‘Barbarian’ set to storm Oscar gates

Canuck's entry may benefit from festival exposure

Canadian Cannes winner “The Barbarian Invasions” is the pic its fellow nominees in Oscar’s foreign-language category see as the film to beat.

“Evil” (Sweden), “Twin Sisters” (Netherlands) and “Zelary” (Czech Republic) have not benefited from “Barbarian’s” high-profile invasion of film fests worldwide during the past year, although “The Twilight Samurai” (Japan) went to Berlin and Montreal, among others.

This is the third time Canadian helmer Denys Arcand has been nominated in the category (following “The Decline of the American Empire” in 1987 and “Jesus of Montreal” in 1989). This year he also garnered an Oscar nod for original screenplay.

“To be honest, I half-expected the foreign film nomination,” Arcand said. “I knew I had a good shot at it because I’d been there all year long in all the festivals. But with the writing one I’m very surprised, and I’m very touched by that. It’s great, because I’m really a very self-doubting writer.”

The Oscar nods are the latest accolades for the pic about a dying man making peace with his choices, his family and friends. Distribbed by Miramax, “Barbarian” won at Cannes for screenplay (Arcand) and actress (Marie-Josee Croze), and nabbed the Canadian film prize at the Toronto Film Festival.

Last week the Canadian/French co-production was nominated for four Cesar Awards, including French film.

The Oscar nominations “are a very nice moment, but I’ve had plenty of very nice moments with this film,” Arcand said. “It’s just an unending happy story. It’s been a great year.”

It’s a nice moment, too, for “Evil” producer Hans Lonnerheden, of Swedish production shingle Moviola.

“The Oscar nomination made this one of the happiest days in my life,” he said. “In a way it was a personal revenge. It took me eight years to get the film financed — nobody believed in it — and in the end I had to mortgage everything I owned, including my house, to fill the gaps in the $3 million budget.”

The Mikael Hafstrom-helmed pic is a hit in Sweden, where it has sold 900,000 tix in a country of just 9 million. But its Danish co-producer and distribber, Nordisk Film, was having a tough time selling the pic.

“Everything changed Tuesday afternoon. Now we are being chased by American distributors,” Lonnerheden said.

“We’re obviously proud and excited at the nominations,” said Kenneth Plummer, prexy of Nordisk Film. “It’s a quality film, a classic coming-of-age story about a troubled young man, based on the true story of Swedish journalist Jan Guillou. We were quick to jump aboard the project when it was bought it to us.”

As for the competition from Canada’s more high-profile nominee, he said, “The honor of being nominated is great. Anything can happen from there.”

Czechs were jubilant over their fourth foreign-lingo film nomination in a decade, this time for sophomore feature “Zelary” by helmer Ondrej Trojan.

”I just heard the news, so it’s too early to know what I think,” Trojan said. “It’s beautiful and a little surprising.”

The producers were equally stunned. Barrandov general manager-CEO Radomir Docekal said he had “a few drinks” to celebrate the nomination of a film that was seen as a risk for the studio.

“Frankly, I wasn’t expecting it,” he said. “We had some indications that Americans like this film. We just concluded a deal (for North American rights) with Sony Classics at Sundance on Thursday.”

Barrandov gave “Zelary” a high profile as soon as it greenlit the film, inspired by the true story of a woman who was part of the resistance movement against the Nazis during World War II.

“We were pushing the film for almost five years,” Docekal said. “Barrandov is not a wealthy company, and it was a great risk. We shot the film over one year.”

The investment paid off. Admissions have just reached the break-even point of 400,000, making it one of the year’s most successful Czech releases, and it’s racking up foreign sales.

Trojan confessed he was feeling anxious over “Zelary’s” reception in the U.S., and said he expected Canada’s “Barbarian Invasions” to do well in the Oscar race. Arcand, coincidentally, was in Prague over the weekend to introduce his film on the opening night of Febio Fest.

Docekal was in an expansive mood, and summed it all up: “This is what is beautiful about this business!”

This will be Trojan’s second trip to the Oscar ceremony. He produced Jan Hrebejk’s Oscar-nominated “Divided We Fall” (2000).

But it may be some time before Trojan turns his attention to directing again.

He’s devoting his time to worldwide sales through Menemsha Entertainment, as well as getting Hrebejk’s next film, “Up and Down,” ready for a September release.

Gotham-based specialty distrib Empire Pictures acquired U.S. rights to veteran director Yoji Yamada’s 19th-century drama “The Twilight Samurai” at Mifed.

A major hit in Japan in late 2002, pic swept the country’s film awards, winning 12 of its 13 nominated categories, including picture, director, screenplay, actor and actress. Empire is planning a spring release Stateside.

“We think it’s an instant classic, and anyone with an appreciation of the traditions of Japanese cinema will not fail to be moved by it,” Empire partner Edward Arentz said when the company picked up the film.

“Barbarian” distrib Miramax is providing the same service on helmer Ben Sombogaart’s “Twin Sisters,” which it acquired last year at Cannes, where it screened at the mart, not in the fest.

Based on a novel by Tessa de Loo, pic is the story of two German girls separated before the war — one goes to live with her upper-middle-class aunt in Holland, the other to work as a farmhand on her German uncle’s rural farm — and their efforts to reconcile after the war.

At a Variety Cannes Conference Series, Miramax co-head Harvey Weinstein likened the pic to last year’s foreign-language Oscar winner, Germany’s “Nowhere in Africa.”

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