The Indian independent film “The Lunchbox” marks a stunning feature debut from Indian writer-director Ritesh Batra, who deftly portrays the accidental correspondence between a lonely wife and an older worker awaiting retirement. Filmed on location in Mumbai, the crisp, steady cinematography shot with the Arri Alexa digital video camera by Michael Simmonds creates an authentic background humming with details. The audience receives a vivid sense of how oppressively crowded life can feel in the big city while catching occasional moments of peaceful solitude cherished by the protagonists.
For his assured direction of “The Lunchbox,” Batra has already won a slew of awards around the world. Much of the credit for the film’s success also goes to a talented ensemble cast, led by the three principal actors, for successfully conveying their characters’ ranges of emotions. Distinguished Indian actor Irrfan Khan, who has been lauded for his work in both Bollywood (“Paan Singh Tomar”) and English-language films (“The Life Of Pi,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), holds down the center of “The Lunchbox” with a quietly powerful performance as aging widower Saajan Fernandes, who’s counting his days until early retirement after 35 years in the Claims Department.
Indian actress Nimrat Kaur (“Peddlers”), who subtly depicts a suffering young wife, Ila, holds her own against the more experienced Khan. Their characters’ virtual relationship gradually develops in a believable fashion, even though they are generally not depicted together in the same frame.
Often characterized as the poster boy of Indian New Wave Cinema, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who had starring roles in three films at Cannes in 2013 (“Monsoon Shootout” and “Bombay Talkies” in addition to “The Lunchbox”), provides a stark contrast to his stoic elder, Khan, with a boisterous portrayal of Shaikh, the overeager young Turk that Saajan is assigned to train as his replacement.
Bored in a lifeless marriage in which she’s stuck in her home nearly the entire time, Ila spices up how she cooks the lunch of her distant husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid) in an effort to get his attention. When the lunchbox is returned empty, she excitedly tells her upstairs neighbor she calls Auntie (the voice of Bharati Achrekar). After questioning Rajeev, Ila figures out he ate something else, so the lunchbox was somehow mis-delivered. Auntie suggests that Ila enclose a note in the lunchbox to the unknown person who licked it clean, which turns out to be Saajan. Both rather lonely, Ila and Saajan eventually share their secrets by correspondence, an increasingly risky interaction that changes both of their lives permanently.
(Hindi and English with subtitles; 104 min.; scope)
Opens Fri., March 7
4.5 out of 5 stars
After the disappointment of directing “The Courier,” 2012’s English-language dud that went straight to video, respected Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad (“Rana’s Wedding”) gets back in the saddle with the gripping thriller “Omar.”
He also gets back to basics: “Omar” is the only Palestinian feature film he’s made since 2005’s “Paradise Now.” Returning to his Palestinian roots has served Abu-Assad well: “Omar,” which won a Best Foreign Film Golden Globe, is the first Palestinian film to be nominated for a coveted Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
At the Dubai International Film Festival, Abu-Assad claimed the best director win for his confident direction of a skilled ensemble cast and a deft screenplay blending a number of genres: political thriller, youthful romance and coming-of-age story.
Dealing with the constraints of living in occupied territory, young Palestinian baker Omar (Adam Bakri) maintains a pretty positive attitude, doing what he has to do to survive. He regularly risks detention by breaking the rules of the Israeli occupation, climbing over a barrier wall separating him from his best pal, Tarek (Eyad Hourani), and his secret girlfriend Nadia (Leem Lubany).
Omar’s disobedience escalates when he, Tarek and their lifelong friend Amjad (Samer Bisharat) train for and conduct a guerrilla mission to shoot an Israeli soldier. The security forces eventually arrest Omar, who’s tortured in prison, where Israeli officer Rami (Waleed Zuaiter) coerces him to act as an informant. Omar agrees and gets out, intending to play both sides while staying true to his beliefs, but such a treacherous balancing act is easier said than done. Nobody believes for sure if he can be trusted, and he does not know whom he can trust.
The reasonably quick pace keeps the action flowing freely and is easily digestible by any audience. Abu-Assad’s script has a surprisingly well-structured plot for something he claims to have largely dashed off in four hours after awakening in the middle of the night despondent over the train-wreck-in-the-making shooting of “The Courier.” The screenplay of “Omar” adroitly addresses the moral ambiguities faced by the eponymous protagonist, who is always striving to do the right thing despite the difficult ethical choices he is forced to make. Unfortunately, he is not able to please everybody, and that includes audience members who may be unhappy and opposed to the decisions he makes.
