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‘Roma,’ ‘Birds of Passage’ Carry Latin America’s Best Hopes of Oscar Glory

Ever since 2009 when two Latin American films, Argentine winner “The Secret in Their Eyes” and Peru’s “The Milk of Sorrow,” were shortlisted for the foreign-language film Oscar, roughly every other year a Latino movie has secured a nom in that category.

However, only three pics since the 1940s have brought home the top prize, as Chile’s “A Fantastic Woman” did earlier this year, preceded by Argentina with “The Secret in Their Eyes” in 2009 and “The Official Story” in 1985.

But the region’s native sons have done better in other categories. In recent years, a Mexican director has won the Academy Award for direction and snagged a best picture win or nomination for his film. Alfonso Cuaron won multiple Oscars for “Gravity” in 2014, followed by Alejandro G. Inarritu, who triumphed in 2015 and 2016 and Guillermo del Toro for “The Shape of Water” in March.

Cuaron’s evocative black-and-white opus “Roma” is a frontrunner among the 14 Latino aspirants, given its 2018 Venice Golden Lion prize and his previous Oscar wins (“Gravity”) and nominations (“Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Children of Men”).

Curiously, some of the Latino foreign-language entries this season, including “Roma,” are shot entirely or partly in indigenous languages.

Peruvian Oscar Catacora’s “Eternity” (“Wiñaypacha”), distributed by Amazon, was shot entirely in the Aymara language. Catacora and his producer are both Aymara natives. “Our Aymara culture has been relegated for quite some time by hegemonic cultures in terms of their artistic expressions and, above all, in the field of cinema,” Catacora says. “ ‘Wiñaypacha’ has been an opportunity for us to express ourselves in our culture and in our language; ultimately, it’s a vindication against expansionist cultures.”

Cristina Gallego, who co-directed and co-produced Colombia’s striking epic “Birds of Passage” with Ciro Guerra (director of 2016 foreign-language Oscar nominee “Embrace of the Serpent”), has a different take on their decision to shoot a film about the origins of the drug trade in Wayuu society and Colombia, and mostly in the Wayuu language.

“I think we were driven more by a search for original, untold stories and worldviews than a demand for more indigenous themes,” she says.

Birds of Passage,” shot on 35mm film, is also considered among the Latino frontrunners, as is Luis Ortega’s Argentine fact-based crime drama “The Angel.” A local B.O. hit, “ Angel” is co-produced by Pedro Almodovar’s El Deseo and Argentina’s K&S.

Many of the entries boast lush and visually striking cinematography, and in Ecuador’s case, its entry, “The Son of Man,” featuring some dialogue in the native Quechua, was shot with the use of drones.

Some of the contenders are by veteran filmmakers such as Carlos Diegues of Brazil, whose poem-inspired “The Great Mystical Circus” explores five generations of a circus family. Chile sent recent Montreal Grand Prix winner “And Suddenly the Dawn,” Silvio Caiozzi’s tale about a writer who finds inspiration in his childhood home in the remote island of Chiloe, where some indigenous language is spoken.

Panama submitted Abner Benaim’s much-lauded music docu, “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name,” which tracks Grammy-winning singer-actor Blades in concerts and other events.

Latin America has been yielding a growing number of international festival hits, which leads to more buzz and more chances at reaching Oscar glory. Paraguay’s Berlinale multi-winner “The Heiresses” is only the third film it has ever submitted.

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