Times Staff Writer

For the first time, the main discussion topic at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual foreign-language film-award symposium centered not on the five contenders for the best foreign-language-film Oscar but on the category’s nominating process.

Participating on the Saturday-morning panel at the Beverly Hilton were four of the directors of the nominated foreign films: Israel’s Uri Barbash, whose prison drama “Beyond the Walls” is a plea for an Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation; Spain’s Jose Luis Garci, whose “Double Feature,” a comedy about the vicissitudes of a screenwriting-directing team, is an homage to Hollywood movies; Argentina’s Maria Luisa Bemberg, whose “Camila” is a historical romance with strong political overtones; and the U.S.S.R.'s Pyotr Todorovsky, who acknowledged the influence of Chaplin and Fellini in his lyrical “War-Time Romance.”

Representing Switzerland’s “Dangerous Moves,” a drama about the Soviet Union’s top chess player competing with a dissident Soviet emigre for the world chess championship, was its producer, Arthur Cohn (“Moves’ ” writer-director Richard Dembo could not attend because he is working on a new film).


The feeling that this year’s five nominated foreign films do not represent the best that the world cinema has to offer has been so widespread among critics that it is even the subject of an article in this week’s Time magazine. Most critics who have seen all five nominated foreign-language films believe that Bertrand Tavernier’s “Sunday in the Country,” which wasn’t even submitted by France, is clearly superior to the nominees.

Such an oversight calls into question the academy’s long-standing practice of allowing each country to permit a committee to decide which movie will represent it in the Oscar sweepstakes. No solutions to the problem were offered, but it seems increasingly clear that eventually the academy will have to address the issue.

Cohn, a distinguished international film-industry veteran, was quick to defend the academy’s rules, however. He pointed out that two years after his film “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (directed by Vittorio De Sica) won the best foreign-language-film Oscar, he felt that his “A Brief Vacation,” which proved to be De Sica’s final film, was a better choice than the official entry, Francesco Rosi’s “Lucky Luciano.” The Italian committee believed it was time “to give somebody else a chance” to represent Italy, he said; “Luciano” was not among the five nominees, however.

Without mentioning Tavernier, who has been outspoken in his criticism of academy procedures, Cohn protested such “sour grapes” because, he said, they “don’t help.” He said that criticisms should be directed at each individual country’s selection-committee practices and not at the academy, which cannot be expected to view the annual output of a country like France, which he said produced about 150 pictures last year.

Cohn later spoke of the incalculable value of the foreign Oscar in garnering worldwide distribution for the winning film and lamented any change in policy that would result in the nomination of “three German films and two French films.”

Recently, West German director Volker Schlondorff, whose “Tin Drum” won the 1979 best foreign-language film Oscar, suggested that any foreign film that played Los Angeles before the end of the year of nomination should be automatically eligible, which is the rule for English-language films.

In response to Schlondorff’s suggestion, actress Nina Foch, a longtime member of the academy’s foreign-language film committee, said: “Fine, but how can we make sure that everybody sees these films playing in theaters?”

Saturday morning’s panel moderator, director George Schaefer, pointed out that the foreign and documentary film categories are truly the “most democratic” because the people who vote in those categories must see all the nominated films.

Diplomatically, actor Cesare Danova, another veteran of the foreign-language committee who also served as Garci’s interpreter, said that “The system works perfectly but the executive committee is always open to suggestions.”

That subtitles don’t translate everything was driven home in remarks made by the English-speaking Barbash.

First explaining that “Beyond the Walls” is entirely a work of fiction “but based in facts,” he stated emphatically that Palestinian terrorists (“or political prisoners, depending upon your point of view”) and common Israeli criminals are, in fact, housed in the same prison (“even in the same cells”). He added that incarcerated Israelis are political prisoners in a sense too because the vast majority of them are Sephardic Jews, who he said constitute Israel’s oppressed underclass.

Once again director Rouben Mamoulian, taking over in 1983 from his late friend George Cukor, organized a luncheon at Le Dome restaurant for the directors of the nominated foreign films.

The hosts--who this year included Schaefer, Milos Forman, Arthur Hiller, David Lean, Franklin Schaffner and Fred Zinneman--spoke of their reverence for the medium and for one another’s work. But like the symposium itself, this was a more astringent gathering than usual, thanks mainly to the tart remarks of Lean, who was frank about not only how difficult a time he had getting “A Passage to India” off the ground but also about how recent British-accented Oscar winners such as “Chariots of Fire” and “Gandhi” nearly didn’t get made at all.

Stressing his gratitude to Columbia--"the only studio that would touch ‘A Passage to India’ with a barge pole"--Lean wondered aloud whether “the people at the heads of studios can’t or won’t read.

“You Americans are fantastically generous, but when you think that David Puttnam could only just scrape together enough money to make ‘Chariots of Fire’ and how long it took (Richard Attenborough) to get to make ‘Gandhi’ it makes you wonder if there shouldn’t be a hell of a shake-up at the studios. People like Mayer, Selznick, Goldwyn, Cohn and Warner--what else you might say about them-- loved movies. I’m not sure that the people at the top today do like the movies!”