Oscar Preview: Foreign Language Film (In Contention)


Posted by Kristopher Tapley · 11:06 am · February 18th, 2010

The foreign Language film category has been marred in controversy for the last few years. When films like “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days” and “Persepolis” were unceremoniously nixed from the field a few years ago, a special new “executive committee” was established to have final say on the fallen, hopefully saving the committee (which has to see all the titles to vote) some embarrassment.

Still, there is an inherent bias throughout the votership here. Violence rarely plays well, and they are loathe to be accepting of non-traditional filmmaking. One need only look back one year to 2008’s “Departures” upset for evidence. For thee reasons, the category always seems ready to surprise.

The nominees are:

“Ajami” (Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani)
“The Milk of Sorrow (La Teta Asustada)” (Claudia Llosa)
“A Prophet (Un Prophète)” (Jacques Audiard)
“The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos)” (Juan José Campanella)
“The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)” (Michael Haneke)

When it came to the annual narrowing of the submitted titles to seven semi-final contenders, there was at least one film that needed the executive committee’s help in staying afloat. And against all odds, that film managed a nomination at the end of the day. It’s not worth embarrassing the title in this space, but suffice it to say, it probably has no chance at appealing with the entire committee.

One film that was well-positioned with relevant themes and an intriguing director tandem from the start was “Ajami.” A dramatic examination of religious conflict in a region of Israel populated by Christians, Muslims and Jews, the film has frequently been categorized as a sort of “Crash” of the Middle Eastern conflict. At the helm are Scandar Copti, a Palestinian, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. But while conflicting ideologies might make for a nice headline for the film, it doesn’t always yield a solid piece of work. The pro- and anti-zionist tandem of Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner on “Munich” comes to mind. “Ajami” is a sometimes confusing tale, due largely to an arbitrary broken narrative structure that keeps the emotional beats from connecting. And it’s also a violent film, which could ultimately hurt it.

Perhaps the least conventional narrative of the bunch is Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow,” which was a surprising entry in the field. The film is interesting in that it is concerned with the psychology of an entire country. Llosa dramatizes a folk tale in Peru that says the violence and rape endured by the country’s women for 12 years during the Maoist uprising was passed on to their children through breast milk. It’s an intriguing study of how the wounds of militaristic conflict never fully heal, which certainly makes it compelling from a zeitgeist standpoint. But the narrative is incredibly inaccessible, with a measured pace that never lifts it off the ground or pushes it forward in any dynamic way. The nomination will most certainly have to be the reward here, because it is not up the committee’s alley.

Speaking of which, Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” is far and away the most accomplished of the foreign language nominees this year. This means, of course, it is destined to lose the Oscar. The French prison drama charts the rise to power of a young Arab, which gives Tahar Rahim the opportunity to offer up one of the best performances of the last 10 years. But the film is undoubtedly the most violent of the lot, and that will most certainly give voters pause. “Gomorrah,” a frequently cited parallel despite a vastly different narrative, was snubbed last year largely due to violence. That Audiard’s film made it this far is already a bit of an accomplishment, but it will have its day once more at the end of the year, when you can count on its showing up on any number of top 10 lists.

If I were to place a bet on any of the nominees, I would frankly double down on Juan José Campanella’s “The Secret in Their Eyes.” It is a powerful tale that at first glance appears to be a conventional police drama, but as the narrative unfolds, its themes begin to register and it takes on a whole other shape. The story, in the briefest terms, concerns an Argentinian federal agent’s quest to solve a murder that was swept up cleanly and sloppily by a crooked justice system. Told in flashback, the film is framed by the agent, 25 years later, haunted by the case’s memories, and indeed, the memories of a love that got away. The film is about so many things, really, which is its greatest strength. And it packs a powerful narrative punch in the third act that is sure to get it across the finish line.

The most critically acclaimed film of the bunch is “The White Ribbon” from Golden Globe winner Michael Haneke. After years of working, and establishing quite the following, Haneke only received his first nomination this year. So an award for his efforts would be quite novel, but I’m given slight pause by the unconventional nature of the narrative. While the themes may be potent, and the craftsmanship certainly respected, this just isn’t the manner in which this committee likes its stories told. They like crisp, simple, plot-driven films that aren’t overly demanding, and Haneke’s film misses in all those categories. Still, it’s been a long and healthy run for the film, one that began with a Palme d’Or way back in Cannes. There is an outside possibility the film takes the prize for prestige alone, but I’m doubtful.

Will win: “The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos)”
Could win: “The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)”
Should win: “A Prophet (Un Prophète)”

Should have been here: “London River”

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