Oscars 2016 Preview: Best Foreign Language Film
The Best Foreign Language Film category, whether it’s at the Oscars or any other awards show, always poses a strange question: how can you whittle the entire non-English speaking world down to five titles? When you compare this to the eight English-language nominees for Best Picture, it seems like an unfair balance. Now, granted, the Best Picture category isn’t limited to just English-language productions, but you’d be crazy to suggest that foreign productions have the same shot at getting a Best Picture nod as something like The Revenant or Brooklyn (past foreign language nominees like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Amour are exceptions to the norm).
Even stranger is the method of selecting the nominees, which requires countries to submit only one film for consideration in the category. That means France, a country that consistently puts out some of the best cinema in the world every year, can only pick one film to represent their country in the category. But even then, the selected film needs to have a theatrical release within a specific time frame in their home country in order to truly qualify for the category. Those rules can get frustrating for some foreign language films, and the idea of contorting a release in one’s own home country just for the possibility of one award nomination thousands of miles away isn’t exactly an appealing one: in 2013, the French distributor of Blue is the Warmest Colour refused to change their release strategy, meaning one of the most buzzed about films of that year didn’t even qualify for the only category it had a shot of getting nominated in.
The point of all of this is that, like everything else at the Oscars, politics abound, and these nominees need to be taken with a big grain of salt. These five films are hardly representative of the best world cinema has to offer, but they’re far from being the worst either. This year, the Foreign Language category provided one big, welcome surprise: the nomination of Theeb, director Naji Abu Nowar’s film about a young member of a Bedouin tribe who gets caught up in the war taking place far from his community. I saw Theeb back at its New Directors/New Films screening and came away pleasantly surprised at its assuredness, especially coming from a first-time director. The fact that Theeb got a theatrical release in the US was great news on its own; its Oscar nomination should hopefully turn more people on to a great film that deserves to be seen (Theeb is currently out in limited theatrical release from Film Movement).
From the surprising to the not-so-surprising, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Hungary’s Son of Saul received a nomination in this category. It premiered at Cannes in 2015, where it scored the Grand Prix along with a nice distribution deal from Sony Pictures Classics. That, combined with the fact that it’s a Holocaust film, solidified Son of Saul’s appearance here, since at least one foreign language nominee must deal with the Holocaust in some way, shape or form. Critics and audiences have been over the moon for Son of Saul since its Cannes debut, but I came away disappointed after seeing it. Director Laszlo Nemes and cinematographer Matyas Erdely show off their formal skills with the film’s precise construction, using shallow focus and long takes to “immerse” viewers into the horrors of surviving Auschwitz, but it only calls attention to the film’s own technical achievements. And combining a form that’s all about showing itself off with one of mankind’s greatest tragedies makes for a pairing that’s ugly for all the wrong reasons. It’s disappointing to see that, in a year with so many strong films both nominated and eligible for the category, the award will wind up going to Son of Saul, whose bland, digestible form of “difficult” cinema makes its win more about people congratulating their own broadened cinematic horizons than celebrating the best nominee (Son of Saul is currently out in limited theatrical release from Sony Pictures Classics).
That brings me to Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s film which France submitted this year over Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, a film most assumed would have been selected given its Palme d’Or win last year. It’s a choice only people who haven’t seen Mustang might find surprising, since those who have seen Mustang know it’s a legitimately great film through and through. Following five orphaned sisters living in a tiny Turkish village, the film portrays the girls’ struggles to fight back against old cultural, religious and patriarchal standards as they’re married off one-by-one in arranged ceremonies. The film may get a little too contrived as it goes along, but it’s impossible to deny that Erguven has crafted one powerful story of a fight for independence and freedom from the old, archaic ways of the past. Mustang has a small but fervent following since its US release in late 2015, and because of that, it might be the only film with a shot at taking the trophy away from Son of Saul (Mustang is currently out in limited theatrical release from Cohen Media Group).
For a nominee like Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, it should just be happy that it got nominated in the first place, as it’s probably too “out there” for people to consider choosing as the winner. Taking place between two periods of time, Guerra shows a shaman living deep in the Amazon as he helps two different scientists try to find a rare plant within the jungle. Embrace has its fair share of gorgeous cinematography, but like last year’s winner Ida it’s hard to find much to enjoy beyond its aesthetics. Unlike Son of Saul, Guerra’s form feels sincere in its attempts to pay respect to the location and cultures he profiles, but other than its pointed look at the devastating effects of colonialism the film comes across as Herzog-lite (Embrace of the Serpent will come out in limited theatrical release on Friday, February 17th from Oscilloscope Pictures).
Finally, Tobias Lindholm’s A War is a fine follow-up to A Hijacking, which suffered an unfortunate case of timing when it came out around the same time as Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips. Taking place in Afghanistan, Lindholm focuses on a Danish army commander who winds up getting accused of a war crime after making a rash decision during a firefight. Denmark is no stranger to impressive yet overly manipulated drama—see previous Oscar nominee The Hunt, which Lindholm co-wrote—and A War is more of the same, showcasing a complex and nuanced situation with the efficiency of a procedural. Fans of this form of storytelling will find plenty to like here, while those who bristle at the staidness should stay far away. Lindholm continues to show he’s an excellent dramatist, and no matter what A War’s chances of winning might be, it’s difficult to argue against its presence in this category.