OSCAR GUIDE: Best Foreign Language Film

Posted by · 11:06 am · February 18th, 2010

The Milk of SorrowThe foreign Language film category has been marred in controversy for the last few years. When films like “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days” and “Persepolis” were unceremoniously nixed from the field a few years ago, a special new “executive committee” was established to have final say on the fallen, hopefully saving the committee (which has to see all the titles to vote) some embarrassment.

Still, there is an inherent bias throughout the votership here. Violence rarely plays well, and they are loathe to be accepting of non-traditional filmmaking. One need only look back one year to 2008’s “Departures” upset for evidence. For thee reasons, the category always seems ready to surprise.

The nominees are:

“Ajami” (Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani)
“The Milk of Sorrow (La Teta Asustada)” (Claudia Llosa)
“A Prophet (Un Prophète)” (Jacques Audiard)
“The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos)” (Juan José Campanella)
“The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)” (Michael Haneke)

When it came to the annual narrowing of the submitted titles to nine semi-final contenders, there was at least one film that needed the executive committee’s help in staying afloat. And against all odds, that film managed a nomination at the end of the day. It’s not worth embarrassing the title in this space, but suffice it to say, it probably has no chance at appealing with the entire committee.

One film that was well-positioned with relevant themes and an intriguing director tandem from the start was “Ajami.” A dramatic examination of religious conflict in a region of Israel populated by Christians, Muslims and Jews, the film has frequently been categorized as a sort of “Crash” of the Middle Eastern conflict. At the helm are Scandar Copti, a Palestinian, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. But while conflicting ideologies might make for a nice headline for the film, it doesn’t always yield a solid piece of work. The pro- and anti-zionist tandem of Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner on “Munich” comes to mind. “Ajami” is a sometimes confusing tale, due largely to an arbitrary broken narrative structure that keeps the emotional beats from connecting. And it’s also a violent film, which could ultimately hurt it.

Perhaps the least conventional narrative of the bunch is Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow,” which was a surprising entry in the field. The film is interesting in that it is concerned with the psychology of an entire country. Llosa dramatizes a folk tale in Peru that says the violence and rape endured by the country’s women for 12 years during the Maoist uprising was passed on to their children through breast milk. It’s an intriguing study of how the wounds of militaristic conflict never fully heal, which certainly makes it compelling from a zeitgeist standpoint. But the narrative is incredibly inaccessible, with a measured pace that never lifts it off the ground or pushes it forward in any dynamic way. The nomination will most certainly have to be the reward here, because it is not up the committee’s alley.

Speaking of which, Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” is far and away the most accomplished of the foreign language nominees this year. This means, of course, it is destined to lose the Oscar. The French prison drama charts the rise to power of a young Arab, which gives Tahar Rahim the opportunity to offer up one of the best performances of the last 10 years. But the film is undoubtedly the most violent of the lot, and that will most certainly give voters pause. “Gomorrah,” a frequently cited parallel despite a vastly different narrative, was snubbed last year largely due to violence. That Audiard’s film made it this far is already a bit of an accomplishment, but it will have its day once more at the end of the year, when you can count on its showing up on any number of top 10 lists.

If I were to place a bet on any of the nominees, I would frankly double down on Juan José Campanella’s “The Secret in Their Eyes.” It is a powerful tale that at first glance appears to be a conventional police drama, but as the narrative unfolds, its themes begin to register and it takes on a whole other shape. The story, in the briefest terms, concerns an Argentinian federal agent’s quest to solve a murder that was swept up cleanly and sloppily by a crooked justice system. Told in flashback, the film is framed by the agent, 25 years later, haunted by the case’s memories, and indeed, the memories of a love that got away. The film is about so many things, really, which is its greatest strength. And it packs a powerful narrative punch in the third act that is sure to get it across the finish line.

