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Speaking in tongues

Foreign pic race is often Oscar at its most unpredictable

A correction was made to this article on Nov. 9, 2004.

The 55 contenders for last year’s foreign-language Oscar nominations included several artistically and commercially hefty choices.

Among them were Golden Globe winner Siddiq Barmak’s “Osama,” Wolfgang Becker’s international box office hit “Goodbye, Lenin!,” and critics faves such as Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “The Return” and Kim Ki-duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring.”

Despite seemingly good odds, none earned a nomination. Instead, such relative long shots as Ondrej Trojan’s WWII Czech drama “Zelary” and Mikael Hafstrom’s Swedish private school suspenser, “Evil,” finished in the final five, surprising everyone except perhaps those who actually saw those solid films. (The only sure thing, in fact, was the winner: Denys Arcand’s Canadian entry “The Barbarian Invasions.”)

“There’s always been some unpredictability,” says one vet foreign-lingo Oscar watcher, “but last year’s group was so full of surprises that you almost want to give up guessing at all.”

Spotting possible noms in the group of 49 submissions announced in October isn’t exactly hopeless, and a group of viable long shots will keep things interesting.

The contest has opened up with the absence of Joshua Marston’s greatly admired Colombian drama about a young drug mule, “Maria Full of Grace.” (It was not eligible because the Acad requires that two of the three key artistic contributors — director, writer and producer — be from the host country. Writer-helmer Marston and producer Paul Mezey are Americans.)

“Maria” was on every early lock list, suggesting that even vet Oscar watchers don’t always have a bead on every single piece of arcana in Oscar’s rule book. But these same watchers knew some time ago that some much-hyped pics were never going to be contenders: Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries” (too multi-national to be pegged to one country per the rules) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement” (bowing in its native France after deadline opening dates, which were moved up this year to conform with the Acad’s new sked).

France, though, is still in the short-odds race with Christophe Barratier’s much-praised “Les choristes,” a sentimental drama centering on music’s impact on a tough reform school, which Miramax is handling Stateside. “Choristes” is Miramax’s only submission, marking a real slide for the company that typically dominated past foreign-lingo contests.

Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Sea Inside” marks the second time in three years that Spain’s selection committee has passed over its most internationally famed director — Pedro Almodovar (this time with “Bad Education”) — for a younger helmer. In 2002, Almodovar’s “Talk to Her” lost out to Fernando Leon’s “Mondays in the Sun.” As an added echo, “Mondays’ ” star Javier Bardem is the center of “The Sea Inside,” playing a quadriplegic intent on euthanasia. A far more conventional and digestible work from the usually brain-teasing Amenabar (“The Others,” “Open Your Eyes”), the meller is designed to appeal to voters at gut level, and will receive heavy support from distrib Fine Line.

Acad fans of Zhang Yimou’s “Hero,” dismayed that they can’t vote for it in any category, have an alternative: Zhang’s latest martial arts fantasia from China, “House of Flying Daggers.”

Unlike Miramax’s indecisive treatment of “Hero” (long delayed from its early 2003 debut but finally opening to terrific U.S. B.O.), Sony Pictures Classics has wasted little time in readying the epic from its Cannes preem in May for the awards season. Distrib is certain to play up pic’s mix of a steamy love triangle, swordplay, cinematographic eye candy and bits from the “Crouching Tiger” play book.

Even with these strong contenders, there’s room on the list, and foreign pic watchers should pay close attention to the following:

  • Jayme Monjardim’s epic Brazilian biopic “Olga,” about communist activist Olga Benario Prestes, is a large-scale WWII film featuring political conflict, the downtrodden and Nazis, with the bonus acting presence of Oscar-nominated Fernanda Montenegro.

  • Another choice personal-political drama is Andres Wood’s finely told “Machuca,” about Chilean school kids during the brief Salvador Allende regime of the early ’70s.

  • Robert Lepage’s witty “Far Side of the Moon,” from Canada, is a dazzler in which helmer-writer Lepage plays two very different brothers while pondering the universe.

  • Although some fans of gifted Italian director Gianni Amelio consider his “The Keys to the House” at a level below his very best work (such as “L’America”), his return to the world stage after a six-year absence includes such strong emotional attractions as a father reconnecting with his mentally and physically challenged son.

  • The human side of the war in Iraq comes through in unexpected ways in “Turtles Can Fly,” the top prize winner at San Sebastian. It’s the third feature from Iranian-Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, whose sharp eye and ear for the funny and tragic paradoxes of kids and young people in refugee limbo should get a receptive audience.

  • Cannes’ Prix de la Jeunesse winner “Kontroll,” from Hungary’s Nimrod Antal, depicts an odd world of train ticket inspectors that has become the most popular Euro title on the fall fest circuit.

  • Two widely divergent films that scored well with local auds are Timur Bekmambetov’s Russian vampire thriller “Night Watch” and Tassos Boulmetis’ ’60s-era “A Touch of Spice,” from Greece. While former’s genre could turn off voters (despite strong reviews), latter’s combo of family, cooking and a drama-comedy about Greeks in Istanbul may have strong appeal.

  • South African Darrell Roodt’s Venice award-winning “Yesterday” is the country’s first Zulu-language entry. Pic’s topic of an HIV-positive wife disowned by her husband contains just the mix of emotions and topicality that has long attracted Acad voters.

  • WWII themes can attract or repel. It thus remains to be seen whether German’s entry “Downfall,” starring Bruno Ganz as Hitler in his final days and presented controversially in a human light, will garner the kind of enthusiasm in the foreign-lingo committee that it gained at Toronto.

