In my most recent predictions update, you might have noticed a new entry in the Best Original Screenplay category for “A Separation,” Asghar Farhadi’s festival darling and foreign-language Oscar hopeful. While I admit I can toy with some pretty unlikely predictions in the early stages, this one was more reasoned than most — and really fell into place for me when I noticed that Sony Pictures Classics had set a December 30 release date for the film.
Squeezing that narrowly under the wire into the 2011 release calendar suggests to me that the distributor may have more than just a Best Foreign Language Film nomination in their sights for the critically adored Iranian film. After all, a 2011 release date isn’t a requirement for the ghetto category; Sony in particular is frequently content to wait until after the nominations, or even the Oscars themselves, before opening their contenders, so as to capitalize on the awards prestige. (The category’s reigning winner, “In a Better World,” only opened in April.)
As the studio with the most successful track record in the category of late, Sony must fancy their chances of another nomination for Farhadi’s film; why, then, release it into the wilds of December, where it’ll have to compete against far glossier prestige titles for attention, unless they’re hoping to make inroads into other races? Best Original Screenplay would be the smartest target: the category looks malleable this year, and is unusually heavy on comedy contenders. A dramatic screenplay as rich and thoughtfully structured as Farhadi’s could well find fans in the reliably discerning writers’ branch of the Academy.
Winning over the directors would be a taller order, but precedent exists for lavishly acclaimed foreign films landing surprise nods in their category. Imagining 250-odd voters placing an Iranian family drama atop their Best Picture ballots, however, probably stretches the bounds of credibility.
“A Separation” isn’t the only heavyweight contender for the foreign-language Oscar that Sony is lining up for a December bow: Anne Thompson reports that Poland’s entry, Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness,” is getting the same treatment. The well-reviewed film arrives out of the festival season with quieter buzz than Farhadi’s film, but remains one of the most formidable on-paper contenders for the Oscar: a true-life Holocaust drama chronicling the survival struggle of a group of Jews hiding in the sewers of Nazi-occupied Lvov, it seems to tick a lot of Academy boxes, one of which is the familiarity of Holland’s name.
Holland herself has previously broken into the major Oscar categories. She landed a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination in the 1991 race for another Holocaust tale, “Europa, Europa” — a consolation prize of sorts for the film’s controversial absence from the foreign-language race after Germany chose not to submit it. (Or anything else, for that matter.) Could Sony be aiming for similar recognition for the new film? At this stage, it seems a stretch. Holland herself isn’t the writer on this occasion; first-time scripter David F. Shamoon is.
When a foreign-language film breaks into the general categories, it’s often in response to the film failing to find a place in the designated Best Foreign Language Film category, whether due to politics or voter neglect. Like “Europa, Europa,” in my Oscar-watching lifetime, “Talk to Her,” “Three Colors: Red,” “Il Postino” and “City of God” all found a way in on the back of that perceived snub. (In theory, Sony could hope for a similar happy ending for a November release, Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In,” which Spain passed over as their Oscar submission, just as they did “Talk to Her” in 2002. In this case, however, it’s hard to see this nasty thriller appealing to any Academy branches, save perhaps the composers.)
For a film legitimately in the hunt for the foreign-language Oscar, the road to general-category recognition can arguably be harder. Films that score in both areas usually break in on a wave of crossover audience appeal: think “Amelie,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or even “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
A film like “A Separation” is unlikely to acquire that level of popular buzz, so Sony will be counting on critical pressure to persuade voters that it’s worth of a mention outside its designated category. Meanwhile, the studio has yet to confirm a US release date for its latest major foreign-language possibility, Toronto Audience Award champ “Where Do We Go Now?”: with critics less likely to rally around this one in a big way, I sense they’ll wait for 2012 on that one. (Ditto yet another contender on Sony’s books: Israeli submission “Footnote.”)
As for the other foreign Oscar submissions, few studios outside of Sony have the savvy and the wherewithal to launch wider campaigns. It’ll be interesting, however, to see what Fox does with Mexican entry “Miss Bala,” a harsh but accessible drug-trade thriller that has generated considerable heat on the festival circuit ahead of its US release later this month. (UPDATE: I’ve just learned that the film’s US release has been postponed to January. So hold that thought.) Hard as it is to imagine this tough genre piece finding many friends in the Academy, it’s rare to see a studio this large in the hunt for the little prize.