No rules to minimize contenders like other awards

The Oscars may be America’s preeminent film awards, but there’s one category in which the Golden Globes have them beat: foreign-language cinema. That makes a certain amount of sense when you consider the makeup of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

“We consider this category very important because it gives us the feeling that we are international journalists,” says Serge Rakhlin, chairman of the Globes’ foreign language category, pointing out the org’s members travel to many festivals over the course of the year.

Whereas the Academy adheres to a decades-old system in which a committee from each country picks one film to compete, the HFPA will consider any overseas pic submitted and screened for the org, provided it opened abroad within the prior 14 months.

“Unlike the Academy, we don’t accept just one per country,” Rakhlin says. “By our rules, they can submit as many as they want. There’s no limit.”

That’s important for countries such has France, Italy and Spain, which produce many quality features each year. The Academy forces them to choose. “Remember, the Oscar goes to the country, not the filmmaker,” says Mark Johnson, chair of the Acad’s foreign-language film exec committee. That is seldom easy for a country like Belgium, uniquely divided between two language factions — French and Flemish.

Belgium’s committee raised eyebrows this year after picking “Bullhead,” the winner of six Flanders Film Awards, over French-language Cannes grand jury winner “The Kid With a Bike,” directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

“The Dardenne brothers are like icons,” says “Bullhead” helmer Michael R. Roskam, who fully expected the crowd-pleasing “Kid” to get Belgium’s bid over his film, a thriller inspired by murder and corruption perpetrated by the country’s “hormone mafia” in the ’90s.

“It’s an honor, not only to be the representative of your country, but to have such a strong film as your competitor,” says Roskam, whose pic won the audience prize at AFI earlier this month.

Roskam wasn’t the only one surprised by Belgium’s choice. The committee had previously submitted three Dardenne pics — “Rosetta,” “The Son” and “The Child,” none of which was nommed — and many consider “Kid,” which features a genuine movie star in Cecile de France, to be the Dardennes’ most optimistic and Oscar-friendly film yet.

“We believe there are people who really did not want it to be our film,” confides Luc Dardenne. “We could say that our quasi-celebrity status in other countries made certain people jealous, and it can probably be pinned down to that.”

Whereas the HFPA will consider both “Bullhead” and “Kid” for its foreign-language prize, the Academy is at the mercy of such political maneuvers in other countries. Another 2011 scandal involves Russia’s choice of “The Citadel,” Nikita Mikhalkov’s critically panned follow-up to his Oscar-winning 1994 pic “Burnt by the Sun,” for Acad consideration. Passed over were such celebrated alternatives as “Elena” (from “The Return” director Andrei Zvyagintsev) and Aleksandr Sokurov’s “Faust” (which won the Golden Lion at Venice).

“Being from Russia originally, I can tell you there are people who say there are better films to represent the country,” says Rakhlin, pointing out that the only Russian pic up for Globes contention this year is “Elena.” “I’m glad we have this film because it was not submitted for Oscar.”

The HFPA’s approach is also better suited to accommodate international co-productions.

“I sort of refer to it as ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ problem,” Johnson says. “We were taken to task for not having nominated the movie, but it was never submitted. For whatever reason, no country would claim it, probably because it was such an international film.” The film did receive two other noms, original song and adapted screenplay, winning the former.

How is that possible? With the Oscars, foreign language is the only feature category in which films do not need a one-week qualifying run on Los Angeles screens to be eligible, though doing so technically allows them to compete in other categories.

That happened in 2002, when Spain selected “Mondays in the Sun” over Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her,” which went on to win a screenwriting Oscar. Spain has taken criticism this year for choosing Agusti Villaronga’s “Black Bread” instead of Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live in.”

Such decisions are inevitably painful and potentially controversial. Films can slip through the cracks with the Globes as well, though Rakhlin and other members often go out of their way to encourage producers of quality foreign pics to submit — the more the merrier.

“Theoretically, if two masterpieces come from the same country, why not consider them both?” he says.

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