Oscar 2007: War Dominates Foreign Languate Oscar Nominees

Once again, the foreign-language film committee of the Academy of Motion Picture has come under attack by critics. The list of the five finalists fails to include one of the year's most acclaimed films, Cristian Mungiu's Romanian abortion drama, “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days,” which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Festival and the European Film Award, as well as landing on many Ten Best lists.

Adding to this year's controversy are the snub of the French entry, Marjane Satrapi's artfully mature animated feature, “Persepolis,” which also premiered at Cannes to great acclaim, and the disqualifying of Israel's submission, “The Band's Visit,” which won important awards in many festivals, due to language–more than 50 percent of the dialogue is in English.

Industry observers feel that France might have been better off submitting the Edith Piaf biopic, “La Vie en Rose,” which was a commercial hit in France and the U.S. Actress, Marion Cotillard won kudos at BAFTA last week and is also nominated for Best Actress.

Unfazed, Israel has immediately substituted its initial entry with “Beaufort,” and the movie is now one of the five contenders for the foreign Oscar. “Persepolis” got the Academy's seal of approval with a nomination for Best Animated Feature, though it doesn't stand a chance winning, being up against everybody's favorite, Disney-Pixar's “Ratatouille.”

The committee's regulations leave much to be desired. The first round of voting consisted of several hundred L.A. Academy members who each saw a selection of the 63 eligible films. Then between January 18 and 20, a second phase committee comprised of 10 randomly selected members from the first phase, along with invited 10-member groups in New York and L.A. viewed the nine-film shortlist and selected the final five, which were announced January 22, along with the other categories

A closer look at the five Oscar nominees shows two clear trends. Thematically, they all deal, in one way or another, with war of the distant or more recent past. Second, most of the films are made by major international directors, such as Wajda, Mikhalkov, and Bodrov, whose names are familiar with Academy voters, having won or been nominated before.

Katyn

Vet Polish director Andrzej Wajda has called “Katyn” his most personal film as it's dealing with the Soviet massacre that killed thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals, including his own father; the Russians then blamed the Nazis for the atrocities. The film played at the just concluded Berlin Film Fest, out of competition, after scoring huge success in Poland, where it notched 2.7 million admissions, which amounts to $14 million; as of today, though, the film has not U.S. distributor.

“Katyn” ignited long-repressed debate in Poland following its release. “I lost my father when I was 14 and most needed him,” Wajda said, adding that even when the German found the mass graves in 1943 and announced that “Karol” Wajda (his father's name was Jakub) was among the dead, “for me, it was easier to believe he was alive and would come back after the War.”

The film's resonance is underlined by Wajda's conviction that “the story is strongly rooted in the Polish collective conscience as a sin committed by Poland's Western allies during WWII, and now it's time that this conspiracy of silence was broken.”

At 81, Wajda is a 2006 recipient of the Berlin Honorary Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement, and he has also received the prestigious Honorary Oscar in 2004 (handed to him by Jane Fonda).

Mongol

A lavish historical epic, “Mongol,” Kazakhstan's Genghis Khan biopic marks the second chance at Oscar for Sergei Bodrov, whose Russian film “Prisoner of the Mountains” was nominated in 1996. In his sumptuously mounted saga, Bodrov illuminates the life of the legendary warrior hero Genghis Khan. Masterfully blending action and emotion against arresting landscapes, Bodrov has made an exciting tale of survival, triumph, and love. Based on research and scholarly accounts, the screenplay, co-written by Bodrov and Arif Aliyev, centers on the harrowing years of the ruler, who was born under the name of Temudgin in 1162. Boasting epic scale and stunning visuals that would make Kurosawa and David Lean proud, “Mongol” follows Temudgin from his perilous childhood to the battle that sealed his destiny, while not neglecting his personal life.

12

Like Bodrov, Mikhalkov is a known quantity in Hollywood: His historical film “Burnt by the Sun,” set in 1936,won the 1994 Foreign-Language Oscar.

