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Oscar Foreign-Language Race Is a Puzzle as Front-Runners Fall

Some years, the foreign-language film Oscar race revolves consistently around an early frontrunner; others, like this one, remain a guessing game throughout. This year’s contest proved its volatility at the December shortlist stage, when such critical faves as France’s “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” and Cambodia’s Angelina Jolie-directed “First They Killed My Father” failed to make the shortlist. The announcement of the final five nominees brought a surprise, too, in the omission of Germany’s Golden Globe-winning “In the Fade,” hitherto perceived as the one to beat.

All five eventual nominees come to the race with honors from one of the three leading European festivals, which asserted their combined reputation as kingmakers in this category. Sweden’s “The Square” won the Palme d’Or last year at Cannes, where Russia’s “Loveless” earned the jury prize; Hungary’s “On Body and Soul” nabbed the Golden Bear at the 2017 Berlinale, ahead of Chile’s “A Fantastic Woman,” which took the screenplay prize. Lebanon’s “The Insult” arrived later in the year, winning a trophy at Venice for star Kamel El Basha.

After a solemn run of recent winners, “The Square” is looking to return some irreverence to the category, which is not to say that Ruben Ostlund’s playful art-world satire is a lightweight option. “We wanted to make the film entertaining and funny at the same time as we’re dealing with complicated social issues,” says Ostlund of his film, about a suave museum curator (Claes Bang) whose life unravels when his wallet and phone are stolen.

The eponymous exhibit was inspired by an art installation the filmmaker himself created in Varnamo, Sweden, “about trying to change the social contract between people, reminding us that we have a human responsibility to each other. That’s what the film examines, too.” He professes delighted surprise that the 150-minute film’s unusual structure and complex subject have connected so broadly: its $1.35 million U.S. gross makes it by far the most publicly visible film in the field since three of the nominees have yet to be released Stateside. It’s on track to outgross Ostlund’s previous film “Force Majeure,” for which he made the Oscar shortlist but failed to be nominated: a video depicting his and his producer’s disappointed reaction to the announcement went viral. He’s made a sequel to that clip, he says, “this time with a happy ending.”

Ildiko Enyedi has waited a bit longer for her invitation to the dance: Her whimsical debut “My Twentieth Century” was Hungary’s Oscar submission in 1989, but failed to score a nomination. Three decades later, “On Body and Soul” — Enyedi’s first feature film in 18 years — brings a dash of her signature surrealism to the Oscar race. This story about two abattoir workers who discover they share the same dream every night is both an offbeat romance and a sensitive study of autism, with a distinct visual sensibility that has been acknowledged with a nomination from the American Society of Cinematographers.

A unique nominee in many ways, it’s also the one film bringing a female directorial perspective to the race: Though a record 27 distaff-directed titles were submitted in the category this year, Enyedi’s was the only one to make the cut. “That such a tender film about the human condition is nominated for an Academy Award — my first film in nearly two decades, and in a year where so many exceptional women are being honored for their work behind-the-camera — humbles me,” she says.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” is a female-oriented narrative that marks a significant breakthrough for transgender representation at the Oscars — and represents last year’s surge in LGBTQ-themed cinema. Though Lelio, whose previous crowdpleaser “Gloria” was Chile’s 2013 submission, is a cisgender male, his film is dynamically carried by its trans leading lady, Daniela Vega. The stirring story of a young trans woman battling the prejudice of her lover’s family after his unexpected death, it strikes a chord when the #MeToo movement is spotlighting gender oppression and abuse across the spectrum.

“At times like this when there is so much adversity and struggling in the world, I hope we can find in each other’s experiences the courage and inspiration to make change,” said Lelio in response to his nomination. He’ll be a more familiar name soon throughout the Academy, as his English-language career takes off: Since “A Fantastic Woman,” he has also premiered the lesbian-themed drama “Disobedience,” with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, and is in production on a Julianne Moore-starring remake of his own “Gloria.”

Three years after Russia’s preeminent contemporary auteur Andrey Zvyagintsev scored a nomination for his muscular political allegory “Leviathan,” he returns to the race with “Loveless,” a similarly sprawling, sobering study of social and familial dysfunction in his country. “Leviathan’s” presence in the race surprised pundits who had assumed that Russia’s national selection committee wouldn’t favor a film so starkly critical of the government; though “Loveless” is less expressly political, Zvyagintsev has described the film, which painstakingly tracks a missing-child case amid the shards of a bitterly broken marriage, as a critique of the country’s police.

Made without the financial support of a government still smarting from the director’s previous works, this critical favorite — the only nominee with a corresponding nod from BAFTA — once more earned the national selectors’ approval while standing its ground. The Academy’s endorsement, says Zvyagintsev, empowers a filmmaker working outside the system: “It means a great deal to us as filmmakers and it encourages us to continue to tell the stories that move us, in the way we want to tell them.”

While Sweden, Hungary, Russia and Chile have all previously scored nominations in this category — with the three European nations all triumphing on more than one occasion, Ziad Doueiri’s topical legal drama “The Insult” is the first Lebanese production ever to make it this far. A politically charged story of a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee dueling in court over a verbal slur that spirals into a larger grievance, it hasn’t been universally embraced at home.

“It is a great source of pride for us to get the nomination, it’s like a country getting a medal,” says the director, a former assistant to Quentin Tarantino. “But we’ve been so attacked during this film. Lebanon is a divided country, and we’ve been boycotted by part of the population.”

He refers in particular to the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions Movement, which enforced a ban across the Arab world on Doueiri’s previous film “The Attack”; Doueiri was arrested after the BDS filed a complaint regarding his latest. “This time the Lebanese government rooted for me.”

Many in the Academy will be doing the same: “The Insult” brings Hollywood-influenced storytelling zip to a story built on fascinating cultural specifics. Like every nominee in this year’s rich, contrast-laden foreign-language race, it’s a vivid, accessible statement that nonetheless invites voters to step outside their comfort zones.

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