Contenders speak in many tongues

In a strong year for domestic scribes, odds are long for foreign-lingo hopefuls

The Academy’s Writers Branch likes to pick up a second language, though on Oscar night it’s mostly, “Ici, on parle anglais.”

Historical receptivity to non-English screenplays brings annual encouragement to a handful of literate, high-profile, high-concept, subtitled pics, this year including “Volver,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Lives of Others,” plus U.S./overseas hybrids “Apocalypto,” “Babel” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

Since the first writing nom (and award) to 1945’s “Marie-Louise,” classics like “The 400 Blows,” “The Conformist” and “Hiroshima, mon amour,” unsubmitted as official entries by their home countries, have routinely been thrown a respectful bone by writers.

Sometimes there’d even be a win, like 1962’s “Divorce — Italian Style.” During the salad days of 1959-1972, not coincidentally the salad days of the arthouse and the college cinema society boom, two or three noms a year were common. But as domestic interest and B.O. dwindled, so did recognition.

Now a pic needs the super-high visibility of an “Amelie” or “The Postman” to battle its way in, bringing comfort to “Volver” and “Babel” especially. But in a strong year for domestic scribes, the odds are long indeed for other hopefuls.

When it comes to the winner’s circle, odds are even longer, with only five non-English-language winners ever, and the last, 2004’s original screenplay honoree “Talk to Her,” breaking a 37-year drought. The previous non-English winner had been “A Man and a Woman” in 1966.

And the premier English speaker, HRH Elizabeth II, may be poised to rule the originals. Peter Morgan’s “The Queen” could restore the Empire and, as in the past, frustrate others nations’ dreams of conquest.