The foreign-language-film Oscar: More polyglot shouting than the United Nations


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If it’s time for the Oscar nominations for foreign-language films, it must be time for a kerfuffle involving an Italian picture.

Two years ago, the foreign-language Oscar committee overlooked Matteo Garrone’s Naples mob drama ‘Gomorrah.’ Some hailed it as the best foreign-language film of the year, but the Oscar committee left off the movie from its shortlist of nine films, prompting a call for hit-man justice.


On Wednesday, it was the country itself that went the unlikely -- and, to some film buffs, unconscionable -- route of choosing as its official academy selection Paolo Virzi’s dramedy ‘The First Beautiful Thing’ over the American cineaste favorite ‘I Am Love.’

The Tilda Swinton-starring Russo-Italo drama has gained festival acclaim and has been an art-house hit in the U.S., grossing nearly $5 million. But the country opted for ‘Thing,’ which follows a prototypical Italian mother over different stages of her life. (Swinton is still a contender for a best actress nomination, so fans of her film shouldn’t feel too upset.)

[UPDATE: Tom Quinn, senior vice president at distributor Magnolia, sent us the following reaction to Italy’s decision: ‘Of course we’re disappointed the film was overlooked in the Italian nomination process, but unfortunately that’s not uncommon in the world of worthy foreign language contenders. We’re deeply in love with the film and believe it has several chances of being nominated. So regardless of the foreign nomination we’re moving full steam ahead with an aggressive awards campaign for Tilda, Luca (Guadagnino, the director) and the film.’]

The foreign-language-film race has already started to heat up elsewhere around the world. Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Incendies’ is clearly a favorite; the French-Canadian movie about Middle East-immigrant-themed issues had a strong reception in Telluride and Toronto. Israel, which has been nominated for an Oscar three years running, selected Eran Riklis’ ‘The Human Resources Manager,’ a black comedy about the titular bureaucrat who must return the body of an immigrant killed in a terrorist attack.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s ‘Biutiful,’ in which Javier Bardem plays a man struggling to raise his children, was tabbed earlier this week as the Mexican entry and is gaining attention in part because of its high-profile star and director. Cannes favorites ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ (Thailand) and ‘Of Gods and Men’ (France) are on many pundits’ list, as is China’s entry, ‘Aftershock,’ and politically minded titles such as Brazil’s ‘Lula, the Son of Brazil’ and Afghanistan’s ‘Black Tulip.’

Of course, actually trying to handicap the foreign-language-film race -- the deadline for submissions is Friday, with the shortlist of nine and then the five nominees to follow -- is always tricky. There’s often a quirky story line or theme as a country’s internal politics may trump what stateside pundits prefer. And the Oscar committee itself has a history of overlooking movies such as ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 days’ and ‘Persepolis’ from even its shortlist of nine films, a move that prompted some changes to the rules a few years back.


Little, however, may compare with the 1992 controversy of the Uruguayan entry, ‘A Place in the World.’ The ensemble story set in post-Peron Argentina had been submitted by Uruguay and garnered an Oscar nomination. But after other entrants cried foul, the academy launched a probe and found that Uruguay actually had little to do with the movie, which was in almost all key respects an Argentine production. The movie ended up having its nomination rescinded. So Italy, at least you’re not Uruguay.

-- Steven Zeitchik