European Films Fill Oscar Foreign-Language Race (Analysis)

The Oscar for foreign-language film may ostensibly represent world cinema at an evening otherwise largely dedicated to Hollywood, but it’s marked by its own form of cultural hegemony: Eurocentrism.

Of the 70 foreign-language films (including special award winners) honored as the year’s best by the Academy, a whopping 56 have been from Europe. For the less math-inclined, that’s 80% — a figure attributable in part to the relative density of developed film industries on the Continent, whatever other biases may be at play. Of the national submissions for this year’s award, for example, more than 40% are European productions — including many of those most hotly tipped for a nomination.

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Arguably the film leading this year’s European charge comes from a recent winner in the category: Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski, whose arthouse smash “Ida” cut a clear path to victory in the 2014 season. Pawlikowski’s follow-up “Cold War” has many of the qualities audiences and voters responded to in “Ida,” beginning with its anxious midcentury setting and pristinely composed black-and-white lensing.

A tumultuous story of amour fou between two musicians that crosses national borders amid the titular geopolitical crisis, it bowed in competition at Cannes to rave reviews, winning Pawlikowski the director prize. Amazon Studios has high hopes for “Cold War”; the question is whether they can parlay its popularity into any general field nominations: a repeat of “Ida’s” cinematography nom must be on the cards.

Pawlikowski isn’t the only previous winner with a film in the hunt. Hungary’s Laszlo Nemes struck gold with his 2015 debut, the harrowing first-person Auschwitz drama “Son of Saul.” His follow-up “Sunset,” about a young milliner tracing a mystery from her past in 1913 Budapest, premiered in competition at Venice but proved more polarizing, with critical reactions running the gamut from enraptured to baffled by its oblique storytelling. The Fipresci critics gave it their best-in-show award; Guillermo del Toro’s jury passed it over.

Germany’s Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is riding a comeback wave. Like Nemes, he won the Oscar for his debut, 2006’s Stasi-era drama “The Lives of Others,” only to slump with his unilaterally panned Angelina Jolie-Johnny Depp caper “The Tourist.” After an eight-year gap, he has returned home and regrouped with “Never Look Away,” a three-hour, fact-inspired saga of a young art student caught up in romantic, political and intergenerational conflict in post-WWII East Germany. Favorably if not ecstatically received at Venice, it is robust classical storytelling that could appeal to more conservative voters. Sony Classics, always a power player in this race, is distributing both “Never Look Away” and “Sunset.”

Belgian newcomer Lukas Dhont is angling to be this year’s Nemes or Henckel von Donnersmarck: The 26-year-old writer-director’s debut “Girl” has racked up acclaim, awards and a Netflix distribution deal since scooping the Camera d’Or at Cannes in May. A study of a teenage transgender ballet dancer struggling with the challenges of her transition and her artistic ambition, it’s a broadly accessible take on a topical subject that ought to win hearts in the Academy — though its campaign must deftly handle simmering controversy over the casting of cisgender teen Victor Polster in the lead.

This year’s Cannes was an especially rich one for future Oscar submissions, with four other European prizewinners from the festival in the mix here. Sweden’s “Border,” from director Ali Abassi, landed top honors in Un Certain Regard, and has the makings of a cult following: a dark adult fairytale drawn of misfit attraction between a customs guard and a drifter with similar non-human features, it’s the kind of striking, offbeat item that could tickle the fancy of Academy’s more adventurous executive committee.

A greater leap for the branch would be Ukraine’s “Donbass,” from prolific auteur Sergei Loznitsa, which won him director in Un Certain Regard. Directly referencing the era of “fake news,” it’s an absurdist, fragmented examination of Ukrainian civil unrest that draws on theatrical devices as well as Loznitsa’s documentary experience; the Academy is rarely drawn to such avant-garde work, but it’s an exciting submission.

Far more of a crowd-pleaser, Icelandic comedy “Woman at War” is one to watch for the shortlist. A Critics’ Week prizewinner about an intrepid female activist single-handedly battling her country’s aluminum industry, Benedikt Erlingsson’s film is a winningly eccentric underdog story, but its quirky humor doesn’t undermine its strong feminist and environmental messages.

A decade after his gangster saga “Gomorrah” was submitted, director Matteo Garrone represents Italy with “Dogman,” a grime-streaked character study of a desperate dog groomer caught up in the criminal underworld. A popular lead actor winner at Cannes for star Marcello Fonte, it beat Alice Rohrwacher’s critical favourite “Happy as Lazzaro” to the Italian selection; the one-film-per-country limit is most sorely felt by Europe’s major filmmaking nations.

France traditionally has a plethora of major festival successes to choose from, but after a lower-key year than usual for the French industry, this year’s pick surprised many: “Memoir of War,” Emmanuel Finkiel’s affecting but rigorously downbeat adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ Holocaust semi-autobiography. France is the most-nominated country in the category’s history; Romania, meanwhile, is still awaiting a first nomination, despite a critically-touted “new wave” of festival favorites in the last decade. This year, they’ve pinned their hopes on Radu Jude’s Karlovy Vary winner “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,” an incendiary, highly metatextual attack on Holocaust denial; the Holocaust is a subject to which voters frequently gravitate, though these two films nonetheless represent challenging propositions.

If voters feel like injecting the race with a shot of genre energy, Denmark’s drum-tight emergency-line thriller “The Guilty” would be the one to benefit. An audience award winner at Sundance that has since scooped many such prizes on the festival circuit, Gustav Moller’s real-time nail-biter about a disgraced cop uncovering a kidnapping from a call-center desk is the kind of film that could well land a U.S. remake.

That’s something you can’t say for the United Kingdom’s arrestingly surreal submission “I Am Not a Witch,” Welsh-Zambian director Rungano Nyoni’s Zambia-set blend of feminist parable, folk satire and fever dream, which won Nyoni the best newcomer award at this year’s BAFTAs. Don’t be surprised if this one, well, surprises on the shortlist: of this year’s many European Oscar contenders, it certainly has the most outward-looking gaze.

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