The most critically acclaimed film of the bunch is “The White Ribbon” from Golden Globe winner Michael Haneke. After years of working, and establishing quite the following, Haneke only received his first nomination this year. So an award for his efforts would be quite novel, but I’m given slight pause by the unconventional nature of the narrative. While the themes may be potent, and the craftsmanship certainly respected, this just isn’t the manner in which this committee likes its stories told. They like crisp, simple, plot-driven films that aren’t overly demanding, and Haneke’s film misses in all those categories. Still, it’s been a long and healthy run for the film, one that began with a Palme d’Or way back in Cannes. There is an outside possibility the film takes the prize for prestige alone, but I’m doubtful.

Will win: “The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos)”
Could win: “The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)”
Should win: “A Prophet (Un Prophète)”

Should have been here: “London River”

Ricardo Darín in The Secret in Their Eyes

What do you think deserves to win this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film? Have your say in the sidebar poll!




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31 responses so far

  • 1 2-18-2010 at 11:33 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I still believe The White Ribbon and A Prophet are both the frontrunners here meaning they won’t win and any of the other three can take it. Very difficult. Another tie-breaking category for the pools.

  • 2 2-18-2010 at 11:40 am

    Clayton said...

    Obviously, I’m disappointed that Madeo (Mother) isn’t here, but, yeah, it’s pretty violent.

    Looking forward to seeing A Prophet when it opens in Vancouver, but I often don’t see eye-to-eye with critics when it comes to prison-set dramas, and if it, like Hunger, focuses primarily on the extended physical suffering of its lead character, I might find it to be an equally tedious experience. (Re: Hunger, good acting and cinematography, but it generated little in the way of psychological interest from me…mind you, I just about find the whole concept of hunger strikes to be self-indulgently idiotic, so…)

  • 3 2-18-2010 at 11:41 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yeah, “A Prophet” is entirely too good to win. My money, like Kris’s, is squarely on the pensioner romance.

  • 4 2-18-2010 at 11:52 am

    Estefan said...

    Haven’t seen the other ones, but I hated The Milk of Sorrow so effin’ much, that I hope it doesn’t win.

  • 5 2-18-2010 at 11:57 am

    Benito Delicias said...

    I hope Secreto or Prophet wins. Amazing films.

  • 6 2-18-2010 at 12:15 pm

    Ben said...

    I can’t argue with your pick here, especially since you called Departures last year. This is one of the categories where precursors aren’t as consistent with the Academy selections and it’s better to go with what seems more “Oscar friendly”.

    But there needs to be some serious reform by the Academy when you can say a movie is “entirely too good to win.” The winners here seem to be more reflective of what fits best into the ideals of traditional Western storytelling than what actually represents the finest in International film making.

  • 7 2-18-2010 at 1:17 pm

    Jessica said...

    More Academy members need to make it to the screenings so it’s not just the old people voting.

  • 8 2-18-2010 at 2:13 pm

    Maxim said...

    Munich is probably the greatest most misunderstood movie of the decade. It is so much better than all of the other nominees of that year combined, it’s not even funny.
    Absolutely solid, deliberate, not at all that conflicting but complicated and 100% loving but completely grounded in reality. Munich is exactly the kind of movie that will survive the test of time.

    In any case, the only thing that comes to my mind (and I don’t mean that as an insult especially since I remember where you are from)is that despite all of your intelligence you could stand to mature a bit. You just strike me as a well read but very green type. Maybe in a couple of years, I’ll see some actual subtance behind the well written but mostly empty verses.
    Also, I am so sick of people bringing up the word Zionism completelly without reason. Partially because I regret the term even has to exist and partially because, I dunno, I wish someone would use words like patriot or citizen every now and then.

    Misunderstading what I mean may actually be a good test of actual maturity.

  • 9 2-18-2010 at 2:15 pm

    N8 said...

    “A Prophet” is the only film with a rightful claim to this award, but you’re right. It won’t win.

    “The White Ribbon”, by contrast, is overrated.

    I enjoyed “The Secret in Their Eyes” and was quite struck with the muted simplicity of “The Milk of Sorrow”. Haven’t seen “Ajami” yet.

  • 10 2-18-2010 at 2:17 pm

    Maxim said...

