This year’s crop of 63 foreign-language Oscar entries runs the gamut of themes from family dramas and dark comedies to biopics and even dance. But a good number deal with challenging and painful national issues of poverty, war, corruption and the drug trade.

They are gritty, no-holds-barred accounts that have sparked local debate and, in some cases, endangered the welfare of its filmmakers, cast and crew while on location. Others have parried government wrath by the sheer heft of their popular appeal.

Mexican entry “Miss Bala,” by Gerardo Naranjo, centers on the harsh realities of drug cartels and their grip on beauty pageants and the young girls competing for the crown. While filming in Tijuana, the cast and crew were warned by drug traffickers not to stage any shootouts in the border town.

“We had to move these scenes to Aguas Calientes and had police protection,” says Naranjo, who also had to contend with a miniscule budget of less than $2 million, which meant single takes for the shootouts. “We rehearsed for four months, shooting in video first to frame the shots and position our actors for each take,” he says.

Upon its release, “Miss Bala” polarized opinion in Mexico, with some accusing Naranjo of exploiting the country’s current plight while others embraced the pic for shedding more light on the issue of rampant drug crime.

“At the end of the day, the negative comments spurred people to see it, and our box-office takings exceeded our expectations,” says Naranjo, who adds that they were able to recoup their investment through the local box office alone.

Venezuelan helmer/scribe Alejandro Bellame had a similar experience when shooting “Rumble of the Stones,” which trumped two other pics to rep Venezuela in the foreign language Oscar race. Set in a rough neighborhood, pic focuses on a mother desperate to save her young sons from falling into the clutches of gangs.

A candid portrayal of Venezuela’s problems with rampant crime and grinding poverty, “Rumble” also engaged public debate. Some government opposition groups assailed it for being too soft on the government while pro-government pundits lambasted it.

Although CNAC, Venezuela’s autonomous film org, covered most of his $600,000 budget, Bellame has gotten scant promotional support.

While shooting on location in the El Cementerio neighborhood, his crew was threatened by gang members. “We had to secure the permission of their leader in order to shoot there,” says Bellame, who says he saw 13-year old boys toting guns openly in the barrio.

“People there are so used to violence that the shootout we staged didn’t impress them at all,” he says. He met several mothers whose sons were killed in gang wars.

Spain’s “Black Bread” by Agusti Villaronga, which made a sweep of the top Spanish film awards, the Goyas, is set in post-civil war Catalonia. However, its most controversial scene is not about the conflict, but one in which a horse is hit on the head and forced off a cliff.

“I can’t even swat a fly!” says Villaronga, who explains that they used a frozen dead horse for some shots and no animals were harmed in the pic.

Iran’s Asghar Farhadi was two weeks into shooting his acclaimed family drama “A Separation” when he was ordered to stop. His offense? Making public remarks about the legal problems of some fellow filmmakers who have faced jail terms, house arrests and travel bans. But the film community and media reacted so strongly to this that the government backed off.

“In a way the authorities did me a favor as the hiatus gave me time to rehearse more with my actors,” says Farhadi. “Asking me if I’m used to the political pressure in Iran is like asking a man living in a desert if the heat bothers him,” he says wryly. “You just learn to cope with it.”

Brazilian helmer Jose Padilha experienced a similar twist of good fortune with his blockbuster “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.” Despite its critical and fact-based view of corruption and collusion between police, politicians as well as rampant drug trafficking in Brazil, the follow-up to Padilha’s feature debut “Elite Squad” managed to dodge official condemnation.

“It was too popular,” says Padilha of his drama, the highest-grossing Brazilian pic of all time. “The authorities chose to ignore it, as they would have looked bad otherwise,” he adds, laughing.

Padilha, whose portrayal of police brutality and corruption in the first “Elite Squad” had him fielding various lawsuits from police authorities, went on to say that “I’m a bit disappointed (the new film) didn’t spark a controversy.”

It seems that humor and box office takings can sheild a film from possible government interference. In Lebanese entry “Where Do We Go Now,” helmer Nadine Labaki’s ostensibly female view of the Muslim-Christian conflict in her country managed to dodge controversy through humor, song and dance. It didn’t hurt to top the local box office either. “Where Do We Go Now” is set to become the highest grossing pic in Lebanese box office history, outpacing “Titanic” and “Avatar.”

Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language 2012
Where film is a risky biz | Hollywood coin in hot pursuit | Prestige outweighs kudos coin