In “12,” vet filmmaker Mikhalkov uses Sidney Lumet's “12 Angry Men” as a blueprint to explore Russians' relationship with the surrounding Chechen immigrants, crafting a morality play that reportedly put Vladimir Putin to tears. In his update, 12 jurors of different age, ethnicity, and class discuss the case of a Chechen youth accused of murdering his stepfather. As they debate the details, each divulges a different history of anxiety and resentment over such issues as the politics of their country, which is going through the socio-economic turmoil of a transitional phase, wondering who is to blame for the ills plaguing contemporary Russian society. While doing it, each member of the jury becomes the audience and critic of the others' stories. Eventually, they play to one silent jury foreman (played by Mikhalkov), who saves a crucial revelation for the grand finale.

12 received strong support at the Moscow Academy, where it picked up five Golden Eagle prizes, including film, director, and actor, honoring the entire ensemble.

Beaufort

Israel's nominee, “Beautfort,” is also a war film, albeit of a different kind. An intimate study of Israeli soldiers holed up in the titular castle before the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, the movie goes beyond universal messages– “war is hell”–to explore the listlessness, tension, and dissonance of military life. “Beaufort” won four Ophir Awards (the Israeli Oscar) and is the country's top-grossing film of 2007. Director Joseph Cedar, who also co-scripted, has made only three films, but all have served as Israel's submissions for the Foreign Language Oscar.

Based on a true story recorded in Ari Leshem's first novel, which won the Sapir Prize, Israel's top literary award, “Beaufort” tackles the difficult questions of Israel's military strategy in Lebanon, and also deals with broader issues such as the sacrifice of young soldiers and the futility of war.

Made in the tradition of Oliver Stone's Vietnam combat film “Platoon,” the movie sticks to the ground, offering vivid glimpses of young men in combat, fearing and fighting for survival. More specifically, “Beaufort” chronicles the final days of an Israeli unit's tense and painful withdrawal from a strategic bunker inside a 12th century Crusader fortress at the Lebanese border, marking the end of two decades of controversial occupation.

As noted, “Beaufort” is Israel's second Oscar pick, and while that shouldn't detract from its merits, it still may suffer from the brunt of lingering resentment.

The Counterfeiters

Last but not least is Austria's “The Counterfeiters,” considered to be a frontrunner mostly due to it subject, The Holocaust. Both Spieberg's “Schindler's List” and Benigni's “Life Is Beautiful” have won the Oscar, in 1993 and 1998, respectively.

Telling the true story of one the largest counterfeiting operations, writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzkys drama blends personal period drama with a true crime thriller, finding new grounds to cover in a growing genre of Holocaust dramas. Drawing on some similar themes as in Polanskis 2002 Oscar-winning “The Pianist,” Ruzowitzky's film benefits from complexity: None of the characters fit the stereotypes of noble victim or soulless villain, and its sharp script steers clear of exploitation and sensationalismin depicting the horror.

Based on August Burgers memoir of his own experience, “Counterfeiters” is set amidst a fictionalized version of the real-life Operation Bernhard, a Nazi effort to devalue the pound and the dollar through large scale counterfeiting. Organized by the SS, Bernhard utilized slave labor in the form of Jewish printers, artists and financiers, as well as actual criminals skilled in forgery. The Academy has often honored tales of World War II survival, and the film's morally conflicted “heroes” are very much in tune with the zeitgeist in the post 9/11 era.

One can only guess the Academy committee's motives in choosing specific films. But there is not doubt that they favor films with familiar and beloved directors nominated before, such as Mikhalkov, Wajda, and Bodrov. Older in age and more conservative in taste, the voters go with well-crafted melodramas, rather than bold or innovative films.

Since it takes time to participate in the committee's various phases, it tends to attract older, less active members in the business. Hence, industry mavens suggest that one way to alter the voting is to have foreign branch members serve a limited term so that the same people aren't always votingfor similar kind of fare or aesthetics.