One critic tackles o'seas Oscar winners

Two years ago, midway through a mostly uneventful Oscar ceremony, the Academy featured a montage celebrating 50 years of Oscar foreign-language winners. It was a stunning interlude, edited by director Giuseppe Tornatore with the same care he paid the kissing montage at the end of “Cinema Paradiso” and presented without a single word of dialogue — not so much an ironic choice as one that demonstrated the common language of cinema.

I was floored. What were these films? Of the 61 winners to date (counting the eight pics honored before the category was officially introduced in 1956), I’d seen maybe 15. There were landmark films by the likes of Fellini (a four-time winner), Bergman (three), Kurosawa (two) and Truffaut (one), whose titles I knew, yet never managed to see. And what about such unfamiliar and enigmatic-sounding winners as “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” (1970) and “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” (1980)?

Surely this was a sign. I vowed to track down and watch every Oscar foreign-language winner (no easy feat, as many are unavailable on DVD). My project began in earnest the first week of 2009 with Vittorio De Sica’s “Shoe-Shine” (1947) and proceeded in more or less chronological order at a pace of roughly a film a week for the entire year, culminating Dec. 1 with a special Academy-facilitated screening of that most elusive title, 1982’s “Volver a empezar.”

Colleagues questioned my sanity, pointing out that there was no shortage of stinkers to have claimed the prize. The best films seldom won, they argued, but I persisted, imagining this as a journey through international cinema that might reveal the rise and fall of major artists and movements over more than six decades.

It actually went that way for a while. Special-award winner “Shoe-Shine” is nothing short of a masterpiece, indicating a willingness on the Academy’s part to celebrate Italian Neo-Realism despite the fact that the movement itself rejected Hollywood style for working-class stories, non-professional actors and location-based shooting, followed by honorary trophies (chosen by a committee that included representatives from each studio) for such deserving films as “The Bicycle Thief” (1949), “Rashomon” (1951) and “Forbidden Games” (1952). For all intents and purposes, these were the early days of foreign cinema exhibition in the U.S. (not counting the pre-war silent boom), with the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948 relaxing the studios’ control over the exhibition business.

In 1956, the Academy created an official category for foreign-language cinema, and though the rules have evolved quite a bit over the years, it remains the one category in which the pics are not required to play U.S. theaters in order to qualify. Instead, each country is allowed a single submission, which is then screened by a special Academy committee that determines the final five nominees — the World Cup of cinema, as it were.

That first year, eight countries participated. Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” won (no complaints there). The next year saw five new countries join in. Fellini won again, this time for “The Nights of Cabiria” (while Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” was conspicuously shut out). Each year seemed to bring new countries into the mix, with Sweden winning two years in a row for Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” (1960) and “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961).

These were clearly exciting days for international cinema, and though the foreign pics I personally respected most from any given year seldom won the prize, Italy, France and Japan submitted daring films by their most celebrated directors: Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961), Michelangelo’s Antonioni’s “La Notte” (1961) and Yasujiro Ozu’s “Late Autumn” (1960), to name just three examples.

And then a curious thing began to happen. Questionable winners started to sneak in. Mushy French melodrama “Sundays and Cybele,” a Stateside hit in 1962, won (submitted over Francois Truffaut’s far superior “Jules et Jim”). De Sica’s overripe “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (1964) trumped the existential masterpiece “Woman in the Dunes,” while massive French phenom “A Man and a Woman” (1966) bested “The Battle of Algiers” and so on.

The category was fast devolving into a popularity contest, with the B.O. sensations beating what many thought was their more deserving competition. Great films carried the category into the next decade, including De Sica’s heartbreaking foiled-by-WWII romance”The Garden of the Finzi Continis” (1971), Truffaut’s playful meta-movie “Day for Night” (1973) and Kurosawa’s pensive non-samurai epic “Dersu Uzala” (1975). But corruption allegedly set in as well, which might explain how “Black and White in Color” (1976) beat “Seven Beauties” and “Cousin, Cousine” when those two films were nominated for five other Oscars between them.

My two most satisfying discoveries — 1978’s “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs,” a nutty menage a trois from French provocateur Bertrand Blier, and 1985’s “The Official Story,” a wrenching look at the children of political dissidents put up for adoption during Argentina’s Dirty War — fall during this questionable period.

“There were a lot of really odd things that went on in the ’80s,” Academy executive director Bruce Davis tells me, and anecdotal evidence indicates a certain coziness between committee members and potential nominees, with voters being invited to parties at the various consulates, mingling with the filmmakers and accepting trinkets.

Though the Academy cracked down on such practices, the org also had to contend with the fast-growing number of qualifying submissions, which made it increasingly difficult for anyone other than retired Academy members to find time to screen all the eligible films. That might explain why WWII stories and heartwarming tales featuring wide-eyed urchins and their geriatric guardians came to dominate the category (as it turns out, I’m a sucker for the latter category as well, counting “Pelle the Conqueror,” “Casino Paradiso” and “Antonia’s Line” among my favorite winners), while critic-lauded pics languish (consider the oversight of 2007’s gritty Romanian abortion pic “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”).

With more countries in the mix — 41 in 1995, 51 in 2001, and 63 by 2005 — it became harder for me to extrapolate lessons from the winners. By the Academy’s model, this was a huge success, with submissions arriving from nations that hadn’t even existed a few years before (the former Yugoslavia was now permitted to submit five, while France was still stuck sending one), and yet it also belied the fundamental flaw in the category: Everything depends on the film each country selects, and those decisions are fraught with politics.

An exceptional film that had exhausted its commercial run might be passed over in favor of one that could benefit, provocative or controversial films were shot down, top directors were forced to sit out a few years after having a film submitted in order to give others a shot, etc. And then there were disqualifications: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Red” (one of the 10 best films of all time, in my book) was deemed not Swiss enough, “The Band’s Visit” featured too much English — never mind that 1968’s winner, Sergei Bondarchuk’s seven-hour “War and Peace,” was released dubbed in the U.S.

At a certain point, foreign films became common enough in U.S. theaters that they were eligible to compete in other categories. Algerian conspiracy thriller “Z” (1969) was the first to earn a picture nomination (not counting 1938’s “The Grand Illusion”), and several others — including Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” (1973) and Miramax-backed “Il Postino” (1995) — followed suit, even when not being submitted by their native countries.

Meanwhile, they were surprisingly hard to find on DVD. A great many of these winners are virtually lost (while an impressive number of others have been wonderfully preserved by Janus Films, Rialto Pictures and the Criterion Collection). Cannes Grande Prix-winning samurai sudser “Gate of Hell” (1954) and sup
erstylized political satire “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” exist exclusively in bootleg form; several can only be hunted down on out-of-print VHS tapes; and Rene Clement’s “The Walls of Malapaga” might be lost entirely, but for the exhaustive collection at Eddie Brant’s Saturday Matinee.

In short, more countries than ever are making movies, but the audiences for them seem to be dwindling. Miramax enjoyed a four-win run from 1988 to 1991, and Sony Pictures Classics has released its share of winners (including their biggest hit ever, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), but the record of these works — masterpieces and mediocrities alike — is in danger. Anyone interested in repeating my experiment certainly has their work cut out for them.

Peter Debruge is a features editor and film critic at Variety.

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