(Arabic and Hebrew with subtitles; 98 min.; scope)
West End Cinema
4 out of 5 stars
Romanian writer-director Călin Peter Netzer’s “Child’s Pose” was a sleeper entry without much advance buzz at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, where the director and the film surprisingly sneaked to the victory podium, capturing both the top Golden Berlin Bear and the FIPRESCI Prize. Netzer’s nervous direction maintains a building sense of disorienting tension throughout the film, while his well-schemed screenplay, co-written by Razvan Radulescu, delivers brilliant, sharp social and political commentary tinged with witty, dark humor.
Glory must also be bestowed on frequently outstanding Romanian New Wave actress Luminita Gheorghiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) for another mesmerizing turn as a complex female protagonist. Gheorghiu’s tour-de-force performance boasts plenty of lengthy speeches and extensive close-ups in which she is dominating the screen and the viewer’s attention. As in her previous films, Gheorghiu’s character is a fascinating player in a corrupt, Kafkaesque Romanian society that still has not quite shaken the brutal legacy of Nicolae Ceaușescu after the fall of communism.
As a driven, affluent architect in Bucharest, Cornelia Keneres (Gheorghiu) lives a successful, privileged existence, exemplified by her lavish 60th birthday party frequented by the upper echelons of Romanian society. Yet she’s not pleased that her spoiled son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) has distanced himself from her life, blaming the separation on the undue influence of his girlfriend Carmen (Ilinca Goia). Of course, she’s also greatly disappointed that never-do-well Barbu, now in his 30s, still has not gotten his act together.
His persistent troubles culminate in a lethal auto accident that kills a teenage boy. The acute danger to her son activates Cornelia into assuming protective mother-bear mode, big time. She goes to great lengths to defend her son by twisting the facts, spreading bribes, and doing whatever it takes to keep him out of prison. But she finds that some people, such as businessman Dinu Laurentiu (chillingly played by Vlad Ivanov), keeping coming back for more, leaving no end in sight to Cornelia’s campaign of influence-peddling.
(Romanian with subtitles; 112 min.; scope)
The Avalon Theatre
Opens Fri., March 14
4.5 out of 5 stars
Environmental Film Festival
The 22nd Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital (March 18-30) returns with a behemoth presence at many venue partners throughout the area, including embassies in D.C. In partnership with the Embassy of Indonesia, “The Jungle School” plays at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Tue., March 25, 7 p.m.), and in cooperation with the Bhutan Foundation, Sundance World Cinema Documentary Cinematography Award winner “Happiness” (Thu., March 27, 7:30 p.m.) screens at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Free films include the following: At the National Gallery of Art, the “As I Went Walking” program (Sat., March 22, 2 p.m.) shows five films about solo hikes, while German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer’s “Breathing Earth” (Sat., March 22, 4:30 p.m.) looks at Japanese artist Susumu Shingu’s work.
The Freer Gallery of Art screens “Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above” (Sat., March 22, 2 p.m.), the 2013 Golden Horse Award winner for Best Documentary.
And the Goethe-Institut hosts free screenings of the documentaries “Tokyo’s Belly” (Tue., March 25, 6 p.m.), “The Venice Syndrome (Tue., March 25, 7:30 p.m.), two TV episodes of “Ecopia” (Wed., March 26, 6 p.m.) and “Food Savers” (Wed., March 26, 7:15 p.m.).
Washington Jewish Film Festival
The 24th annual Washington Jewish Film Festival (through March 9), D.C.’s biggest annual Jewish cultural event, continues at 14 area theaters. More than 10,000 viewers will watch the 64 films hailing from 18 countries, with about 40 filmmakers accompanying their films’ screenings. The D.C. premiere of Israeli director Eytan Fox’s “Cupcakes” is honored as the WJFF closing-night film, followed by a reception, at the DCJCC (Sun., March 9, 7:30 p.m.). “Cupcakes” also plays at the JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville, Md. (Tue., March 4, 7:30 p.m.).
The Goethe-Institut plays a double feature of the Canadian documentary “Quality Balls” about comedian David Steinberg and German director Oliver Ziegenbalg’s narrative “Russian Disco” (Sat., March 1, 7:15 p.m.). Other screenings include a triple feature of “The Man Who Made Angels Fly” about German-Swedish refugee puppeteer Michael Meschke; Israeli doc “Handa Handa 4” about the Bukharin theater troupe; the Irish doc “Natan” about Romanian-French film producer Bernard Natan; “Altina” about Turkish-American artist Altina Schinasi; the shorts program “Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover”; the Israeli doc “Women Pioneers”; the new smash Israeli television series “Shtisel”; and a double feature of the Israeli doc “Garden of Eden” and German-Argentinian narrative “My German Friend.”
