With last year’s winner, Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman,” hailing from Iran, Oscar handicappers should be sure to give the Middle Eastern titles close scrutiny this time around. Among the region’s 11 submissions are several films likely to be highly competitive in the foreign-language category. These include the 2017 Venice prize winners “Foxtrot,” from Israel, helmed by Samuel Maoz (“Lebanon”) and “The Insult,” from Lebanon, directed by Ziad Doueiri, whose first feature “West Beirut” was also a Lebanese submission.
The lineup also includes a rare title from Syria, the documentary “Little Gandhi” about Syrian peace activist Ghiyath Matar. Another title with an unusual pedigree is Afghanistan’s “A Letter to the President,” a rough-edged feminist drama about a female Kabul police chief, helmed by Roya Sadat, the country’s first distaff director to emerge in the post-Taliban era.
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Could this finally be Israel’s year? The country has submitted films for the foreign-language Oscar since 1964, receiving 10 nominations, but has never brought home the little golden man. The daring, intelligently devised “Foxtrot” represents a strong candidate. Both specific and universal — and not without humor — it boldly tackles fate, coincidence, guilt and grieving, the Holocaust and the Israeli Defense Forces, with a father-son story told in three sequences.
Variety reviewer Jay Weissberg wrote, “Brilliantly constructed with a visual audacity that serves the subject rather than the other way around, this is award-winning filmmaking on a fearless level.”
“The Insult” is also both universal and specific: a trivial contretemps between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian construction worker escalates into a tense, highly publicized trial that ends up further dividing Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim populations. As the disputants take their struggle for dignity and justice into the courtroom, their respective attorneys rake through traumatic incidents from their clients’ past and unleash every trick in their repertoire. Helmer Doueiri deftly and even-handedly delves into his country’s contentious past while subtly commenting on positive and negative aspects of male pride.
While “Foxtrot” and “The Insult” represent the region’s best bets for an Oscar nomination, there are several dark horse titles that could nab a spot on the shortlist of nine. Chief among them: “Wajib” from Palestine, helmed by Annemarie Jacir, whose previous films “Salt of This Sea” and “When I Saw You” were also Palestinian submissions. Her latest is a wry dramedy that follows a divorced father and his visiting architect son as they hand-deliver wedding invitations in Nazareth. With the charismatic, richly nuanced playing of real-life father and son Mohammed and Saleh Bakri as the leads, Jacir’s wise screenplay subtly brings out differences in generational attitudes and contradictions in outlook between those who leave the Territory and those who remain.
Of course, one should never rule out Algeria’s three-time foreign-language Oscar nominee, French-born Rachid Bouchareb (“Dust of Life,” “Days of Glory,” “Outside the Law”). His latest, the highly topical “Road to Istanbul,” centers on a Belgian mother searching for her Muslim- convert daughter who has left to join ISIS in Syria.
Iraq’s “Reseba — The Dark Wind” addresses another torn-from-the-headlines subject: helmer Hussein Hassan sensitively tells the story of a kidnapped Kurdish Yazidi woman sold into slavery by ISIS. Made in collaboration with the Yazidi community and shot in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, the film treats explosive subject matter in a quietly authentic, non-exploitive fashion.
This year, the prospects of the Maghreb countries are not so strong. The Egyptian submission “Sheikh Jackson” is a low-key character study about a troubled young cleric’s obsession with pop singer Michael Jackson.
Morocco, meanwhile, fields “Razzia,” a perhaps overly kaleidoscopic social drama from director Nabil Ayouch, whose previous efforts “Mektoub,” “Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets,” and “Horses of God” were also Moroccan submissions. Although Tunisia’s “The Last of Us,” directed by Ala Eddine Slim can boast its 2016 Venice fest Lion of the Future kudo, the dialogue-free treatment of migration from Africa is far more experimental in execution than standard Academy fare.
And what has Iran mustered to follow up on Farhadi’s win?
For the first time, the Islamic Republic tenders a film from a female helmer: Narges Abyar’s “Breath.” It’s a touching anti-war drama that follows a poor family during the Islamic Revolution and the first years of the Iran-Iraq war, but lacks the cinematic sophistication of arthouse master Farhadi.