The Contenders 2011: Foreign Language

Foreign-language cinema is full of unflinching art-house dramas, heavy with political and social import. Look no further than last year’s award-winning tale of revenge and atonement, “In a Better World,” or such haunting examinations of war in recent nominees as “Waltz With Bashir,” “The White Ribbon” and “Beaufort.”

This year’s slate of 63 foreign-lingo Oscar submissions is rife with sober tales of conflict, oppression and corruption, many of which may test the patience of Academy voters, including Taiwan’s four-hour-plus “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq bale,” about the island’s indigenous people fighting imperial Japanese forces or Chinese master Zhang Yimou’s latest, “The Flowers of War,” a 2 ½ -hour epic about the rape of Nanking, starring Christian Bale.

But not all this year’s submissions sound so earnest or arduous. Some deal with thought-provoking subject matter in ways that could even be called lighthearted or inspiring.

For instance, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre,” a 90-minute fairy tale about a young African refugee who comes under the protection of a French shoeshine man, has political undertones, but the film is also a loving nod to 1930s French cinema. Variety ‘s review called it “a continual pleasure, seamlessly blending morose and merry notes.”

“There’s obviously a deep social consciousness that runs through the film,” says Peter Becker, president of Janus Films, which acquired “Le Havre” for U.S. release. “But in choosing to celebrate humanity and having a generosity of spirit that is all too rare in troubled times, Aki’s chosen a way to bring issues to the fore without beating you over the head with them. You walk away feeling uplifted and a little wistful. I think that tone serves the film well.”

Similarly, France’s submission, “Declaration of War,” concerns a young hipster couple grappling with a life-threatening disease that’s afflicted their infant son. But the film feels never less than buoyant, complete with party scenes and musical interludes.

Another IFC release, Germany’s “Pina,” is also far away from somber politics; rather, the 3D performance spectacle celebrating the dance choreo-graphy of Pina Bausch whisks viewers away from their day-to-day troubles.

And that’s a good thing, according to longtime foreign-lingo distrib Michael Barker of Sony Classics. “With the volatility of the economic crisis, people are in the mood for a lighter movie-going experience right now,” he says.

This year, SPC has two such films in the race, Joseph Cedar’s Israeli entry “Footnote,” a stylish Talmudic tale of a father-and-son rivalry, and Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s “Where Do We Go Now?” about a town’s womenfolk who try to keep their men from starting a religious war, which won the audience prize at this year’s Toronto film fest.

But accessibility doesn’t necessarily translate into Acacemy love. In fact, Barker cites the 2001 Oscar race as evidence of the contrary: That year, Bosnian peacekeeping drama “No Man’s Land” beat out crowdpleaser “Amelie” for the top prize. “It’s always difficult to predict,” Barker says.

In other years the Academy has gone the other way, as in 2008, when the whimsical Japanese drama “Departures” triumphed over “Waltz With Bashir.”

The race includes strong entries in nearly every genre, from Mexico’s “Miss Bala,” a sharp social critique masking itself as a drug-trafficking thriller, to Iran’s “A Separation,” a tough tale of marital strife and class conflict that works not unlike a Hollywood melodrama, familiar to fans of Oscar pics such as “Kramer vs. Kramer” or “Crash.”

Even Oscar-veteran Agnieszka Holland’s bleak Polish Holocaust drama “In Darkness” is not as dark as you might expect, argues Barker. “It’s a lot more optimistic than movies on that subject made in the ’50s and ’60s,” he says. “Believe it or not, it has a happy ending.”

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