The academy has done it again.
That would be the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which from time to time, in displays of wisdom that fall somewhere short of infinite, has awarded its best foreign-language film Oscar to relentlessly old-fashioned and unashamedly sentimental movies on the order of "Madame Rosa" and "Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears."
While "Journey of Hope," this year's winner from Switzerland, is extremely earnest and well-meaning and no doubt capable of causing a stone to cry, it is also about as close to the cutting edge of cinema as fondue is in the cuisine department. Yet it defeated the favored "Cyrano de Bergerac" and the splendid "The Nasty Girl" simply because it was more adept at making academy voters tear up. If some small but deserving country chose to make a film out of one of the classic old National Enquirer headlines, "The Crash That Made Cops Cry," an Oscar could just about be guaranteed.
"Journey of Hope" (at the Music Hall) begins somewhere in the wilds of Turkey, at a village so barren that its inhabitants seem to survive solely on the simple folk wisdom that is never absent from anyone's lips. "Without a risk, you can't even cross a river," says one man. "Even grass comes out with all its roots," says another. And so it goes.
Understandably not seeing much of a future for himself in this locale, a laconic Kurdish farmer named Haydar (played by Necmettin Cobanoglu, whose morose face, complete with a three-day-growth of beard even Mickey Rourke would envy, previously enlivened the Turkish-language "Yol") decides that Switzerland, of all places, is just the spot for him. After all, didn't a relative send him a glowing postcard claiming the land is so rich that "butter would flow from the udders of your goats." Never mind that one of Haydar's goats, wise beyond its years, attempts to eat the card. It's Switzerland or bust for Haydar.
Of course, there are problems. His cranky father doesn't think the move, which can only be funded by the selling of all the family land and livestock, is such a great idea. And his wife, Meryem (Turkish actress Nur Surer), is understandably reluctant about having to leave their seven children behind. Haydar, first glimpsed trying to kick his kids as they rush out to greet him, doesn't seem to mind that so much, but he is finally convinced to take their 7-year-old, Mehmet Ali (Emin Sivas), surely the cutest tyke in all Anatolia, along with them.
Making their way to Istanbul and trusting themselves to a particularly untrustworthy-looking middleman, the family begins a journey in which more goes wrong than in a typical John Hughes comedy. Just for openers, they are forced to begin the trip by water to Italy in a cargo container, then get all the way to the Swiss border only to be turned back apparently because they lack correct documents.
Then its back to Italy and the clutches of villainous smugglers who do everything but twirl their mustaches as they put the dogged trio through innumerable Perils of Pauline indignities before the film's sadly predictable close. Finally, one is reminded of the lines Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote for Thelma Ritter's character in "All About Eve," who, after hearing a similarly interminable tale of woe, remarked "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."
'Journey of Hope's" Swiss director, Xavier Koller, who wrote the screenplay in collaboration with a Turkish writer, Feride Cicekoglu, has made much of the fact that his film is not only based on a true incident but was made with the collaboration of the actual family involved. But Koller has also acknowledged that he included incidents that happened to other refugees in his script, and this gilding of the lily of misery is where his film starts to get into trouble.
For while the plight of refugees is the farthest thing from a joking matter, as the Kurds' current plight in Iraq makes horrifically clear, the way "Journey of Hope" doesn't hesitate to pull out all the emotional stops, overloading its characters with every indignity both imaginable and otherwise until even the hardest-hearted INS agent would no doubt weep for shame, is not the solution but part of the problem.
For the painful truth is that the real world is inevitably both more complex and difficult than films like "Journey of Hope" want to acknowledge, its villains not so easily recognizable. By unapologetically edging the movie toward hoary cinematic caricature, the filmmakers rob this terrible tale of the reality it deserves. A movie that can manipulate us into crying is not necessarily a great film, and awarding an Oscar to "Journey of Hope" (Times-rated Mature) is hardly the academy's finest hour.