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Oscar Foreign-Language Directors Find Compelling Stories

Directors of this year’s foreign-language Oscar nominees felt compelled to tell tales of universal themes.

Capernaum Lebanon
The Oscar race has fueled the ongoing protest against the industry’s sidelining of woman directors, serving up no female-helmed films in the best picture or director categories. That leaves Lebanon’s Nadine Labaki as the only distaff director nominated for a narrative feature film this year. “Capernaum,” a sprawling, dirt-on-the-lens labor of love about refugee children surviving on the mean streets of Beirut, is the most emotionally abrasive contender in the category. Centered on a destitute 12-year-old Syrian boy suing his parents for giving him life, it left many hardened critics weeping in the aisles at Cannes, where it duly won the Jury Prize. Variety’s Jay Weissberg was among them, deeming it “a splendid addition to the ranks of great guttersnipe dramas”; an Oscar nomination was widely predicted then and there. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film for U.S. release.

It’s the third feature from actress-turned-filmmaker Labaki; her first two, “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go From Here” (a surprise winner of Toronto’s audience award in 2011) were both submitted to the Academy to no avail. She regards “Capernaum” as a film she had to make: “Living in Lebanon under a big economic crisis, seeing children in poverty has become simply a fact of our daily lives. I felt that if I wasn’t going to say anything about that, then I was collaborating in it.” Working with the street-cast non-pro Zain al-Rafeea as her lead, she had to change her usual filmmaking routine to accommodate his spontaneous instincts. “He hasn’t changed by society’s codes, so you have to go where he goes. It’s not the classical way of making a film.” Meanwhile, after Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult” scored Lebanon its first ever Oscar nomination last year, she’s proud to make it two in a row: “It’s a huge victory. We have no film industry, really; with the war, we’ve been invisible for so long. We’re babies in the field, taking our first steps.”

Cold War Poland
Alfonso Cuaron wasn’t the only international filmmaker this year to take inspiration from his family history for a gorgeously mounted black-and-white period piece, and reap the rewards. Hot off a foreign-language film Oscar win for his rapturously received 2014 post-Holocaust drama “Ida” — the first Polish film ever to take the honor — Pawel Pawlikowski remained in that film’s troubled mid-century period, retained its exquisite monochrome aesthetic, and wove another story of shifting personal identity and relationships buffeted by politics. “Cold War” is a companion piece with its own tone and rhythm, however: Brisker and jazzier in tone than “Ida,” it tells the story of two volatile Polish musicians — loosely based on Pawlikowski’s own parents — trying to maintain a star-crossed romance across decades of border-hopping upheaval. Variety’s critic declared it “a transfixing miniature” upon its Cannes premiere; other critics agreed, as did Cate Blanchett’s jury, which handed Pawlikowski the director prize.

Since then, the plaudits have come thick and fast, as the film took foreign-language film prizes from the New York Film Critics’ Circle and the National Board of Review, before running the table at the European Film Awards with five wins for European film, director and actress for breakout star Joanna Kulig. A well-played, interview-heavy campaign from Amazon Studios sustained industry word-of-mouth for “Cold War” just as ballots went out, resulting in not just the foreign-language and cinematography bids received by “Ida,” but an odds-defying director nomination (the first for a Polish film) for Pawlikowski: if any nominee can upset “Roma” on the night, it’s this one. As the director wryly told Variety reporters, he only wished his parents were around to enjoy the success of the film they inspired: “They died thinking I was a good-for-nothing anarchist.”

Never Look Away Germany
In a race heavier than usual on former Oscar winners, Germany’s Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck stands as the field’s true comeback kid. It’s 12 years since the then-33-year-old writer-director took the prize (upsetting Mexico’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”) for his debut feature “The Lives of Others,” a Stasi-era tale of loneliness and surveillance that became a sleeper arthouse hit. Hollywood beckoned, and the wunderkind followed it up in 2010 with the Angelina Jolie-Johnny Depp starrer “The Tourist,” a maligned flop liked only by the HFPA. After an eight-year hiatus and a return to home turf, von Donnersmarck finds form again with this grandly old-fashioned period saga: inspired by the life of painter Gerhard Richter, its story of a young art student tormented by a legacy of Nazi oppression was described by Variety critic Jessica Kiang as “as classical and dignified a three-hour-plus, generations-spanning drama as you will meet.”
Von Donnersmarck landed on the idea for the film, a Sony Classics release in the U.S., over a decade ago: “If it stays with you for that long and it takes over your thinking, as this did for me, then you haven’t chosen it; it has chosen you.” Glad as he is to be back in the nominee circle himself, he’s no less delighted with his film’s surprise second nomination, for veteran U.S. cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s lush lensing.

