A Low-Key Berlinale Yields Some Foreign Oscar Contenders to Watch

Una mujer fantastica
Courtesy of Berlin Int. Film Festival

Situated as it is in the dank tail-end of a cold German winter, the Berlinale never attracts as much attention from awards-watchers as its fellow European majors Cannes and Venice: The former, after all, takes place in sunny spring climes, when everyone has recovered sufficiently from the last awards season to contemplate the next one, while the latter glamorously kicks off the gilded fall festivals, handing the baton to Telluride and Toronto. Berlin’s programming, meanwhile, is arguably the most proudly esoteric of the three, with an emphasis on newer filmmakers and underexposed filmmaking regions and demographics.

None of that, needless to say, is exactly music to Oscar pundits’ ears, but for the keen-eyed observer, Berlin annually turns up a few contenders that stay the course all the way to the following February. It’s rare for a Berlinale premiere to make quite as big a splash as Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” did after opening the festival in 2014, but last year’s Golden Bear winner, Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea,” is currently in the hunt for the documentary feature Oscar. The year before, the whispers for Charlotte Rampling’s slow-burning “45 Years” nomination campaign began with Berlin plaudits, while Catalina Sandino Moreno and Marion Cotillard are among the other Berlinale success stories who initially seemed very dark horses for Oscar glory.

But it’s in the foreign language film category, unsurprisingly, where Berlin’s impact is most clearly felt. Recent Oscar winners “A Separation” and “The Counterfeiters” were both unveiled there (the former taking the Golden Bear), while nominees such as “A Royal Affair,” “War Witch,” “The Milk of Sorrow,” “Revanche” and “Beaufort” have followed the same trail.

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The Berlinale class has sat out the foreign-language race in the last couple of years, however, but 2017 might bring greater fortunes. For while this was, by broad critical agreement, far from a vintage Berlinale, a handful of standout world-cinema titles emerged that could well tickle the Academy’s fancy — if, of course, their countries submit them in the first place.

Among these is the most prominent purchase of the festival, Chilean auteur Sebastian Lelio’s best screenplay winner “A Fantastic Woman,” which was snapped up for U.S. distribution by Sony Pictures Classics. Sony, of course, has something of a Midas touch in the foreign-language category: Their films have won in seven of the last 10 years, and they have two shots on goal this year with “Toni Erdmann” and “Land of Mine.”

Given the right handling, they could have another with Lelio’s luminous, moving transgender drama, in which he demonstrates stylistic shades of Almodovar. Chile, currently experiencing something of a cinematic purple patch, previously submitted Lelio’s delightful 2013 Berlinale prizewinner “Gloria” to no avail, and are likely to tap him again — particularly with their golden boy Pablo Larrain on board as a producer. A story of a trans woman shunned by her lover’s family after his sudden passing, Lelio’s latest could hit a compelling note of emotion and topicality with certain voters. (It’s obviously a longer shot, but a secondary campaign to get a history-making lead actress nomination for Daniela Vega, the film’s remarkable trans leading lady, would be well-deserved.)

An even likelier Oscar candidate is “The Other Side of Hope,” the latest from veteran Finnish eccentric Aki Kaurismaki, who nabbed a 2002 foreign-language nod for “The Man Without a Past.” That was very much a film in the director’s older, absurdist vein, and a somewhat surprising nominee at the time. But “The Other Side of Hope” is a mellower work of humanism, about the unlikely friendship between a Syrian asylum seeker and a grizzled Finnish restaurateur. A critical favorite at the festival, where it won Kaurismaki the best director prize, it’s a melancholy heartwarmer in a very Academy-friendly vein — though one should add that Kaurismaki’s last film, “Le Havre,” another sweet immigration-themed fable, was Oscar-tipped on the same grounds, and wound up surprisingly missing the shortlist. Either way, it’s unimaginable that Finland, which has selected Kaurismaki four times previously, won’t submit the film. We’ll see whether the moody, competition-averse auteur, who has twice withdrawn selections but relented for “Le Havre,” lets them.

Poland has a likely submission in the animal rights-themed mystery “Spoor,” widely hailed as a playful new direction for veteran director (and three-time Oscar nominee) Agnieszka Holland, who duly won the festival’s Alfred Bauer Award for “new perspectives.”

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Romania, still seeking a first Oscar nod despite their revered “new wave,” has an option in “Ana, Mon Amour,” a “Blue Valentine”-style fragmented marital drama from director Calin Peter Netzer, whose Golden Bear winner “Child’s Pose” was submitted in 2013.

And from what turned out to be a robust festival for Eastern European cinema, Hungary will surely be considering this year’s quirky Golden Bear winner “On Body and Soul,” the first feature in 18 years from female helmer Ildiko Enyedi — whose celebrated, widely distributed debut “My 20th Century” was the country’s 1989 submission. What Academy voters will make of this surreal, deliberate love story, in which two abattoir workers discover they’re having the same dreams, is another question. It may have premiered in the less prominent Panorama strand, but “1945,” a well-received post-Holocaust drama shot in elegant black and white, looks like the savvier Hungarian bet.

I’m less confident that South Korea will enter Hong Sangsoo’s well-liked character study “On the Beach at Night Alone,” with its stunning, best actress-winning turn by “The Handmaiden” star Kim Minhee; the country has never stumped for the highly prolific auteur before.

Moving across to Africa, Grand Jury Prize winner “Félicité” is an emotional, sensual and musical feast that could well find Academy favor — though Senegal has never entered the race before, and the film’s European co-producing regions will have glitzier options.

As for the English-language fare? Let’s just say I’d be surprised if Oren Moverman’s starry, abrasive “The Dinner” manages to overcome its mixed reviews to make any headway, while the prospects of Stanley Tucci’s “Final Portrait” were described to me by one acerbic colleague as such: “It’s this year’s ‘Genius.'” (Remember last year’s “Genius?” Exactly.)

I’ll be rooting for some supporting actress consideration for an acid-tongued Patricia Clarkson in Sally Potter’s fast, zesty comic departure “The Party,” but we’ll have to see what distribution transpires first. And by the time we’re down to discussing the awards potential of surprisingly acclaimed Berlinale premiere “Logan” — well, let’s just say minting Oscar winners has never been this offbeat festival’s primary purpose.

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