Even as more sunlight is cast on the workings of the Academy and its internal nominating processes, one corner of the complex world of Oscar remains unremittingly murky: How countries go about selecting one film from an annual pool of work for the foreign-language statuette.

“It may not be up there with the mysteries in the inner sanctum of the United Nations,” says one awards-watcher, “but it’s awfully close. These films are just announced one day. How did they get there?”

The short answer: With some difficulty, some reliability, but no perceptible uniformity of process and purpose, certainly not of the sort that characterizes the Academy’s own, quite rigorous nomination and awards process.

The very unevenness of the field (54 this year, the largest ever) and its selection begins with the roster of countries itself. Some, such as Spain, have full-fledged academies along the lines of AMPAS. Others have a central org (such as the Film Federation of India) that is fed by the nation’s various regional film organizations. Still others, like Afghanistan, which selected “FireDancer” for the race, have a selection group that is, like the country, still a work in progress.

While AMPAS’ foreign-language committee chairman, producer Mark Johnson, doesn’t express serious concerns about the ways in which various countries manage their nomination practice, he notes that “in the next few years, we may have to make some radical adjustments. What and how, I can’t really say. It depends on if we run into problems with films that are selected and how they’re selected.”

These selecting groups are actually crucial to the international process, and are probably the one unifying factor shared by all the submitting countries. How these groups are organized and function, however, is where all unity fades: Each organization is a direct result of the internal nature of the film culture and business in each nation.

Mexico, for instance, blends aspects of a film community that is several decades old with an itch for reform that’s visible throughout the country. Mexican Film Academy prexy Diana Bracho acknowledges that the selection group, formed in 1946, “used to be rather amorphous and huge, involving over 300 members, with loose, abstract rules. Now, we are a much smaller, more disciplined group.”

The group is split into three tiers: Some 25 active members, who are involved in filmmaking, and who meet monthly; 40 honorary members, of retirement age, who participate less frequently; and “transitory” members, who have won Mexico’s top film prize, the Ariel, in the past three years and who are rotated out after that period.

Ten films were submitted by producers for the selection done in fall 2002, with Carlos Carrera’s B.O. hit, “The Crime of Father Amaro” the top choice.

Yet it was the Mexican group’s 2001 choice of Marisa Sistach’s “Violet Perfume” over Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y tu mama tambien” — which has gone on to rousing critical and commercial success in the North American market, while “Perfume” remains begging for a Yank distrib — that raised hackles. Cuaron and star Gael Garcia Bernal went public with their disgust of the academy committee, and Cuaron’s producer-brother Carlos remains peeved: “A lot of filmmakers don’t take this group seriously, because it doesn’t represent their interests or function as a true film academy.”

Cinema boosters

A much younger body is the Korean Film Commission (KOFIC) in South Korea, charged with supporting the country’s film industry through funding, research, education and training. It reorganized in its present form in 1999, out of the remains of the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corp., which was created in 1973 by the government to tub-thump its cinema abroad.

The current org remains largely state-sponsored, but rep Park Duk-ho claims the government has “much less influence. With greater autonomy, KOFIC also has a wider mandate to shape film policy.”

The seven-member selection group for the foreign-language Oscar is only 3 years old and has a spotty record: it inexplicably made no selection in 2001, a terrific year for South Korean cinema. For 2002, four films were submitted, two of which were theoretically potent Oscar contenders — Cannes director winner Im Kwon-Taek’s rich biopic “Chihwaseon,” and Lee Jeong-hyang’s sweethearted “The Way Home.” (The third film was Kim Hyeon-seok’s comedy, “YMCA Baseball Team.”)

The group’s eventual choice of Lee Chang-dong’s more demanding “Oasis,” a multi-prize-winner at Venice, appeared to be an artistically driven decision — a contrast to the impression left by many Oscar selection committees, which often feel a natural pressure to reward that year’s B.O. champ. (The current field is scattered with such examples, from “Father Amaro” to Roberto Benigni’s Italian hit, “Pinocchio.”) Park says that “the group felt that ‘Oasis’ was the best choice in terms of artistic quality and cultural value, in what it says about Korean society today.”

Few national organizations are quite so direct about the reasoning behind their Oscar selection. Certainly, the manner in which the Russian Academy of Cinema Arts’ committee chose Andrei Konchalovsky’s Venice grand jury prize winner, “House of Fools,” prompted much head-scratching and a firestorm of protest in Russia. With Konchalovsky’s younger brother, helmer Nikita Mikhalkov, as a committee member, the decision was like raw meat for critics of the group and of Mikhalkov (a one-man powerhouse as prexy of both the Moscow Intl. Film Festival and the Russian Filmmakers’ Union). The announcement triggered charges of authoritarianism, nepotism and unfairness. Critics complained that a strong roster of breakthrough films was overlooked, led by Alexander Rogozhkin’s popular “The Cuckoo” (handled Stateside by Sony Pictures Classics), Aleksei Balabanov’s “The War” and Nikolai Lebedev’s “The Star” (both local B.O. hits) and Valery Todorovsky’s “Lover.”

Mikhalkov was unavailable for comment.

India’s choice of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s lavish Bollywood remake of the venerable tale of ill-fated love, “Devdas,” also got knocks as an uninspired choice. Commercially potent but largely panned by critics, the musical gained prestige going into voting by its placement in a non-competish spot at Cannes, though such competing entries as Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Bengali “A Tale of a Naughty Girl” and Mani Ratnam’s Tamil “A Peck on the Cheek,” submitted by six other Indian regional commissions, made splashes at major fests. Last year’s Oscar nom for the musical “Lagaan” (one of only three in the FFI’s 44 years) was also viewed as a boost for “Devdas,” although this underlines a frequently voiced concern at AMPAS that countries sometimes attempt to second-guess what the Acad’s foreign-language committee likes.

Chaired by vet producer Shakti Samanta, the 16-member FFI group regularly rotates its membership of largely film industry folk, requiring that submitted films play a minimum of seven days theatrically. The group views each film and, unlike the Mexican group, does not discuss the entries before voting. Industry critics have long complained that until the widely embraced “Lagaan,” many of the Indian Oscar entries have failed to even place in the running for major national and fan-based awards contests.

Runners-up are kept secret in India, but not in Spain. The selection committee at the Spanish Academy of Film Arts and Sciences begins the process in late summer, announces finalists in late October and selects a winner in late November. Campaigning can thus become an unofficial sport. Even subdued vet producer Elias Querejeta, whose “Mondays in the Sun” (directed by Fernando Leon) staged a surprise upset over Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her,” admits that he contacted all the voting members to make sure they saw the film, though he says that he didn’t specifically campaign.

Jose Luis Garci’s “Story of a Kiss” was the third finalist, but the general feeling was that the contest was always between “Mondays,” which benefited from star
Javier Bardem — Oscar-nominated for “Before Night Falls” — and “Talk to Her,” whose loss was viewed by Almodovar’s supporters as a major slight. The choice wasn’t entirely surprising, though, since Spanish critical response to the master helmer’s wild tale has been mixed.

Nevertheless, the Spanish decision had a marked impact on the overall Oscar race, since “Talk to Her’s” inclusion would have granted it major contender status. Which only goes to illustrate the crucial role of the disparate, national selection groups.

“We want to believe,” notes Johnson, “that these committees are as democratic and apolitical as the Academy’s are. At least, we hope so.”