Screening free at the National Gallery of Art, the Ciné-Concert of the German silent film “The Yellow Ticket” (Sat., March 1, 2:30 p.m.) boasts live accompaniment by violinist Alicia Svigals and pianist Marilyn Lerner.
(888) 718-4253, www.wjff.org
National Gallery of Art
Presented with the Embassy of the Czech Republic and the National Film Archive in Prague, the retrospective “Masterworks of Czech Animation” catalogues animated work from 1946 to 1989 with “Czech Animated Shorts I” (Sun., March 16, 4:30 p.m.) and “Czech Animated Shorts II” (Sat., March 29, 1:30 p.m.)
Montreal-based Caroline Martel presents her documentaries “Wavemakers: Following the Legacy of the Ondes Martenot” followed by “Phantom of the Operator” (Sun., March 2, 4 p.m.).
The retrospective “Hans Richter” shows off the German-born modernist’s abstract cinema in a double feature: “Hans Richter: Everything Turns, Everything Revolves” preceded by “Everyday” (Sat., March 15, 2 p.m.), followed by “Dreams That Money Can Buy” (Sat., March 15, 4:30 p.m.)
Nature-related films include German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer’s documentary “Rivers and Tides” (March 20-21, 12:30 p.m.) about artist Andy Goldsworth, Dominique Benichet’s “Le Cousin Jules” (Sun., March 23, 4:30 p.m.) and Cine Manifest film collective members Rob Nilsson and John Hanson’s “Northern Lights” (Sun., March 30, 4:30 p.m.).
(202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/calendar/film-programs.html
Freer Gallery of Art
The “Kurosawa Shakespeare” retrospective commemorates the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare, the most reknown playwright of all time, with three noteworthy adapations of his work by Akira Kurosawa, the most famous Japanese director. Alexa Huang of George Washington University introduces “Ran” (Sun., March 2, 2 p.m.), Kurosawa’s epic version of “King Lear” produced late in his own life. “Hamlet” debatedly inspired “The Bad Sleep Well” (Sun., March 9, 2 p.m.) and “Macbeth” beget “Throne of Blood” (Sun., March 16, 2 p.m.), both starring rugged Kurosawa leading man Toshiro Mifune.
Celebrating the Persian holiday of Nowruz, the family-friendly “Cartoons from Iran” program (Sat., March 8, 11 a.m.) runs approximately one hour, repeating four times.
Presented in conjunction with the Sackler exhibit “In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia,” the program “Food and Film at the Freer: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (Sun., March 30, 12:30 p.m.) kicks off with a reception of Turkish cuisine and drinks, followed by a 2 p.m. screening of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.”
(202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp
“In Face of the Crime” (through March 17), the Grimme Award-winning 10-part German television miniseries directed by Dominik Graf, continues with episodes four and five (March 3, 6:30 p.m.), episodes six to eight (March 10, 6:30 p.m.) and episodes nine and 10 (March 10, 6:30 p.m.).
(202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/ver/enindex.htm
American Film Institute (AFI) Silver Theatre
Continuing and new series include the Washington Jewish Film Festival (through March 9); the 2014 New African Films Festival (March 13-20); “Vivien Leigh 100th” (through April 17); “Raoul Peck Retrospective” (through March 3); “Screen Valentines: Great Movie Romance” (through March 20); “Action! The Films of Raoul Walsh, Part 1” (through April 16); “Play Ball! Hollywood and the American Pastime” (through April 16); “Burt Lancaster, Part 1” (through April 17); and “Overdrive: L.A. Modern, 1960-2000” (through April 17).
(301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/silver
West End Cinema
The “Spring 2014 Opera and Ballet Series” (March 17-May 17) kicks off with the San Francisco Opera’s “Lucrezia Borgia” starring Renée Fleming (Mon., March 17, 7 p.m.; Sat., March 22, 11 a.m.) and the classic 1966 ballet “Swan Lake” (Mon., March 24, 7 p.m.; Sat., March 29, 11 a.m.) featuring Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn.
The Human Rights Watch Festival (through March 12) concludes at the West End Cinema with “Deepsouth” (Wed., March 5, 7 p.m.) and “Rafea: Solar Mama” (Wed., March 12, 7 p.m.), with both screenings followed by a Q&A.
(202) 419-3456, www.westendcinema.com
About the Author
Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer of The Washington Diplomat.