“World cinema” may be the official remit of the foreign-language film category, but it’s fair to say Oscar has travelled some parts of the globe more thoroughly than others. However much the voting system is tweaked to expand the branch’s horizons, the award retains a reputation for Eurocentricity: in its 61 years of competitive existence, it has gone to a European production 51 times.
It’s not an inexplicable bias, of course, when you weigh up the number of developed national film industries among continents — after all, European countries account for well over a third of this year’s 92 foreign-language submissions, dwarfing the combined number of entries from Africa, for example. Either way, it’s a dominance that is likely to continue this year, with Europe holding a number of the most hotly fancied contenders in what remains a wide-open race.
Unsurprisingly, France holds the record for scoring the most nominations in the category’s history, with 37. It’ll be a surprise if this year doesn’t make it 38: 2017’s field may be too open to declare any certainties, but the French submission “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” is the tentative frontrunner in many Oscar pundits’ eyes. Ever since Robin Campillo’s sprawling, heart-wrenching AIDS activist drama, which charts the rise of the ACT-UP movement in early 1990s Paris, won the runner-up Grand Prix at Cannes, it seemed the obvious French pick. A meaty, weighty take on vital LGBT history, wrapped around a deeply moving love story, it has clear appeal to the Academy’s more progressive members, and could well be the film to end France’s quarter-century losing streak in this category: yes, the French haven’t won the Oscar since 1992’s “Indochine.”
Question marks remain: this can still be a conservative branch, and the specifically queer perspective of Campillo’s film, coupled with some explicit gay sex scenes, won’t find favor with everyone.
With several LGBT-themed festival favorites in the mix this year, including Chile’s “A Fantastic Woman,” South Africa’s “The Wound” and Finland’s “Tom of Finland,” this category could be an interesting litmus test of just how much the branch has modernized.
If the branch’s more discerning executive committee doesn’t at least secure “BPM” a spot on the December shortlist, expect an outcry.
While France is the category’s most-nominated country, Italy still holds the record for most wins: 11, plus three honorary awards from pre-competitive years. Yet the Italians’ golden touch has faded of late: with the exception of a 2014 win for Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty,” they’ve failed to score a nomination in the past 11 races.
Could Jonas Carpignano’s “A Ciambra” reverse their fortunes? Maybe, but it’s a wild card. Last year, Italy took a risk by submitting a documentary for the first time: critically adored Golden Bear winner “Fire at Sea.” The risk didn’t pay off, and the film failed to make the shortlist. That hasn’t discouraged the Italians, however, from taking their chances with unconventional candidates.
In “A Ciambra,” which premiered in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, Italian-American director Carpignano meshes documentary technique with social-realist storytelling: portraying a hardscrabble life within the Romani community of a Calabrian coastal town, it has an ensemble of non-professionals playing versions of themselves. It’s a follow-up to Carpignano’s acclaimed 2015 debut “Mediterranea,” from which it continues the arc of several characters; that film, a darling of U.S. critics, scored a number of major Independent Spirit nods. Reviews for “A Ciambra” haven’t been quite as unanimous, but the U.S. co-production’s authentic technique and American recognition factor could work in its favor.
Both France and Italy’s entries originated in Cannes: unsurprisingly, Europe’s biggest film festival is often prime hunting ground for foreign-lingo Oscar contenders, and that looks to be the case again in 2017. This year’s Palme d’Or winner, “The Square,” was unsurprisingly tapped as Sweden’s hopeful: packed with memorable set pieces and topical cultural jabs, Ruben Ostlund’s wild, woolly art-world satire is both striking and entertaining enough to win over voters with a slight taste for the offbeat.
If it does, it’ll be sweet relief for Ostlund, whose video reaction when his hotly tipped “Force Majeure” failed to land a nomination went viral in 2015. As it turned out, the Academy didn’t entirely warm to “Force Majeure’s” chilly brand of tragicomedy. That’s reason enough not to bet the house on “The Square,” which is similarly arch and dark; not all critics, meanwhile, are united on the virtues of its loose, episodic structure and 140-minute runtime. Still, the residual prestige of the Palme is not an inconsiderable factor, and “The Square” is one of the field’s most tonally distinctive, formally assured entries — while its multiple English-language interludes, cast with such familiar faces as Dominic West and a blazing Elisabeth Moss, can’t hurt it with Academy voters.
