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First-timers lead two foreign films to Oscar nominations

First-timers lead two foreign films to Oscar nominations
Alexandra Borbély and Géza Morcsányi in the Hungarian movie "On Body and Soul." Lead actor Morcsányi had no previous acting experience. (Netflix)

When 92 countries submit entries for the foreign language film Oscar it can be difficult to find a common thread among them. Perhaps multiple story lines deal with a corrupt government, or maybe it's a lead character overcoming an unspeakable adversity. Now that those 92 submissions have been whittled down to five nominees, it becomes clear that both Ziad Doueiri's "The Insult" and Ildikó Enyedi's "On Body and Soul" feature lead actors who had never truly appeared on screen before.

‘On Body and Soul’

Enyedi's contemporary Hungarian drama centers on Endre (Géza Morcsányi), an executive at a slaughterhouse who discovers he's having the same recurring dream as Mária (Alexandra Borbély), a government quality inspector sent to his plant. Borbély had honed her skills on the stage before Enyedi cast her as the meat inspector who has issues interacting with anyone socially, but Morcsányi, whom Enyedi had known as part of the Budapest creative scene, had spent most of his life working for a local literary publication with no real acting experience whatsoever.

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Geza Morcsanyi in a scene from "On Body and Soul."
Geza Morcsanyi in a scene from "On Body and Soul." (Netflix)

"I was just looking for somebody with a real silent charisma," the writer-director says. "That sort of manly charisma, a 20 years younger Clint Eastwood. Plus, a sort of dry humor."

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Her instincts were rewarded when "On Body and Soul" won the Golden Bear at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival. Early on though, bringing Morcsányi onboard was a hard sell to her producers.

"I must say that I needed one casting session with him, but only to convince him that he can do the role," Enyedi says. "He was generous enough to jump into this film adventure, which I feel is not easy. Not just that it's a new situation for him, but it is dangerous to be an amateur and to play such a big role. You really have to involve yourself emotionally because you don't have the techniques how to step out of the role."

Much harder than working with a newcomer was filming the dream that Endre and Maria share. It involves a buck and a doe that live quietly in a birch tree forest near a small lake and searchfor food together, a simple image that was "nerve-racking" to pull off without visual effects.

"It was a tiny crew up on the hill, and in a normal shoot every minute counts and even 15 minutes is a lot to lose, but here that sort of approach wouldn't have helped," Enyedi recalls. "We became much more easygoing and relaxed but at the same time very alert. Somehow, we knew that [the shot we needed] would happen. It was a nice present for me somehow that that scene, which became the starting scene of the film, just happened [naturally] minutes before sunset and the snow started to fall. So we were lucky."

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‘The Insult’
Adel Karam, left, and Kamel El Basha in a scene from "The Insult."
Adel Karam, left, and Kamel El Basha in a scene from "The Insult." (Cohen Media Group)

For Lebanon's "The Insult," writer-director Doueiri took a gamble on Kamel El Basha, a Palestinian theater actor from Israel who had numerous stage credits but had never been cast in such a prominent film role. As Yasser, El Basha plays a Palestinian refugee working as a construction supervisor in Beirut. While working on a citywide project, Yasser gets into a spat with local Tony (well-known comedian Adel Karam) after fixing the Christian native's water drain without his permission. The disagreement escalates with Yasser insulting Tony verbally and their discord turning into a court case that captivates the nation and brings up long-festering wounds over past military conflicts, the Palestinian presence in the country and more.

Doueiri had to navigate many political land mines to make the film, including not crossing the border into Israel to cast El Basha. He notes, "I cast him on Skype, actually, because I couldn't go to Jerusalem, not without getting into trouble." Here too, the director's instincts paid off, as El Basha ended up winning the best actor award at the 2017 Venice Film Festival. Douieri recalls thinking at the time, "Wow, we're going to come back and release the film that we have such a prominent prize for." Instead, it gave a rallying cry to an organized effort against releasing the movie in Lebanon. In September, Doueiri was arrested at the airport after returning home from Italy.

"They said, 'We're going to have to arrest you.' And that's it. I went in front of a military tribunal and [was incarcerated] for hours and then, because of the prime minister, I was released," Douieri says. "He called and said, 'You can't arrest a filmmaker.' Especially at a time, which is very ironic, that very same week, the Lebanese army was fighting Isis in East Lebanon with the help of the American and the French armies."

These struggles and a battle to get the film even released in Lebanon make the Oscar nomination, the first for the Middle Eastern nation, even more sweet for Douieri and his "Insult" team.

"This is a great thing for the country. It's like winning a medal at the Olympics, or winning a football game," Douieri says. "From time to time, good news is good news for the whole country because it is the first time. But also, the reason I was overjoyed is because of the past that the film had been through."

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