- - Sunday, January 8, 2017

The chair of a panel of foreign film directors nominated for Golden Globes proudly proclaimed that this year’s nominees are 40 percent women, but that didn’t stop French director Houda Benyamina (“Divines”) from immediately pointing out that only two of the stage’s panel were women.

“Fourteen percent of French films are made by women, and 7 percent of U.S. films are made by women,” Ms. Benyamina declared through an interpreter. “If a man has no experience, he hasn’t had a chance yet, but if a woman has no experience, she just has no experience,” she said, to much applause from the crowd at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre.

It was just one of the sparks that flew at Saturday night’s discussion, which touched on such other contentious issues as rape and sexism, both on and off the screen.

“Three of this year’s nominated works of international cinema deal with sexual assault: “Elle,” “The Salesman” and “Divines.” Panel leader Sam Asi of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association asked “Elle” director Paul Verhoeven (“Total Recall,” “RoboCop,” “Basic Instinct”) about the treatment of Elle’s rapist, who is allowed to get away with attacking star Isabelle Huppert’s character, Michele, during much of the French film.

“I’m not too much into morals,” Mr. Verhoeven said. “There are reasons why [Michele] reacted that way [after the rape]. It doesn’t concern me at all that she behaved that way. The movie is built on her character.

“My movies have absolutely no moral point of view.”

The Dutch filmmaker, who has worked extensively in Hollywood, indicated that due to its sensitive subject matter, “Elle” could simply not be made in America. In Hollywood, he said, “actresses are chosen more for their looks, while in France they are chosen more for their strength of character.”

“The Salesman” from Iran tells of a couple whose relationship begins to fracture while engaged in a performance of Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman.” The film deals with a sexual assault against an actress — a rather risky subject in the extremely strict culture of the Islamic republic.

Director Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) was asked by panel leader Sam Asi of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association about the nature of “punishment and forgiveness.”

“The days of cinema giving answers is over. Cinema should ask questions,” the thoughtful Iranian filmmaker answered via an interpreter. “Everyone in the world, [in] every country is involved in vengeance. The law is in no way concerned with reasons. It’s never via law that we’ll achieve truth.”

The bearded Iranian, whose 2011 film “A Separation” won that year’s best foreign language film Oscar, also discussed making movies under a system of censorship — a rather fraught issue in the Middle East.

“If there’s a rock in the water, the water still finds a way around it. You find a new language because there’s censorship,” he said.

“Censors think that the creativity of filmmakers is thanks to them. But in the long term, they destroy creativity, because the limitations become a part of the filmmaker’s personality. That’s the danger.”

Turning next to Chilean director Pablo Larrain (“Jackie”), whose “Neruda” is also up for the foreign language Golden Globe, Mr. Asi implied the South American filmmaker is “obviously on the left” given the subject matter of a government agent (Gael Garcia Bernal) being sent to track down poet Pablo Neruda, a known communist.

“You mean I’m on the human side,” Mr. Larrain retorted to the moderator’s assertion as to his political leanings. “Cinema is always about politics and is a political act,” he said.

Mr. Larrain also took issue with the panel leader’s comparing President-elect Donald Trump and General Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew the government of Chile’s democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973.

“Pinochet was a dictator, but Trump was elected. It’s not the same,” Mr. Larrain said emphatically.

“It’s very painful. I wish we had a Walt Whitman to write about Trump. Poetry is underestimated,” Mr. Larrain said, expressing his admiration for the Nobel Prize-winning Neruda.

Mr. Asi further angered Mr. Larrain by implying that two women who participate in a menage a trois scene in “Neruda” with the libertine poet are prostitutes, noting that absolutely no money ever changes hands in the sequence.

(Mr. Asi himself was accused of sexual harassment in 2013, according to TheWrap, but Mr. Asi fervently denied the assertions.) 

The panel also included German filmmaker Maren Ade, whose comedy “Toni Erdmann” rounds out the five films up for the award Sunday evening.

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film critic and historian who co-wrote The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.

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