Oscar’s Foreign Language Hopefuls Demonstrate Global, Topical Diversity

Foreign-lingo nominees split between existential angst and down-and-dirty warfare pics

Oscar foreign-language film nominations have in the past tended to be dramas centering around families, the Holocaust or both. European countries, meanwhile, have tended to dominate the race. This year the nominations are more diverse, with the films split in two ways. First there’s the geographical divide with three entries from Europe — Denmark’s “The Hunt,” Belgium’s “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” Italy’s “The Great Beauty” — and two from Asia — Palestine’s “Omar” and Cambodia’s “The Missing Picture.”

But the films can also be grouped by topic. “The Missing Picture” and “Omar” center around warfare, whether in the past, as is the case of the former, or the ongoing struggle in the Middle East, as in the latter.

Rithy Panh’s “Picture,” which took the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section last May, lists the atrocities that the then-13-year-old helmer witnessed inflicted on his family and countrymen under Pol Pot’s regime. With clay figurines filling in for the missing, the pic traces the forcible move of Panh’s family to the countryside, where they were forced to work in the fields and starved in brutal fashion. “I made the film because I want this story to belong to everyone,” Panh said in an interview with Sight and Sound. “It’s my story, I have to film it.”

In “Omar,” which won the jury prize in the same section at Cannes, Hany Abu-Assad focuses on Palestinians under Israeli occupation in their homeland. Added to the humiliation of Palestinians who have no control of their everyday lives in their own country, there is also the tension of a mole who is ratting out the protag and his friends.

“Omar’s inner conflict is that he wants to live a normal life. The billboard life. But the reality is so different,” Abu-Assad said of his protaganist in an interview with the
Jerusalem Post.

On the other hand, Denmark’s “The Hunt” is typical of Europe’s arthouse films that have won Oscars through the years, playing on themes of existential crises. Thomas Vinterberg’s pic, which premiered in Cannes in 2012, won its star Mads Mikkelson the actor prize. Mikkelson plays against type as a schoolteacher falsely accused of sexual abuse of a pupil. Most everyone in his village believes the kindergartner and shuns the teacher.

Vinterberg, one of the founders of the Dogma 95 movement, says, “When ‘Festen’ premiered in Cannes the whole idea was to make something pure and real — no makeup, extra effects, things like that. Then it became a huge success. In making ‘The Hunt’ a Dogma film, I suddenly felt it would be like an old dress.”
The helmer is pleased his “intimate Danish movie” has traveled. “Some of those themes are universal; it’s the story of a modern witch hunt, of forgiveness and lack of forgiveness,” he says. “These cases are all over the world.”

The Great Beauty’s” helmer Paolo Sorrentino also sees a global connection to his film. The protag in his Golden Globe winner “The Great Beauty” lives the sweet life in Rome. He’s a writer living off the fame of his first novel as he suffers through the emptiness of Rome’s amusements.

“I want for my movie to reflect feelings that people feel everywhere,” he told IndieWire. “Wasting time is something that people do or feel all over the world, not just in Italy.”

Flemish-language melodrama “Broken Circle Breakdown” centers on grieving parents who have lost a child, something that is relatable to audiences worldwide. Infused with bluegrass music, the Felix Van Groeningen-helmed pic moves back and forth between happier times and present miseries. The film, which premiered in Berlin, where it won the Panorama prize, is based on a stage performance conceived by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels.

“It comes down to this, life is incredibly beautiful and incredibly tough at the same time,” the director says. “The chance of love is small, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seize it. It’s a small story but then talks about all those things — life, religion etc. — in a very subtle way.”

There is one other difference this year: Few Oscar prognosticators can say which film is the front-runner.

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