This month’s picks include a Polish procedural, a Kazakh dark comedy, a Tunisian social-realist drama, and more.
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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.
Stream it on Netflix.
Between 1985 and 1987, Poland’s Communist secret police engaged in a covert operation targeting gay people: More than 11,000 individuals were arrested, forced to sign confessions and registered into a national database, making them vulnerable to blackmail. “Operation Hyacinth,” Piotr Domalewski’s taut, twisty cop procedural, unfolds in the thick of this project. When a high-profile gay socialite is murdered, the police quickly find some hapless men at a cruising spot to round up and intimidate into confessing to the crime. Robert (Tomasz Zietek), a rookie, overeager cop, smells a rat and goes undercover to find out more. The truth — as you might expect from a neo-noir in which cigarette smoke swirls perpetually through dark, shadowy corridors and rain-soaked streets — turns out to be much more complex and insidious than he’d imagined. Soon, Robert’s convictions — both about himself and the police — unravel.
“Operation Hyacinth” is a satisfying genre outing that moves at a fast, unpredictable clip, but its true strength is its rich emotional shading. Even as the film rehashes the “tortured cop” trope, a staple of noir, it avoids too much narrative hand-wringing about Robert’s repressed sexuality. Instead, Domalewski approaches the character’s awakening to his own desires with a light touch and rare moral clarity. In a climactic moment, finding himself entangled in betrayals and secrets, a distraught Robert says to his mother, “I lied to everyone.” She responds in a firm, steely tone: “But not to yourself.”
Stream it on Mubi.
Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s “Yellow Cat” opens with a scene of charming quirk: In the middle of a vast Kazakh steppe, a man in a fedora and a trench coat walks into a grocery store looking for a job, and when asked about his skills, announces that he can act out every scene in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samouraï.” This oddball is Kermek (Azamat Nigmanov), a wannabe Alain Delon, who owes his love of the movies to the daily hour of television he was allowed to watch while growing up in an orphanage. He’s just been released from prison and has starry-eyed dreams of opening the region’s first movie theater.
This sugar-sweet premise belies the acrid darkness of “Yellow Cat.” Within minutes, Kermek is embroiled in an elaborate mafia plot that forces him to flee across the sparse, windy plains with a prostitute he rescues from a brothel. Ludicrous sight gags — involving references to “Taxi Driver” and a gangly rendition of Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” by Kermek — entwine with a suspenseful, often bloody cat-and-mouse tale that both celebrates and skewers the magic of cinema. One of the film’s running jokes is that Kermek doesn’t know how “Le Samouraï” ends, having only ever watched an hour of the film. His climactic fate, then, comes both as a surprise and an inevitable irony, reminding us that, for all their aspirational glimmer, movies — or the good ones, at least — are just as unforgiving as life.
Stream it on HBO Max.
Pilar Palomero’s debut feature is the kind of precise, naturalistic portrait of pubescent coming-of-age that might make you wince with recognition. Set in 1992 in the Spanish town of Zaragoza, the film follows 11-year-old Celia (Andrea Fandos) as she navigates the confusing terrain of early adolescence in an environment of stifling conservatism. She attends a strict Catholic convent where nuns teach young girls to smother their voices rather than risk being anything less than prim and perfect — a repressive pedagogy that the film’s opening strikingly literalizes, with a teacher instructing the less-accomplished singers in the school choir (including Celia) to silently lip-sync. To make matters worse, the fact that Celia is raised by a single mother — and doesn’t know who her father is — makes her the subject of her peers’ derision.
But Celia and her friends find their own avenues of rebellion, and Palomero captures their experiments — parties, makeup, cigarettes — with touching detail, neither trivializing nor sensationalizing the girls’ aspirations. At one point, Celia folds up her T-shirt into a bra (which her mother can’t afford to buy, and which she doesn’t yet need) and sways in front of her mirror, brandishing a pen like a cigarette. It’s a poignant encapsulation of the yearning that characterizes adolescence — the yearning for things you cannot yet have, to be someone you cannot yet be.
Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.
Amit Masurkar’s “Sherni” (Hindi for “tigress”) is a genre of movie I never even knew I needed: a forest service procedural. Set in the jungles of central India, the film follows Vidya (Vidya Balan), a newly appointed forest officer in a region traversed by tigers. Vidya’s task, and her passion, is to protect and preserve the environment, but as she quickly realizes, there’s a lot more at stake in her job. Industrial encroachments have robbed local villagers of grasslands for their cattle, forcing them to venture into areas frequented by tigers, whose kills start to include humans. At the same time, warring local politicians milk these tragedies for their own ends, bringing in private hunters who care little about the ecosystem or about protecting endangered animals.
“Sherni” follows Vidya and her team as they wage a quiet battle against these forces of corruption, insisting upon equity, environmental justice, and above all, science: that institution of evidence and rationality that has become increasingly contested in a venal world. One of the pleasures of Masurkar’s well-researched script is the ample time it devotes to the nitty-gritty of forestry — the tracking and tracing of wildlife; the management of plants and water bodies — while also weaving in the thrills of a creature-feature as a hunt for a man-eating tigress takes over the film’s last half-hour.
Stream it on Mubi.
The first half of Mohamed Ben Attia’s social-realist drama draws us into the lives of the middle-aged Riadh and Nazli and their disaffected, chronically ill 19-year-old son, Sami. Sami is about to take his baccalaureate exam, which will determine his university prospects, and as Riadh and Nazli devote all their time and meager resources to supporting him, Attia traces a moving portrait of a loving family that perseveres through all the odds. But the director has a bait-and-switch up his sleeve: Midway through the film, Sami suddenly disappears and leaves for Syria, and “Dear Son” broadens from a granular kitchen-sink drama into a meditation on the predicaments of a nation and a generation. The focus shifts to Riadh — played by a tremendous Mohamed Dhrif, whose huddled frame and weary face speak louder than words — as he travels to Syria to try to bring back his son. The film resists the temptation to contrive glib answers to complex sociopolitical questions, and instead captures with heartbreaking empathy the grief, guilt and betrayal of parents who do everything right, only to be left wondering what they did wrong.