Oscars: Rookies Crack Race for Foreign-Language Film

In the delicate art of list-making, sometimes a slight trim can make all the difference. When the pre-nomination shortlist for the foreign-language film Oscar was announced in December, complaints were heard in many quarters not about the collective quality of the selections, but about what a Euro-centric group it was. Seven of the nine films came from European Union member states — Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary and Ireland — with only Jordan’s “Theeb” and Colombia’s “Embrace of the Serpent” representing the planet’s remaining territories.

Needless to say, the Academy’s foreign-language category was never intended to be a U.N. Assembly; members should vote with their hearts, not their atlas. But the Euro bias was nonetheless disappointing in a year that saw a flurry of creative energy in Latin American cinema — Colombia’s entry representing the crest of a wave that included Brazil’s “The Second Mother,” Chile’s “The Club” and Guatemala’s “Ixcanul” — and a gold-plated critical darling from the Far East in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “The Assassin.” Asian cinema, it would seem, is becoming a bit of an Oscar blind spot: In the past decade, only a half-dozen films from the world’s largest continent have cracked the category. (As for African cinema, you can halve that number.)

When the final five nominees were announced Jan. 14, however, the balance had notably shifted. European cinema still dominated, as mathematics had already dictated it would: Hungary’s “Son of Saul,” Denmark’s “A War” and France’s “Mustang” all made the cut, landing their submitting countries their ninth, 11th and 40th nominations respectively.

But in adding the two outliers from Jordan and Colombia — both countries landing nominations for the first time in the category’s history — the Academy has, by accident or design, carved a culturally richer group from the relatively homogeneous shortlist that preceded it. Furthermore, “Mustang’s” Turkish-French writer-director Deniz Gamze Erguven stands with “What Happened, Miss Simone?” docmaker Liz Garbus as the only female feature directors nominated in this year’s typically testosterone-dominated Oscar slate.

When all is said and done, however, the smart money is on one of the European entries extending the category’s three-year streak of Continental winners. More specifically, that money has been on “Son of Saul” for the better part of eight months, ever since freshman helmer Laszlo Nemes’ emotionally draining Holocaust drama knocked critics sideways at Cannes, also nabbing the Grand Prix from Joel and Ethan Coen’s jury. Since then, it’s won several shelfloads of U.S. critics’ prizes and pocketed a Golden Globe — to the vocal delight of presenter Helen Mirren. (Well, it’s good to know who your A-list champions are.)

A portion of the early buzz may have been cynical. There’s a longstanding (and oft-proven) theory among Oscar-watching wags that Holocaust-themed fare is catnip to the older, serious-minded voters that predominate within the Academy: Past foreign-language winners on the subject include “Life Is Beautiful,” “The Counterfeiters” and “Ida,” last year’s haunting meditation on post-Holocaust Jewish identity.

Still, it’d be unfair to suggest Nemes’ despairing, stomach-knotting and technically radical immersion into the waking nightmare of Auschwitz reps any kind of easy Oscar grab. (Germany’s shortlisted “Labyrinth of Lies” takes a more conventionally audience-friendly approach to the subject of Nazi war crimes, but missed out on a nom.) Whispers have even circulated among industry pundits that “Saul’s” medicine was too strong for the general voters in the foreign-language branch, and that it cracked the shortlist last month by the grace of the Academy’s executive committee.

Committee chief Mark Johnson was quick to dismiss the rumor as unsubstantiated, but true or otherwise, “Son of Saul” — with its visceral onscreen horror and unnerving first-person perspective — isn’t a safe contender in any sense of the word.

In the event that “Saul” proves simply too harrowing for gold, the beneficiary is likeiest to be France — a perceived perennial in the category, though a French submission hasn’t actually won since 1992’s largely forgotten “Indochine.” (Michael Haneke’s “Amour” represented Austria in 2012.) Not that “Mustang” has an especially Gallic flavor: Co-produced with Turkey and Turkish in setting and dialogue, Erguven’s stylish feminist fable chronicles the sensual awakening of five young sisters, pushing against their rigidly conservative Muslim upbringing in a Black Sea village.

Another debut feature that wowed the crowds at Cannes — where it won the European Cinemas Label award in Directors’ Fortnight — the film has continued to build momentum on the festival circuit, adding to its mantel with an audience award at AFI Fest last year.

That popular success is no surprise, considering how deftly “Mustang” blends socially conscious subject matter with an airy, lyrical formal approach that has inspired critical comparisons to the work of Sofia Coppola; at a time when the industry’s marginalization of women’s stories has become something of a cause celebre, it should find pockets of enthusiastic support within the Academy. While it lost to “Saul” at the Globes — the two, incidentally, are the only foreign-language nominees shared by the Academy and the HFPA — it’s a spoiler to be reckoned with.

A win for any of the other three nominees would be considerably more startling, though not for any lack of accomplishment on their part. Denmark — a category mainstay of late, having scored four nominations in six years — has a crackling entry in Tobias Lindholm’s tense, no-nonsense Afghanistan battle pic “A War.” A nerve-jangling combat drama that segues surprisingly into a nuanced courtroom battle, it boasts the humane sensitivity and procedural expertise of Lindholm’s 2012 modern-pirate thriller “A Hijacking” — it’s hardly surprising to see a ringing endorsement from Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” helmer Kathryn Bigelow spearheading its U.K. publicity campaign.

Notwithstanding the presence of soon-to-be “Game of Thrones” alum Pilou Asbaek, it’s kept a low profile since premiering at Venice last year.

War resurfaces in Jordanian nominee “Theeb,” this time rewinding a century to World War I — though Naji Abu Nowar’s oater-inspired survival story takes an unfamiliar angle on that much-portrayed conflict, following a young Bedouin boy caught in the crossfire of the Great Arab Revolt. The third debut feature in the lineup, this British co-production is a less surprising nominee than it seems at first glance: Inspired by the likes of David Lean and John Ford, the Oxford-born Nowar has a muscular, traditional aesthetic that should impress voters inclined toward more classical storytelling. BAFTA has already shown its approval, nominating Nowar not just for foreign-language film but also the British debut prize.

If, however, voters wish to throw a curveball, they could hardly pick a curvier one than “Embrace of the Serpent,” a dazzlingly singular vision from 34-year-old Colombian iconoclast-in-the-making Ciro Guerra. Another Cannes sensation — having actually beaten “Mustang” to the top prize in Directors’ Fortnight — this densely imagined colonial explorer epic braids a pair of journeys into the Amazon across two different eras, each one chaperoned by the same indigenous shaman.

Languorously poetic, frequently surreal and distinguished throughout by ravishing B&W lensing, it’s the most overtly challenging of the nominees and surely the one with the faintest shot at victory. Still, such avant-garde fare wouldn’t have had a prayer of a nomination a decade or two ago, before several gentle tweaks to the voting system — and the discerning influence of the executive committee — gave this once-frustrating category a new lease of life. Even as voters hold on to certain traditional forms and themes, left-field nominees like “Embrace of the Serpent” continue to lead the Academy excitingly down river.

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