Foreign-language contenders tackle major social issues

The harried Academy member who happens to be a part of the foreign-language picture committee is in the thick of it this year. It would be understandable if their eyes begin to glaze over at the sheer size of the submission field: 65 total. That’s more movies than some festivals program. How to make sense of it all?

For starters, a striking number of the submitted films tackle huge social, political or historical issues and conditions, whether as background to a more intimate narrative (like Denis Villeneuve’s acclaimed Canadian entry “Incendies,” which addresses the hugely complex Lebanese civil strife, transposed to a fictional Middle Eastern country, via a daughter’s investigation into her immigrant mother’s past) or as the focus of the film itself (in the epic Chinese blockbuster “Aftershock,” director Feng Xiaogang depicts a family torn apart by the massively destructive 1976 Tangshan earthquake and the aftermath of post-Maoism).

The sense of a larger world affecting characters dominates this group of films, as in previous nominee Rachid Bouchareb’s Algerian Cannes competition drama, “Outside the Law,” which considers Algeria’s fight for independence from France through the prism of a saga of three brothers. Such issue-consciousness repeats among many of this year’s submissions, from Goran Devic and Zvonimir Juric’s “The Blacks,” about a Croatian death squad at the end of the war, to Iciar Bollain’s Spanish “Even the Rain,” which dramatizes Bolivia’s indigenous people fighting for their rights. The well-received Israeli entry, “The Human Resources Manager,” integrates a Jerusalem terror bombing into a quirky road movie, while Apichatpong Weerase-thakul’s Palme d’Or-winning “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” melds ghost stories and fairytales with the legacy of insurgency in Thailand’s north.

This thematic tendency is generally reflected in the winners and nominees of years past, with high-minded dramas (such as last year’s “The Secret in Their Eyes” with its echoes of Argentina’s dirty war) topping audience-pleasing comedies. Previous nominees also tend to do well, whether it’s Bouchareb or Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, nominated in 2001 for his debut “Amores Perros” and now hoisting the Mexican flag for “Biutiful,” itself a drama tackling such big topics as illegal immigration and globalization.

By these examples alone, it’s clearly a highly competitive year for the category, full of films laurelled with major fest prizes and international acclaim. “Uncle Boonmee” is joined by Cannes runner up “Of Gods and Men,” submitted by France, as well as Berlin winners “Honey” (the Turkish film earned the fest’s Golden Bear) and “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle” (the jury grand prize went to Florin Serban’s Romanian entry).

Rounding out the impressive roster are Kamen Kalev’s Bulgarian “Eastern Plays” (top film at the Tokyo, Warsaw, Sofia, Mons and Angers fests), Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s Austrian “La pivellina” (top prize-winner at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight, IndieLisboa, Gijon, Valdivia and Kiev), Feo Aladag’s German “When We Leave” (best narrative film and actress at Tribeca) and Yorgos Lanthimos’ Greek “Dogtooth” (Un Certain Regard winner in Cannes).

And if you care to predict which pics will make the shortlist (and which don’t?), consider this: Over the past 10 years, German and French films have been nommed six times (with Germany winning twice, France once), followed by three for Israel and Mexico, which bodes well for those countries’ chances. Or not. Argentina had enjoyed few Oscar nights until last year, when “Secret” won.

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