by February 8, 2013 at 2:00 pm 0

From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]

"films"Two films among the Oscar contenders have arrived on local movie screens very late. Both have gained a great deal of respect and talk since their release, so I went to see them with great expectation and some hesitation. Both had a reputation for grimness. The first is the American film Zero Dark Thirty, and the second is the Austrian Amour.

Do you know what “zero dark thirty” means? It’s a  a great name for a movie but the director, Kathryn Bigelow, won’t tell you. She either believes that everybody knows military language of its title, or she likes the mystery of it.” (You can Google “zero dark thirty” and find some arguments about its exact meaning in military lore.)

The illegibility of the title phrase, like the inaudibility of some of the back-and-forth of the spy lingo and the confusion of incident in the film are parts of its allure. And they are also parts of its problems, especially at the beginning. The narrative careens from one relatively complicated dead-end to the next. But finally Zero Dark Thirty settles down to the tracking of the courier who led to Osama bin Laden, to alerting the team of SEALS, and to executing the operation in the dead of night.

And when we get to that “zero” point, I think we have an excellently made film that refuses to give in to censorship of the events–or to political posturing about their effect. There is the breathless relief of the female agent, played without fanfare by Jessica Chastain, who doggedly traced the clues to the compound where the Al-Qaida leader lived.But the dark, dark image of a bullet hitting the chest of an already dead man speaks the volume that we need to read.

Amour is directed by the respected Austrian film-maker, Michael Haneke, and its grimness is not surprising to those who’ve seen earlier of his films. He gazes closely at everything — the smallest gestures of daily life, the merest details of kitchens and bedrooms, and the faintest signals of human character.

As the film progresses in its slow pace, it depicts the gradual dissolution of an elderly woman, once a distinguished music teacher, and her husband’s steady care for her. The roles of the couple, Georges and Anne, are played brilliantly by two distinguished French actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emannuelle Riva.

But there is very little light, or life, in the Paris apartment in which the couple complete their lives together. Twice, when a window is left open, pigeons intrude, carefully shooed out by Georges. And there is one brief strain of Schubert, but mostly silence, except when Anne reaches her agonizing end.

I won’t spoil the ending, partly because I’m not sure of its details myself. But I agree that the title to this dark film should be the French word for “love.” It is a striking story of undeviating devotion.

I will tell you, though, that if you are an aged, or aging, person, you might want to stay home and watch an American film, like, say, You Can’t Take It With You. Actually, you might need to check out the light and life of such a comedy if you do go to see Amour. You’ll need to dissipate the darkness, for in Michael Haneke’s film, the end of life is “zero at the bone.”

Next:  Oscar Picks

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