Should “The Square” land a nomination, it’ll be the first Palme d’Or winner to do so since Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” which won the 2012 Oscar (and landed a best picture nod to boot). Haneke’s previous film, “The White Ribbon,” also landed a foreign-language nomination, but it’d be something of a surprise to see the austere Austrian auteur’s hot streak continue this year. Though Austria has loyally plumped for the master’s latest, the oblique, mordantly comic class critique “Happy End,” as its submission this year, buzz is not on his side — even with the star power of recent lead actress nominee Isabelle Huppert on board.
She’s also in Luxembourg’s submission, the tender but muted mother-daughter tale “Barrage”; it’s unlikely to help in that case either.
Reviews for “Happy End” at Cannes were mixed to befuddled, with even the film’s defenders (this critic included) conceding that it’s a smaller curiosity within Haneke’s filmography; Pedro Almodovar’s jury, meanwhile, ignored it while feting “BPM” and “The Square.” In other words, voters already disinclined toward Haneke’s brand of brittle cynicism — to which “Amour” was a notable, and notably rewarded, exception — are being given little external advice to the contrary.
Two other Cannes champs with a strong shot at making the shortlist are Russia’s “Loveless,” and Germany’s “In the Fade.” The former, a typically immaculate, ambitious work from director Andrey Zvyagintsev, won the Jury Prize at Cannes, though many had it tipped for the Palme; it follows Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan,” which nabbed a 2014 Oscar nod. Like that film, it’s a furious, heavyweight allegorical indictment of Russian governmental corruption, this time framed through a devastating missing-child narrative, that bucked institutional odds to get the approval of the country’s official selection committee. International acclaim has continued since Cannes; it most recently won best film at the London Film Festival.
“In the Fade,” from director Fatih Akin, may not have the critics as wholeheartedly on its side, but voters with a taste for meat-and-potatoes storytelling may well gravitate toward this currently all-too-relevant legal drama about a Hamburg woman avenging the neo-Nazi murder of her Kurdish husband and son. It has star power going for it, too: Diane Kruger’s lead performance, which won actress at Cannes, has drawn the film’s strongest notices, and her outside shot at an Oscar nom helps keep the film in the frame. Don’t be surprised if this knocks an artsier favorite off the shortlist.
Speaking of Germany, the Berlin Film Festival, while lower-profile than Cannes, has minted many a foreign Oscar player in its day. Look out for this year’s strange, beguiling Golden Bear winner from Hungary, Ildiko Enyedi’s “On Body and Soul”: a distinctive love story about abattoir workers who discover they literally share dreams, it has the feel of a potential executive committee save with its combination of thematic novelty and emotional depth.
Among the films it beat in Berlin was Poland’s “Spoor,” from veteran, Hollywood-dabbling auteur Agnieszka Holland: two of her previous films, including her 2014 Holocaust drama “In Darkness,” have scored nominations in the category, so perhaps this oddball, critically divisive mix of murder mystery, fairy tale and animal-rights issue picture could follow suit.
Or smaller Berlinale breakouts could surprise. Spain’s entry “Summer 1993,” from freshman director Carla Simon, won the festival’s first feature award, and has quietly been winning hearts on the festival circuit with its study of familial strife shown through the eyes of a 6-year-old orphan.
The list of alternative Euro spoilers, meanwhile, is a long one. Voters with a hankering for genre polish and star glamor might gravitate toward Belgium’s “Race and the Jailbird,” with its alluring pairing of Matthias Schoenaerts and Adele Exarchopoulos; auteurists with a taste for the supernatural could make a dark horse of Norway’s “Thelma,” a fusion of horror and lesbian romance from director Joachim Trier.
And for those who prefer ripped-from-the-headlines topicality, there’s the Netherlands’ “Layla M.,” a schematic but effective portrait of a Muslim woman’s terrorist radicalization in Amsterdam. Want your social-issue drama a little more rousingly upbeat? Try Switzerland’s “The Divine Order,” a feminist crowdpleaser about the women’s suffrage movement that could well strike a chord in an industry currently reexamining its own gender politics.
This year’s European smorgasbord has something for every Academy faction.