Foreign affairs

When it comes to appreciating complicated steamy subtitled films, that old Oscar fellow comes across as a provincial type who can't handle the truth

Though Oscar’s amorous flirtation with the foreign-language film dates back to nearly its origin (a nomination for the interior decoration of Rene Clair’s satire “A Nous la Liberte” in 1932) a formal proposal didn’t come until much later, in the first five-way competition of 1956.

That year was when Federico Fellini’s tearjerker about a simple woman’s selfless love for a brute, “La Strada,” forever wedded Oscar to the sentimental romance. Oscar showed fidelity to Fellini next year, too, when “Nights of Cabiria,” again starring Giulietta Masina, who plays a tragic Roman prostitute praying for true love, won the Academy’s hand and heart.

In 1958, Jacques Tati’s spatially sophisticated slapstick in “Mon Oncle” interrupted the Italian streak that had begun with a special award to “Shoeshine” in 1947, but a pattern was emerging. Those three movies expressed romance through a melodramatic, Chaplinesque tone that characterized the sentimental sort of amour (or amore) that Americans only seemed to appreciate from a distance. At that point, ironically, Chaplin himself had never won a competitive Oscar.

And, in the coming years, the two Western nations most associated with passion would dominate: France would garner the most noms (30) of any country and Italy would win the most Oscars (10).

Some of the memorable romances include “Black Orpheus,” with its naive primitivism and seductive Brazilian bossa nova soundtrack; Fellini’s “8-1/2,” about the fantasy lusts and past loves of an egocentric director in search of his muse; “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” again with Mastroianni, featuring Sophia Loren as three bad girls; Jacques Demy’s lush musical romance “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” starring budding sex symbol Catherine Deneuve, which got three other nominations when it qualified again the next year; “A Man and a Woman,” Claude Lelouch’s lavish affair between grieving widow (Anouk Aimee) and widower (Jean-Louis Trintignant); “Day for Night,” with Jean-Pierre Leaud looking for love on and off the movie set; and a nomination for “My Night at Maud’s,” one of Eric Rohmer’s complex, sophisticated morality works.

Meanwhile, movies like Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” and the greatest French romances — by Truffaut (“Jules and Jim”) Demy (“Lola”) Rohmer (“Claire’s Knee,” “Chloe in the Afternoon”) and Godard’s entire oeuvre — were all but ignored.

By the ’60s, when foreign films were at the peak of their influence, they had been symbolically bracketed off to better represent their growing post-war popularity, and perhaps even segregated to prevent their disturbance of domestic production promotion. Just before five-way competition began, earthy Italian star Anna Magnagni won best actress for the American production of “The Rose Tattoo” (1955), and American audiences were developing a taste for imports, as much for the promise of their eroticism as their exoticism.

The pendulum swings back this year as picture nominee “Chocolat,” despite its title, does all its tempting and wooing in English, although it is foreign in every other aspect, a perfect example of what Truffaut once derided as the French “tradition of quality.” And although mythological martial arts romancer “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” got a picture nom, none of its actors survived to battle it out for Oscars.

History has a mixed message for a “Crouching Tiger” win in the foreign-lingo race. Of the six foreign-language movies nominated for best picture — “Grand Illusion,” “Z,” “The Emigrants,” “Cries and Whispers” and then, a tribute to Miramax marketing, the comparatively negligible movies “Il Postino” and “Life Is Beautiful,” only “Z” and “Life Is Beautiful” also got a foreign-lingo Oscar.

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