Looks like Eastern Europe is currently leading the way in this year’s Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film. Last week, Romania was the first country to officially submit an entry, with Berlinale Golden Bear winner “Child’s Pose.” Today, Hungary joined them with another European festival champ: “The Notebook,” which won the top prize at last month’s Karlovy Vary fest.
I’m afraid to say I missed the film there, though subsequent word on it has been highly positive. Based on an acclaimed, widely translated 1986 bestseller by Hungarian author Agota Kristof, Janosz Szasz’s film tells the story of teenage twin brothers sent to live with their cruel grandmother in the closing stages of the Second World War; as they learn to survive the terrors of war and domestic abuse alike, the story takes on the shape of dark, “Hansel and Gretel”-style fairytale.
Many might say this film is smart choice for the Oscar race, even if Variety critic Alissa Simon noted that the reportedly disturbing film “won’t win awards for congeniality.” In the past, the Academy has repeatedly favored WWII dramas in this category, as well as films about children — so one that combines the two must hit the jackpot, right?
Well, maybe and maybe not. Last year, Australia entered Cate Shortland’s German-language “Lore,” also a tough survival story with fairytale elements, set in the War’s last days and told from a teen’s perspective. Widely admired by critics, it semi-surprisingly failed to make the category’s pre-nomination shortlist; perhaps that film’s reversal of Holocaust-film convention by adopting brainwashed Nazis as its protagonists didn’t sit comfortably with some voters.
Whether Hungary is any more fortunate this year remains to be seen, though they’ve surely given themselves more of a chance than their last two submissions, worthy as they were: Bela Tarr’s imposing “The Turin Horse,” and last year’s sobering massacre study “Just the Wind.” Indeed, Hungary has a history of daring Oscar selections — most adventurously, if unwisely, they chose cult body-horror comedy “Taxidermia” in 2007 — which may explain why they haven’t scored a nomination since Istvan Szabo’s “Hanussen” in 1988. (Szabo also netted Hungary its first and only win in the category, with 1981’s “Mephisto.”)
The selection was made by a nine-film panel of Hungarian film professionals, including veteran director Peter Gardos and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Lajos Koltai.
You can check out the trailer for “The Notebook” below. (Thanks to Hungarian reader Daniel Palinkas for the link.) What are your instincts telling you?