It’ll be a few days yet before the Academy officially announces the longlist — the odd last-minute addition, switch or disqualification is par for the course at this stage — but with the official deadline for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submissions having passed on Friday, we can effectively size up the playing field. And with 68 films having been entered for consideration, it’s a crowded one: indeed, if they’re all approved, it’ll stand as a record number.
I’ve mentioned before that this is looking like an unusually competitive year for nominations in this category. There have been fewer controversial submissions than usual: only Portugal really raised eyebrows by opting for family melodrama “Blood of My Blood” ahead of swoony critical sensation “Tabu,” and even then, they might have made the more Academy-friendly choice. (The same goes for France, who were always going to plump for commercial phenomenon “The Intouchables” over more broadly acclaimed fare.) By and large, however, countries largely submitted what everyone thought they would (and should); it’s a field stacked with festival hits and bracing auteur works, and the executive committee will have their work cut out for them when they choose just three films to rescue after the initial vote.
Even among the straggler submissions, some high-profile contenders emerged — notably a pair of black-and-white titles from countries that are regular high-flyers in this race, Italy and Spain. Italy, which holds the record for most Oscar wins in the category, likely had a tough choice to make between two major festival prizewinners: veteran fraternal auteurs Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s “Caesar Must Die,” which took the Golden Bear at Berlin, and Matteo Garone’s “Reality,” a surprise winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes.
“Reality” is the more entertaining and accessible film, I’d say — but seniority won out, and “Caesar Must Die,” a semi-documentary about rough Rome prisoners staging an in-house production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” got the nod. If nothing else, the selection underlines that while Oscar pundits tend to look to Cannes for tips in this category, they should be paying equal attention to the less-attended Berlin fest. “A Separation” debuted there last year, wowed the jury and won over the Academy. This year, all the major Berlin prizewinners are in the hunt for the Oscar too; in addition to “Caesar,” Best Director winner “Barbara” (Germany), Best Actress winner “War Witch” (Canada), Best Actor and Screenplay winner “A Royal Affair” (Denmark) and Special Jury Prize winner “Sister” (Switzerland) are Berlinale babies.
Funnily enough, think those films all stand a better chance with the Academy than the film that beat them to the Bear. I didn’t much care for “Caesar Must Die,” a nobly-intentioned but turgid curio that resorts to repetitious padding even at a scant 76 minutes, but laying my own reservations to one side, I don’t see the voters really jiving with this blend of vérité techniques and heightened performance; unless the executive committee really likes the idea of maintaining the non-narrative slot “Pina” held on last year’s shortlist, I don’t see it faring any better than the Tavianis’ last shot at Oscar glory 30 years ago. (That film, incidentally, was “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” which won the Boston and National Society of Film Critics’ Best Picture prizes, but cut no ice with the Academy.)
Spain, meanwhile, went in a more whimsical direction with their monochrome submission, “Blancanieves,” which recently won both critical acclaim and the jury’s runner-up prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival. I’ll have more to say about the film when I see it at the upcoming London fest, but it certainly sounds like an intriguing contender, not least because it taps into two recent movie trends: the curious mini-wave of Snow White adaptations and the renewed interest in silent cinema aroused by “The Artist.”
Yes, what we have here is a flamenco-flavored take on the tried-and-true fairytale, set in 1920s Spain and filmed in the aesthetic of the period, with no spoken dialogue; Maribel Verdu (best remembered for “Y tu Mama Tambien” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”) takes on Wicked Queen duty. It all sounds delightful, while that combination of novelty and familiarity could tickle some voters. I look forward to checking it out.
Other notables added to the list include China’s “Caught in the Web,” an internet-age social drama from previously nominated but long off-the-boil director Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”); Toronto reviews don’t suggest it’s much of a threat. South Africa, meanwhile, has also opted for a film from an Academy-endorsed name: “Little One” is the latest from sometime crossover director Darrell James Roodt, whose AIDS drama “Yesterday” got the country its first nomination in 2004. (He’s bounced back quickly from the failure of his still-unreleased Winnie Mandela biopic starring Jennifer Hudson.) The new film, about a middle-aged woman’s struggle to adopt a six-month baby found abandoned in a Johannesburg township, sounds in a similarly earnest, heart-tugging vein to “Yesterday,” so don’t count it out.
Uruguay have a strong entry in “The Delay,” a quietly powerful miniature tackling the country’s social welfare system that I rather admired when it premiered at — hey, there it is again — the Berlin Film Festival. A desperate-measures tale of a destitute mother-of-three also burdened with caring for her dementia-afflicted father, it’s like too modest and too bleak to wow voters, but it’s a worthy submission — and a neat counterpoint to “Amour,” which takes on some equivalent concerns in a far more privileged milieu.
Finally, bolstering the already strong chances of Israel’s submission, Rama Burshtein’s Austen-influenced (and Venice-laurelled) arranged-marriage study “Fill the Void,” was the announcement earlier this week that it’s been picked up for US distribution by Sony Pictures Classics. As any Oscar pundit knows, Sony has been an overwhelmingly dominant force in this category of late — winning the award in five of the last six years, and scoring a number of other nods besides — so any foreign submission taken under their wing is worth taking seriously. “Fill the Void” now shares a stable with Austria’s “Amour” and Chile’s “No”; it wouldn’t be a shock to see all three films make the cut.
Check out the full list of submissions at the category’s Contenders page.