Western Europe traditionally gets the lion’s share of attention in the international film category, with France and Italy still leading the record books in terms of nominations and wins. But a number of the most exciting contenders among this year’s submissions hail from a little further east: in a bumper year for cinema from Central and Eastern Europe, a few titles stand out.
Language has been a subject of significant controversy in this year’s Oscar race. Yet, the Academy has moved the needle on this front in recent years: not so long ago, films that weren’t in an official language of the submitting country were ineligible. That would have ruled out this year’s submission from the Czech Republic, “The Painted Bird.” Aiming to be the first Czech film to score a nomination since 2003’s “Zelary,” Václav Marhoul’s film is a linguistic anomaly in all respects: it’s the first film to be made in the semi-constructed Interslavic language, a zonal hybrid.
In adapting Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski’s harrowing 1965 novel about a lone boy nomadically surviving the atrocities of the Holocaust — once promoted as a memoir, though later exposed as fiction — Marhoul determined that a story of such horrific, internationally shared history shouldn’t be identified with any one nation. Hence the decision to shoot in Interslavic, with an indeterminate setting and a global cast including such major names as Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard and Barry Pepper. Shot in stark, striking black and white, it’s among the most vivid, violent child’s-eye Holocaust stories ever put to screen; reactions from its premiere in Venice ranged from adulation to startled walkouts. Whichever side the Academy falls on, no film in the running meets the new international film designation quite so literally.
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It’s not the only shattering World War II story from Central and Eastern Europe in the race, however. The 28-year-old prodigy Kantemir Balagov dazzled critics and scooped the director prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section for his bold, uncompromising sophomore feature, “Beanpole” — Russia’s selection this year. A story of post-war trauma, grief and desire, it plays out between two female ex-soldiers eking out a living in a Leningrad veterans’ hospital, and balances the profound emotional pain of the material with saturated color and sensuality. It has earned its young director, who studied under Aleksandr Sokurov, comparisons to veteran Russian masters; auspiciously, it’s produced by regular Andrey Zvyagintsev collaborator Alexander Rodnyansky, who shepherded recent Russian nominees “Loveless” and “Leviathan.”
A gentler post-WWII relationship study is to be found in Hungary’s submission, Barnabás Tóth’s “Those Who Remained,” which premiered to a warm reception at the Telluride Film Festival in August. Tóth’s film tells the story of two Holocaust survivors — a middle-age doctor and a teenage girl, widowed and orphaned, respectively, in the genocide — who form a close father-daughter bond in the early days of Hungary’s Communist regime. Both of Hungary’s past winners in the category, 1981’s “Mephisto” and 2015’s “Son of Saul,” were Holocaust-themed; “Those Who Remained” has the classical humanism that many of the category’s voters favor.
Bringing things up to date, Poland’s submission, “Corpus Christi,” engages provocatively with the role of Catholicism in contemporary Polish society, following a juvenile offender who, inspired by a spiritual awakening while in detention, masquerades as a small-parish priest. Much-garlanded on the international festival circuit since its Venice premiere, it’s a conversation-stoking study of the restrictions of deceptions of organized religion, inspired by true events. It’s the breakout third feature from 38-year-old director Jan Komasa: after a run of submissions from veterans including Pawel Pawlikowski, Agnieszka Holland and Andrzej Wajda, Polish selectors have opted for younger energy.
Estonia meanwhile has debut director Tanel Toom’s “Truth and Justice,” based on a classic Estonian novel. While this is his first feature film Toom is no stranger to Oscar, having been nominated for his short “The Confession.” The film centers on a landowner trying to balance the dueling needs of his religion, land and family. It was a huge hit in the home country, breaking a box office record held previously by “Avatar.” The film’s producer’s Ivo Felt was behind 2014’s “Tangerines,” which was nominated in the foreign-language category.
While all these countries have won the Oscar, Romania is patiently awaiting its first nomination in the category — despite the Romanian New Wave having been one of the century’s most significant world cinema movements. A decade after his critically revered slow-cinema procedural “Police, Adjective” failed to crack the shortlist, writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu is trying again with Cannes competition entry “The Whistlers.” An offbeat noir set largely on the Spanish island of La Gomera, it’s not only the sunnier setting that marks it as a slight departure for the director: its whimsical adherence to genre tropes is unexpected too, that change of pace may help Romania finally win voters over.
If there’s a wild card from the region though, to look out for, it’s North Macedonia’s “Honeyland,” one of several docs among the submissions aiming to become the category’s first non-fiction nominee since “The Missing Picture” in 2013. Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s exquisitely shot debut feature, following the travails of an independent female beekeeper in the Macedonian hills, was a smash in Sundance.