By DENNIS LIM
THERE was a time when the Academy Award for best foreign-language film reflected the state of world cinema: Fellini films won back-to-back Oscars in the mid 1950s, as did Bergman films in the early ’60s. But the category has come to suggest a peculiar gulf between Academy opinion and the tastes of critics and audiences alike.
Some Oscar-nominated foreign titles from the past decade will leave even committed art-house audiences drawing a blank: “Zelary” from the Czech Republic, “As It Is in Heaven” from Sweden, “Zus & Zo” from the Netherlands. Meanwhile critical favorites and festival hits have often gone unacknowledged; a list of conspicuous omissions might start — but certainly would not end — with “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” “Caché,” “Silent Light,” “Gomorrah,” “The Edge of Heaven,” “Secret Sunshine” and “Volver.”
This incongruity has much to do with the category’s submission and nominating process, which is more byzantine than for any other, involving nominating bodies in various countries and several Academy committees. This year’s nine-film shortlist, announced this month, was whittled down by two committees from 65 submissions; the final five, to be determined by a third committee, will be revealed along with the other Oscar nominations on Tuesday. Mark Johnson, a veteran producer (“The Notebook,” “Ballast,” the “Narnia” films) and chairman of the Academy’s foreign-language committee since 1999, said that he has been striving in recent years to improve a process that, he acknowledged, often left the impression of an out-of-touch voting body. “We’ve attacked some of what I think have been real legitimate problems and criticisms,” he said.
While Mr. Johnson’s efforts have been largely focused on arriving at a more credible group of nominees, they have not streamlined the complex, multistage procedure. At each phase “there are always surprises and disappointments,” said Michael Barker, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which is distributing three of this year’s nine shortlisted films: Michael Haneke’s “White Ribbon” (Germany), Jacques Audiard’s “Prophet” (France) and Juan José Campanella’s “Secret in Their Eyes” (Argentina).
The rule changes have not eliminated controversy. This year some critics pointed to omissions like “Police, Adjective” (from Romania), “Mother” (South Korea) and “I Killed My Mother” (Canada), all of which were the submissions of their respective countries, and films like “The Maid” (Chile) and “Vincere” (Italy), which were not selected in the first place.
Jonathan Sehring, the president of IFC Entertainment, an active distributor of foreign films, called the nominating process “terribly flawed” and singled out for criticism the one-film-per-country rule.
Some countries arrive at their choice by polling an Academy-like professional organization with hundreds or thousands of members; countries with less robust film industries might have more ad-hoc groups, sometimes with as few as a dozen voters. While the system is designed to allow even the smallest of film-producing nations a shot, it also ends up punishing relative powerhouses like France and Italy, which have many more acclaimed releases in a given year than, say, Iceland or the Ivory Coast, but must pick only one.
The emphasis on national origin means that international co-productions (like “The Motorcycle Diaries”) tend to fall by the wayside. Until recently the Academy also insisted that the foreign language match the foreign country; for instance, Mr. Haneke’s “Caché,” a French-language film by an Austrian director, was deemed ineligible. And two years ago “The Band’s Visit” was disqualified from being Israel’s official candidate because too much of the movie was in English.
At the national level the decisions are often tangled in internal politics. “Some countries approach the process in terms of ‘Whose turn is it?’ ” Mr. Sehring said, adding that personal agendas can come into play. Some questioned Italy’s decision this year to submit Giuseppe Tornatore’s big-budget period epic “Baaria” over Marco Bellochio’s “Vincere,” a film about Mussolini’s secret lover that has been received with greater enthusiasm at festivals (and is being released in the United States by IFC this year); it has not gone unnoticed that one financial backer of “Baaria” is Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister.
Voting bodies are apt to consider, sometimes above all other factors, how well a film might travel. Mr. Barker of Sony recalled being at an Academy-related panel at a film festival in Norway and hearing the question come up in the bluntest terms: “Do we pick what we think is the best film, or do we pick what we think the Americans will vote for?” France has fielded suspiciously treacly fare like “Merry Christmas” and “The Chorus,” ignoring work by better-known auteurs like Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas.
The record in the foreign-language category suggests a weakness for stodgy, conservative films, and the Academy members who vote in the category are usually older.
Gary Palmucci, general manager of Kino International, attended a few Academy screenings two years ago, when one of his films, “Beaufort” (Israel), was up for an Oscar. With a few exceptions, he said, “it looked like everybody was over 65.” (Kino has another Israeli film on this year’s shortlist: “Ajami,” which opens in New York this week.)
This demographic quirk can be partly chalked up to the rigors of the nomination process. Every year the submitted movies are divided into four groups; an Academy member who wishes to participate in the nominations must see at least 80 percent of the films in one group (which usually works out to more than a dozen films). All films must be seen in theaters; since most of the titles are not in commercial release, that usually means attending special Academy screenings.
“The people who have that kind of time are often the older members who are retired,” Mr. Johnson said. And they tend to favor what Mr. Palmucci described as “a more meat-and-potatoes kind of film.” Mr. Sehring noted that movies with relatively challenging subject matter (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” about abortion in Ceausescu-era Romania) or form (the hand-drawn animation of “Persepolis”) have often been overlooked.
Such criticisms are hardly new, but they intensified two years ago when the Academy snubbed “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” a Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. Mr. Johnson responded by introducing an intermediate step in the nominating process to try to create a safeguard measure against glaring oversights.
“I don’t mean to be critical of the general committee because it’s older,” Mr. Johnson said, “but I wanted to make the selection process reflect more the Academy at large.”
Instead of entrusting the general membership with arriving at the nine-film shortlist, the Academy now takes the top six choices of the voting members (an average of 300 every year, Mr. Johnson said); the remaining three are wild-card selections by an executive committee appointed by Mr. Johnson, including the director Curtis Hanson, the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and the German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, whose film “The Lives of Others” was a foreign-language winner. (The shortlist is narrowed to the final five by yet another committee’s members, who watch all nine films in a three-day period.)
Last year — the first time the shortlist was determined by two separate committees — the eventual nominees included well-reviewed art-house hits like “The Class” and “Waltz With Bashir” as well as an under-the-radar critical favorite, “Revanche.” This year’s list includes the Berlin festival’s top prizewinner, “The Milk of Sorrow” (Peru), and two Cannes hits, “The White Ribbon” (Germany) and “A Prophet” (France), films that might be too dark or difficult to have made it this far under the old system.
But there is nothing Mr. Johnson can do once the nominees are set and the vote is opened to the entire membership. Last year his rule changes produced the category’s most respectable lineup in some time. But it was the Japanese film “Departures,” which many considered the most conventional and sentimental of the five, that won.
That decision may not stand the test of time, but in a sense it is in keeping with tradition. In 1981, when Mr. Barker and his partner Tom Bernard were at United Artists, they had a foreign-language Oscar frontrunner in François Truffaut’s “Last Metro.” The other prime contender was thought to be Akira Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha.” But the eventual winner was a Russian film, long since forgotten, called “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears.”
“It was a surprise to us that this could happen,” Mr. Barker said. “But then we realized this kind of thing has been happening for generations.”