Oscar: Foreign Language Films as Best Picture Nominees

In the Academy’s entire history only a few foreign-language movies have been nominated for the Best Picture. Jean Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece, Grand Illusion competed for the 1937 top award, but that was before the creation of a distinct category for foreign-language pictures.

Since the establishment of the Best Foreign-Language Picture, only five foreign movies have been nominated for Best Picture. CostaGavras’s political thriller Z, a FrenchAlgerian coproduction starring Yves Montand and JeanLouis Trintignant, enjoyed a special position in 1969. Z won the Best Foreign Language Picture and it was also nominated in the general competitive category of Best Picture.

According to Academy rules, foreign pictures that have opened in the United States are eligible to compete in all the other categories. Indeed, Z also won an Oscar for its editor, Francoise Bonnot.

To qualify for Foreign-Language Picture, however, a film must be sent by its country of origin to the Academy, where a committee selects the five nominees. Z qualified on both grounds: It was officially submitted as an Algerian entry, and it opened in the United States in December.

Two Swedish films received consecutive Foreign-Language nominations. In 1972, The Emigrants, which deals with the emigration of Swedish peasants to America in the nineteenth century, starred Liv Ullmann (who received Best Actress nomination) and Max von Sydow. Jan Troell was nominated as a director and co-writer of the film’s adpapted screenplay.

In 1973, Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, a haunting film about death and dying, featuring unforgettable performances by Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, and Harriet Andersson, was nominated for Best Picture and four other awards, of which it received the Cinematography Oscar, by Bergman’s ace collaborator, Sven Nykvist.

Two Italian movies were nominated for Best Picture in the 1990s, both distributed by Miramax. The 1995 Il Postino (The Postman) tells the story of an Italian postman who bonds with a legendary poet, Pablo Neruda, and wins the affections of a local girl through his heartfelt poetry. The film was based on The Postman of Pablo Neruda, a novel by Chilean author Antonio Skarmeta. Massimo Troisi, who played the postman, suffered from heart problems and died only one day after the final take of the shoot. Troisi headed an international cast, with French actor Philippe Noiret, New Delhiborn English director Michael Radford. Trying to recreate Southern Italy in the 1950s, The Postman was shot on two islands off the coast of Sicily.

In 1998, Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust comedy, Life is Beautiful, became the second Italin film to win Best Picture nomination.

The narrative concerns an accidentprone Italian bookshop owner (Benigni), who is imprisoned with his family in a World War II concentration camp. He bravely attempts to protect his son (Giorgio Cantarini) by making a game out of their tragic predicament. Benigni, known in the United States for his performances in Down by Law and Johnny Stecchino, came under fire when word got out that he was making a comedy about the Holocaust. Though not Jewish, the Italian director and cowriter had personal roots in the saga: his father served time in a German labor camp. Benigni recalled how “each evening my father was telling me a story, some awful and revolting tragedy things, always in a very light way. Maybe he was scared to make a trauma on me.”

Citing Benigni’s success at the European Film Awards (Best Actor) and at Cannes (where it won the Grand Jury Prize), industry experts felt that Benigni had a strong shot at a lead performance award. Harvey Weinstein remarked that, “Miramax has gotten nominations in the past for Max von Sydow in Pelle the Conqueror and Massimo Troisi for Il Postino, which for him was “a testament that the actor category has been foreignactor friendly.” But it’s the film’s popularity with audiences that is the real ace up its sleeve. Benigni’s work pushes all the right emotional buttons.”

Even before its American release, Life Is Beautiful showed the same trademarks as Il Postino. Benigni received high praise from Weinstein, who hyped the film as the next Il Postino. Ultimately, Life Is Beautiful shattered box office records for foreign films, eventually outdoing Il Postino’s commercial success by far.

In 2000, another foreign-language film landed a spot in the Best Picture race — Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The thrilling fight sequences in this superbly mounted historical- romantic saga elicited heartfelt applause from audiences since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Ang Lee’s triumphant Hong Kong-style martial-arts film stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh as fellow warriors who share an unspoken love; porcelain-lovely Zhang Ziyi portrays a dazzling young prodigy who hasn’t yet found her true path.

Shrewdly marketed and platformed by Sony Pictures Classics, the Mandarin-language film clearly pushed the envelope. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, won Golden Globes for Best Foreign Film and for director Ang Lee, and was deemed best movie of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The film set a new box-office record for foreign-language films in the United Sates with its impressive gross of $130 million. In February, it garnered ten Oscar nominations–the second most-nominated film of the year after Gladiator. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Oscars, matching Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, the previous Oscar record-holder for foreign-language films.