By many accounts, American film makers displayed a lean crop of Academy Award contenders in 1988. But judging by the five nominees in the best foreign language category, it was a vintage year abroad.
Fittingly, the directors of all five nominated foreign language films were in town Monday for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ nominees symposium, marking the first time in the symposium’s 32 years that all nominees were represented.
It is the strongest, most diverse field of contenders within memory. Some of the nominees are better known to the public than others--the Danish film “Pelle the Conqueror” was a big winner at the Cannes Film Festival and the Spanish entry, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” has had a successful commercial run in the United States--but if the audience at Monday’s symposium had been polled, the results might have been a five-way tie.
There were warm receptions to the generous clips from each film:
--Gerard Corbiau’s “The Music Teacher” (Belgium), an elegant psychological study of an intense turn-of-the-century relationship between a retired opera star and his pupil. The film has just been picked up for American distribution by Orion Classics.
--Bille August’s “Pelle the Conqueror,” a harsh, powerful agrarian saga, also set early in the century, with a tender father-and-son relationship that won Max Von Sydow a best actor nomination as an aging, worn farm laborer.
--Istvan Szabo’s “Hanussen” (Hungary), an appropriately mesmerizing tale about a clairvoyant, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer,
whose predictions eventually made him a threat to the Third Reich.
--Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay!” (India), a poignant, bracing story of homeless youngsters struggling to survive in a big, poverty-stricken city.
--Pedro Almodovar’s hilarious “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” which suggests that women are the stronger sex whether they realize it or not. Almodovar has called the film his tribute to American comedy.
All five directors either wrote their films or their stories or collaborated on the scripts. “The Music Teacher” and “Salaam Bombay!” are first features.
Director George Schaefer, the symposium’s moderator, stressed how different the films are from each other and how none of them, with the possible exception of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” could have been made in Hollywood.
Almodovar did complain about the amount of commercial interruptions on Spanish TV and said only half-jokingly that, as a defense, he’d love to have been able to make all the commercials that would be interrupting his film when it aired.
Of all the films, “Salaam Bombay!” generated the most audience interest, since Nair, a Harvard-educated documentarian, brought a documentary immediacy to a fiction film that in fact required both intensive preparation in regard to her youthful non-professional cast and the flexibility of cinema verite . (In order to get a rain sequence, Nair actually shot from a brothel window while two prostitutes continued to entertain a client.)
From the start, Nair decided that only actual street kids would do (“They are ageless and children at the same time”) and picked two dozen youngsters out of the 130 originally considered for the key youthful roles. She explained that she then had to teach them not to act, since their notions of acting came from the flamboyant style of the popular Indian cinema.
Proceeds from charity premieres, she said, have gone toward the establishment of two learning centers for street children, one in Bombay, the other in Delhi.
Szabo, a four-time nominee--and a winner for “Mephisto,” his first collaboration with Brandauer--admitted that the one point on which he compromised was to name his film “Hanussen” at the request of his German producer Artur Brauner. He had wanted to give his hero a fictional name since so little is known of the actual Hanussen.
Only two of the directors expressed any interest in making an American film. August said he would like to make a film about the Americans involved in the Spanish Civil War; Nair said she would like to make a movie about what happens to a lottery winner.
After the symposium, the foreign directors were honored with a luncheon at Jimmy’s hosted by Schaefer and attended by a group of Hollywood-based directors that included Stanley Kramer, Norman Jewison, Billy Wilder, Martin Ritt, Arthur Hiller, Stanley Donen, Barry Levinson and Martha Coolidge.
Almodovar told Donen that his witty opening credits for “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” were inspired by Donen’s “Funny Face,” an homage that Donen said he had noticed.
Szabo spoke of what it had meant to him to be able to meet George Cukor, King Vidor, William Wyler, Rouben Mamoulian and Vincente Minelli at past luncheons.
Wilder said that he was dubious about directors honoring other directors and told of the incident a few years ago when he, John Huston and Akira Kurosawa presented the best director’s Oscar. Kurosawa had so much trouble getting the winner’s name out of the envelope, Wilder said, that he had to resist quipping, “Pearl Harbor, you could find.”
But this year it was Kramer who had the last word: “Please excuse me for leaving early, but I have a 2 o’clock appointment with a man with $25 million.”