Other pics generating support at this early phase are Atiq Rahimi’s Afghan entry, “Earth and Ashes”; Pjer Zalica’s “Days and Hours” from Bosnia-Herzegovina; Luis Mandoki’s return to Mexico, “Innocent Voices”; Norwegian Erik Poppe’s “Hawaii, Oslo”; Kay Pollak’s Swedish B.O. hit “As in Heaven”; and popular Cannes favorite from Uruguay, Juan Pablo Rebella’s and Pablo Stoll’s “Whisky.”

Qualifying foreign Oscar submissions:

Afghanistan: “Earth and Ashes,” dir. Atiq Rahimi (sales: Mercure Intl.)

Argentina: “A Lost Embrace,” dir. Daniel Burman (U.S. distrib: New Yorker Films)

Austria: “Antares,” dir. Gotz Spielmann (U.S. distrib: Film Movement)

Belgium: “The Alzheimer Case,” dir. Erik Van Looy (sales: The Works)

Bosnia-Herzegovina: “Days and Hours,” dir. Pjer Ialica (sales: Refresh Prods.)

Brazil: “Olga,” dir. Jayme Monjardim (sales: Globo Filmes)

Bulgaria: “Mila From Mars,” dir. Zornitsa Sophia (sales: All Things Production)

Canada: “Far Side of the Moon,” dir. Robert Lepage (sales: Max Films Intl.)

Chile: “Machuca,” dir. Andres Wood (U.S. distrib: Menemsha)

China: “House of Flying Daggers,” dir. Zhang Yimou (U.S. distrib: Sony Pictures Classics)

Columbia: “El Rey,” dir. Antonio Dorado

Croatia: “Long Dark Night,” dir. Antun Vrdoljak (sales: Mediteran Film HRT)

Czech Republic: “Up and Down,” dir. Jan Hrebejk (U.S. distrib: Sony Pictures Classics)

Denmark: “The Five Obstructions,” dir. Jorgen Leth/Lars von Trier (U.S. distrib: Koch Lorber)

Ecuador: “Cronicas,” dir. Sebastian Cordero (U.S. distrib: Palm Pictures)

Egypt: “I Love Cinema,” dir. Osama Fawzy (sales: El Arabeya Co.)

Finland: “Producing Adults,” dir. Aleksi Salmenpera). Sales: Celluloid Dreams)

France: “Les choristes,” dir. Christophe Barratier (U.S. distrib: Miramax)

Germany: “Downfall,” dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel (sales: EOS Distribution)

Greece: “A Touch of Spice,” dir. Tassos Boulmetis (sales: Capitol Films)

Hungary: “Kontroll,” dir. Nimrod Antal (U.S. distrib: ThinkFilm)

Iceland: “Cold Light,” dir. Hilmar Oddsson (sales: Media Luna Entertainment)

India: “Shwaas,” dir. Sandeep Sawant) Production Co.: Kathi Arts)

Iran: “Turtles Can Fly,” dir. Bahman Ghobadi (U.S. distrib: New Yorker Films)

Israel: “Campfire,” dir. Joseph Cedar (sales: Cinema Production)

Italy: “The Keys to the House,” dir. Gianni Amelio (sales: Lakeshore Entertainment)

Japan: “Nobody Knows,” dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda (U.S. distrib: IFC Films)

Macedonia: “The Great Water,” dir. Ivo Trajkov (sales: Media Luna Entertainment)

Malaysia: “A Legendary Love,” dir. Saw Teong Hin (sales: Rossellini & Associates)

Mexico: “Innocent Voices,” dir. Luis Mandoki (sales: Lions Gate Intl.)

The Netherlands: “Simon,” dir. Eddy Terstall (sales: Spaghetti Film)

Norway: “Hawaii, Oslo,” dir. Erik Poppe (sales: Trust Film Sales)

Palestinian territory: “The Olive Harvest,” dir. Hanna Elias (sales: Jarmaq Films)

Philippines: “Crying Ladies,” dir. Mark Meily (U.S. distrib: Unico Entertainment)

Poland: “The Welts,” dir. Magdalena Piekorz (sales: TOR Film Production)

Portugal: “The Miracle According to Salome,” dir. Mario Barroso (sales: Madragoa Films)

Romania: “Orient-Express,” dir. Sergiu Nicolaescu (sales: Ro De Film)

Russia: “Night Watch,” dir. Timur Bekmambetov (U.S. distrib: Fox Searchlight)

Serbia-Montenegro: “Goose Feather,” dir. Ljubisa Samardzic (sales: Cinema Design/Hemofarm)

South Africa: “Yesterday,” dir. Darrell James Roodt (sales: HBO Films London)

South Korea: “Tae Guk Gi,” dir. Kang Je-gyu (U.S. distrib: Destination Films/Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Spain: “The Sea Inside,” dir. Alejandro Amenabar (U.S. distrib: Fine Line Features)

Sweden: “As in Heaven,” dir. Kay Pollak (sales: Sonet Film)

Switzerland: “Mein Name Ist Bach,” dir. Dominique de Rivaz (sales: Bavaria Film Intl.)

Taiwan: “20:30:40,” dir. Sylvia Chang (sales: Columbia TriStar Film Distributors Intl.)

Thailand: “The Overture,” dir. Itthi-sunthorn Wichailak (sales: Fortissimo Films)

Uruguay: “Whisky,” dir. Juan Pablo Rebella/Pablo Stoll (sales: Bavaria Film Intl.)

Venezuela: “Punto y raya,” dir. Elia Schneider (sales: Cinema Management Group)

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