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Tongues wag over foreign picks

No clear front-runner as 'Talk' takes a walk

See nomineesSparks are already flying in the foreign-language Oscar race: Spain submitted young helmer Fernando Leon’s “Mondays in the Sun” as the national entry instead of beloved Pedro Almodovar’s latest pic, “Talk to Her.”

It’s a move that has the film’s Stateside distrib, Sony Pictures Classics, fuming and ready to mount a full-scale Oscar campaign in mainstream categories. SPC co-head Michael Barker notes that — like a Shaquille O’Neal-led fourth-quarter comeback — anger can be a great motivator in the crunch.

With this previously assumed favorite out of the picture, the field of submissions — 41 named so far, with a few more to be announced — is full of front-runners in as competitive a race as there has been in recent years. It’s not, as one distrib with past experience with these contests puts it, like filmmakers are up against a “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or a Roberto Benigni blockbuster.

Then again, they may be. Early word is that Zhang Yimou’s $31 million epic “Hero,” starring Jet Li and Maggie Cheung, strongly recalls some of the action of “Crouching Tiger,” with a similar (but significantly different) plotline from Chen Kaige’s “The Emperor and the Assassin.”

Benigni’s back

In addition, Benigni is back, with “Pinocchio,” also megabudgeted ($45 million) but starting to recoup costs with an Italian B.O. take of $35 million and counting. Both films are being handled Stateside by Miramax.

While “Hero” is beginning to emerge as a favorite, “Pinocchio” was met with disappointment at early L.A. screenings after mixed Italo critical reception. The film’s American identity also could be problematic: It’s being launched in the U.S. in an English-dubbed version (sans Benigni’s well-known voice in the lead) and as a holiday family movie and not a general Oscar contender. Still, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s foreign-lingo committee will view “Pinocchio” in Italian with English subtitles, per Oscar rules.

A different language problem would appear on the surface to plague Lukas Moodysson’s Russia-based street tragedy “Lilja 4-Ever.” Though it is Sweden’s entry, almost all the dialogue is Russian (with a few lines in English and fewer in Swedish). Some have surmised that this may disqualify it, as was Hong Kong’s original entry, Peter Pau’s “The Touch,” which was yanked because it’s mainly in English.

Lingo rules

But AMPAS’ rulebook favors the Swedish entry due to a crucial caveat, citing that “the dialogue track must be predominantly in a language of the country of origin except when the story mandates that an additional non-English language be predominant.”

Several favorites will benefit from the enthusiastic U.S. marketing behind them, including Brazil’s controversial “City of God” (Miramax), which has tended to divide opinion more than any other hopeful.

Zeitgeist, which usually handles more challenging artistic work, appears to have a major contender in the race with Caroline Link’s mainstream German period epic “Nowhere in Africa,” which was embraced more at the recently ended AFI Fest 2002 than it was at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

Focus Features’ early fall push for Francois Ozon’s quasimusical “8 Women,” from France, may have been too much, too soon, but it has its fans. Samuel Goldwyn’s current rollout of Carlos Carrera’s “El Crimen de Padre Amaro,” Mexico’s entry, appears to be well-timed, but it’s playing tepidly with critics and journalists. The Mexican selection group also has been criticized for the choice of “Amaro,” ignoring such work as Carlos Reygadas’ Cannes honoree “Japon.”

“Mondays in the Sun,” despite the “Talk to Her” fracas, is finding favor at the same time it’s been picked up for U.S. playdates by Lions Gate. Newmarket may have a nominee in Susanne Bier’s Dogma-influenced “Open Hearts,” an emotional relationship drama that may appeal to audiences that shy away from hard-core Dogma titles.

Though it would seem to be a prohibitive favorite because of its long list of European film prizes, including the grand jury and actress prizes at Cannes, Aki Kaurismaki’s “The Man Without a Past” (SPC), may end up appealing strictly to Kaurismaki fans and not winning converts.

This also may apply to a small, highly distinguished group of films that appear to have been selected on artistic terms alone: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ “The Son” (Belgium); Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis” (South Korea), Chang Tso-chi’s “The Best of Times” (Taiwan) and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s “Mon-rak Transistor” (Thailand). The South Korean selection is especially notable, since the country has had a wealth of choices, including Im Kwon Taek’s majestic “Chiwaseon” and Lee Jeong-hyang’s crowdpleasing “The Way Home,” both potentially more Academy-friendly than the daring “Oasis.”

Several countries also have quality titles to spare, including Russia, whose selection of Andrei Konchalovsky’s “House of Fools” (Par Classics) reportedly raised a firestorm of dispute within the selection group. Outstanding films to choose from included Alexander Sokurov’s groundbreaking “Russian Ark” (Wellspring) and Alexander Rogozhkin’s well-liked “The Cuckoo” (SPC).

Meanwhile, the Hungarians are being applauded for selecting Gyorgy Palfi’s highly original “Hukkle” — so original that it must be considered a dark horse to make the final five noms.

As some of the 41 begin to be screened, other titles are generating good word of mouth that could boost their nomination status including Marcelo Pineyro’s “Kamchatka” from Argentina, already being positively compared to “Son of the Bride,” that country’s Oscar finalist last year; Nir Bergman’s acclaimed Israeli family drama, “Broken Wings”; and Asif Kapadia’s Hindi-language U.K. entry, “The Warrior,” one of the best-received films at Edinburghfest.

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