Sister

“Sister”

Variety senior film critic Justin Chang offers his take on today’s Oscar foreign-language shortlist.

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Whichever movie wins the foreign-language film Oscar, there’s a decent
chance it’ll be in French.

No fewer than three French-lingo pics have cracked the Academy’s nine-film
shortlist: not just Gallic megahit “The Intouchables” (from directors
Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano), but also Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner
“Amour” (from Austria) and Ursula Meier’s “Sister”
(Switzerland). The tally goes to four if you count Canada’s entry, “War
Witch,” Kim Nguyen’s drama about an African child soldier, which is in
French and Lingala.

Along with “War Witch,” both “Amour” and
“Sister” can credit their selections to the Academy’s 2006 ruling
that a film no longer has to be in the official language of its submitting
country in order to be deemed eligible. Although “Amour” has long
been hailed as a lock for a nomination in this category (we’ll see when the final
five are announced Jan. 13), its inclusion nonetheless represents a vindication
of sorts for Austrian helmer Haneke, whose 2005 picture “Cache” was
deemed ineligible for being, like “Amour,” an entirely France-set,
French-language drama. Indeed, the disqualification of “Cache” and the
criticism that ensued partly spurred the Academy to revise its rules to begin
with.

Vindication also arrived today for Romanian writer-director Cristian
Mungiu, whose exorcism drama “Beyond the Hills” advances to the next
round (along with Chile’s “No,” Norway’s “Kon-Tiki,”
Denmark’s “A Royal Affair” and Iceland’s “The Deep”). Like
Haneke, Mungiu is the beneficiary of a rule change set in motion, at least in
part, by the omission of an earlier film: His 2007 Palme d’Or winner “4
Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” was left off the Academy’s shortlist that
year, one of a few embarrassingly high-profile mishaps that compelled
foreign-language committee chairman Mark Johnson to further refine the
selection process.

The result: the installment of a 20-member Phase II committee that would
determine three of the nine shortlisted titles, after the larger Phase I group
had already weighed in with six. Since 2008, this reform has functioned, to the
foreign-language branch’s credit, as a sort of aesthetic checks-and-balances
system, allowing bold, challenging high-art movies (none edgier or more
shocking than 2011 Greek nominee “Dogtooth”) to slip into a category
that generally prefers cozier, more accessible fare (like “The Intouchables,”
another presumed frontrunner this year). We may never know for sure which
committee recommended “Beyond the Hills,” but given the grueling
austerity of Mungiu’s film, I’m guessing it’s a Phase II move all the way.

Overall, the numerous procedural tweaks of the past decade seem to have
paid off this year with a solidly respectable batch of finalists, absent any
especially shocking or scandalous shutouts. The inclusion of Chilean entry
“No,” Pablo Larrain’s incisive drama about the last gasp of the
Pinochet dictatorship, strikes me as one of the committee’s smartest choices
(presumably Gael Garcia Bernal’s starring role didn’t hurt its chances).

Still, it’s a critic’s job to gripe: Of all the French-lingo films in
contention, why couldn’t one of them have been Belgium’s “Our
Children,” the piercing new drama from talented writer-director Joachim
Lafosse? And while it’s heartening that the Academy hand-picked three of the
best selections from this year’s Berlinale — “Sister,” “War
Witch” and “A Royal Affair” — it’s unfortunate that voters
bypassed the superb German entry “Barbara,” which won helmer
Christian Petzold the festival’s directing prize.

I myself wouldn’t have minded seeing a more diverse, less Euro-centric
slate, something that could have been managed by including Israel’s “Fill
the Void,” Afghanistan’s “The Patience Stone” or South Korea’s
“Pieta,” which won the Golden Lion at Venice a few months ago.
Considering that “Pieta” includes (to quote Variety critic Leslie
Felperin) “brutal violence, rape, animal slaughter and the ingestion of
disgusting objects,” perhaps that outcome would have required a Phase III.

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