Foreign Film Oscar Controversy rolls on

An interesting article from the New York Times

Many of the 63 films submitted in the competition for the 2012 Academy Award for best foreign-language film have not yet even begun a commercial run in an American theater, and some never will. But since its introduction in 1947, the category of best foreign-language film is one that has always been marked by controversy, intrigue and speculation, and this year’s contest is already proving to be no exception.

When the Academy announced its list of approved submissions in October, Puerto Rico was told it could not compete with a film in Spanish, apparently on the grounds that it is a part of the United States (just as it was when it was allowed to enter a film nearly a dozen times in the past), a decision that led actors like Benicio del Toro, Miriam Colon and Edward James Olmos to circulate, unsuccessfully, a petition of protest. And the initial Albanian entry, “The Forgiveness of Blood,” was replaced with “Amnesty” after the director of that film, Bujar Alimani, complained that the director of the other, Joshua Marston, should be disqualified because he is an American and had not used enough local content and elements for the film to qualify as Albanian.

With those issues now settled, the focus shifts to the films themselves, and the people who made them, who are an interesting and varied bunch. That list includes acclaimed directors who have been nominated multiple times and never won, such as China’s Zhang Yimou, and several newcomers unknown in the United States. Miguel Goncalves Mendes, director of the Portuguese entry, “Jose and Pilar,” is 33; Kaneto Shindo, who wrote and directed the Japanese submission, “Postcard,” is 99. There are also a father and son in competition: Nikita Makhalkov of Russia, who won an Oscar in 1994 for “Burnt by the Sun” and is back this year with a sequel, “Burnt by the Sun 2,” that was a critical and box office flop, and his son Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, who is representing Kazakhstan with “Return to the ‘A’.”

Another story line worth following is whether this is a year in which Europe’s traditional dominance of the category will be undermined: last year the winner was a Danish film, “In a Better World,” directed by Susanne Bier. Since the creation of the Oscar for best foreign-language film, only three African movies have ever won the prize (two of which were really French films masquerading as films from Algeria and the Ivory Coast) and except for Japan (which has won four times, beginning with Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” in 1951) and Taiwan (once, with Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000) no country from Asia or the Middle East has ever been awarded the statuette.

This year, however, the early favorite appears to be the fascinating Iranian submission, “A Separation,” written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. It’s not exactly clear how that buzz started, since “A Separation” has only been seen at festivals and will not have its qualifying commercial release until the end of December. But in the somewhat rarified world of people who track, sell and promote foreign films, there seems to be a consensus that “A Separation,” which starts as a family drama, turns into a detective story and ends ambiguously, may be the film to beat.

China also seems to be making a big push with Mr. Zhang’s “Flowers of War,” a patriotic drama with a bona fide Western star in the person of Christian Bale, stunning visual effects and a budget of $90 million, making it the most expensive film ever made for the world’s biggest movie market. Indeed, Mr. Bale’s role as an American drifter caught in the turmoil of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, is so central to “Flowers” that the film seems to brush right up against the Academy’s rule that in order to qualify for the foreign-language category, a film must have “a predominantly non-English dialogue track.”

Those and other non-Western submissions, like the Lebanese “Where Do We Go Now?” and the Turkish “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” may also be aided by some unusual or unexpected decisions by European countries. Spain, for example, chose not to submit Pedro Almodovar’s “Skin I Live In,” and France, which last year passed over the highly praised “Of Gods and Men” and was widely criticized for doing so, submitted “Declaration of War,” a drama about a young couple’s battle to save their sick child that has a distinctly small-budget indie feel. Indeed, it can easily be argued that the Finnish submission, Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre,” is a more characteristically French film, since it takes place in France, is spoken in French and is meant to be an homage to post-World War II French directors like Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville and Marcel Carne.

And then there is Germany, which may be taking a big gamble by offering Wim Wenders’s visually dazzling “Pina,” a documentary in 3-D about the choreographer Pina Bausch that is also competing in the best documentary category, where it has already made the first cut and is considered a strong contender. Portugal has also submitted a documentary, “Jose and Pilar,” about the relationship between Jose
Saramago, the novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature, and his wife. But the stakes are higher for Mr. Wenders, 66, who has won awards at festivals like Cannes and Venice, but has only one previous
Oscar nomination to his name, for another performance-oriented documentary, “Buena Vista Social Club.”

The initial 63 submissions will be winnowed to 9 in January and then, that same month, the final 5 that will receive formal nominations. But between now and then there will be plenty to talk about.

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