“We met on an Academy committee, actually,” he says. “I told Caleb the story of the film, that it was about human creativity and art as a weapon against political extremism.

He said if the film told the story the way I did, he had to shoot it.” Von Donnersmarck is heartened by the international scope of this year’s Oscar slate, as films including his own, “Cold War” and “Roma” venture into other categories: “This type of smaller, human film has become something we all have to fight for, wherever we’re from.”

Roma Mexico
Four films have previously been nominated for best Picture and foreign-language film in the same year; every one of them won in the latter category. That statistic — plus, of course, its field-leading haul of 10 noms, tied with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as the most-nominated foreign-language film in Oscar history — would appear to give Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” unbeatable odds in this race. Even without such numeric advantages, Cuaron’s painstakingly crafted Mexico City memory piece, would be a formidable contender. Drawn from his 1970s childhood but taking the perspective of his family’s beleaguered domestic worker, Cuaron’s first film since his 2013 Hollywood space phenomenon “Gravity,” which, lest we forget, won seven Oscars including director, has earned the year’s best reviews (and the lion’s share of critics’ awards) on the strength of both its pristine formal grandeur and the emotional pull of its story and backstory alike.

As Cuaron’s first film made in his native country since 2001’s beloved “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (never submitted by Mexico in this category, incidentally), it’s a personal homecoming that underlines the range and breadth of a filmmaker equally comfortable with intimate character drama and megabudget blockbuster spectacle.

Arguably no other filmmaker is crossing borders to work both ends of the artform with such artistry, all while squaring the tricky new circle of Netflix distribution: Industry respect for that accomplishment may well earn multiple prizes on Oscar night, but this one looks the most secure of the lot.

If it wins, it’ll be Mexico’s first victory in more than 50 attempts — at a time when the anti-immigrant, wall-minded antics of the Trump administration have placed a particular strain on Mexican-American relations, the political significance of rewarding Cuaron’s film, itself preoccupied with social inequalities, is unlikely to escape voters’ notice.

Shoplifters Japan
With only three nominations this century, including a surprise 2008 win for the little-remembered “Departures,” Japanese cinema — a fixture in the early days of this category — doesn’t have quite the Oscar presence that you’d expect. That partly comes down to the national submission system: Japanese selectors have a habit of bypassing crossover festival favorites for lower-profile works of more limited appeal. Hirokazu Kore-eda is a case in point: One of Japan’s most prolific and internationally acclaimed contemporary filmmakers, he hasn’t been picked to represent his country since 2004’s “Nobody Knows.”

The career-crowning success of his heart-tugging social drama “Shoplifters,” however, proved too significant for selectors to ignore. This study of a poverty-stricken makeshift family, resorting to various crimes to survive a system slanted against them, is Japan’s most internationally celebrated submission in many a year. Subtly surprise-laden, it won over voters on the strength of its delicate humanism — which has drawn critical comparisons to Yasujiro Ozu — and universal socioeconomic resonance.

Declaring the film “heart-wrenching” and “exquisitely performed,” Variety critic Maggie Lee was moved by the director’s “ongoing examination of what constitutes a family, and whether it can still provide cohesion in Japan’s rapidly devolving society.”

Quietly but steadily campaigned by specialist distributor Magnolia Pictures, the film has proven as successfully stealthy a player in Oscar season as it did at the Cannes Film Festival — where, despite little advance fanfare, it nabbed the Palme d’Or ahead of far splashier competition, including Spike Lee’s best picture-nominated “BlacKkKlansman.” (After Sweden’s “The Square,” it’s the second Cannes champ in a row to land in the category.) Sometimes a direct line to the heart is all you need — one wonders if its nomination will inspire Japanese selectors to take the expected road more often.

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