip home for Christmas. Powered by Solier’s enthralling, openhearted performance, Lina emerges as a woman who contains multitudes even as she aches for more.