    Nevermind the “where you coming from line”. I knew who I was addressing but for some reason at that moment I thought of Guy (to who this actually may imply even more) and the fact that he was from South Africa. Must have sounded totally uncalled for. My bad.

    And not to be even more confusing, let me add: regardless, of what I said above, I too pay attention to your predictions in this race for I too remember how you called the last year’s race and how confident you seemed.

  • 11 2-18-2010 at 3:04 pm

    h.h. said...

    I haven’t see Ajami, so my opinion is on the other 4 contenders: I think that if The white ribbon wins, it’d be an oscar for haneke’s carreer. If El secreto wins, it’d be a price to a really good all-fashioned movie. (Right now I think the oscar it’s between these two films) If A prophete wins, then, they’ll be awarding the cinema of the future… And if The milk of sorrow win they’ll be recongnizing overall the political and social subject of the film… (But I doubt that the oscar is going to one of these films)

  • 12 2-18-2010 at 3:14 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    The whole outburst was uncalled for, Maxim, no matter who you were directing it to. My note on Munich was an aside without a lot of context (which I’d gladly offer if the piece was about Spielberg’s film in-depth), but the rant about being “green” or not “mature” or whatever (even if you did think you were addressing Guy), offensive, certainly unfounded and, yes, uncalled for.

  • 13 2-18-2010 at 3:19 pm

    Lance said...

    “The Secret in their Eyes” is just a basic thriller and from their choices in the past this group often chooses something more substantial.

    “The White Ribbon” will win because the academy loves movies about Germany and the Holocaust. It also feels like a classic and they have often rewarded directors who are highly regarded like Heneke is.

  • 14 2-18-2010 at 3:26 pm

    Lance said...

    Is the foriegn film committee so bad? How many classics has the overall best picture category failed to give a win to? If you use the AFI list, I would say they have a pretty terrible record.

    If you look at the list of the best foreign language film winners it is filled with so many classics. They really haven’t missed that many. I say they have a much better track record.

  • 15 2-18-2010 at 3:39 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    It’s more than just a basic thriller. And judging by the reaction at the Academy screening last night, it went over like gangbusters.

    And yeah, the committee is really that bad. As of late, especially. In my opinion.

  • 16 2-18-2010 at 3:50 pm

    Douglas said...

    Should have been there: “Samson and Delilah”

  • 17 2-18-2010 at 4:05 pm

    Lance said...

    Well, they have a much better track record with me. Just in the past ten years they’ve awarded some of my favorite films of all time: “All About my Mother” “Crouching Tiger…” “The Barbarian Invasion” “the Lives of Others” and “The Counterfeiters” The overall BP winners in the past ten years – maybe two would make my list.

    What ever the case, this is my FAVORITE category because it gives me ideas for movies to see that I normally would miss. It’s so sad that there are so many great films out there from so many different countries that never even make it over here. I especially love learning about the culture and history from these different countries. I wish there was a foreign film channel – I would watch it all the time.

    When the season is over, maybe you guys could highlight some films from different countries that you would recommend for your readers to watch.

  • 18 2-18-2010 at 7:32 pm

    RandomThoughts said...

    You’ll be happy to learn that “A Prophet” has been named Best Film at the London Film Critics Awards.

  • 19 2-18-2010 at 8:19 pm

    Kevin said...

    Lance, you echoed my thoughts perfectly…we should become friends! I probably watch double the number of foreign films than English-language ones and, in general, they tend to be more daring or unconventional takes (perhaps due to less studio interference).

    Definitely a shame that some adventurous and powerful films – like China’s “City of Life and Death”, Australia’s “Samson and Delilah”, Greece’s “Dogtooth” and Romania’s “Police, Adjective” were all overlooked for nominations – obviously the selection committee isn’t doing their job properly.

    I enthusiastically second Lance’s suggestion – more foreign film recommendations would be much appreciated!

    A final note on the category: While I usually trust your judgement Kris (and will probably end up predicting “Eyes” to take the prize home), something tells me this just might be Haneke’s year. The mainstream support indicated by his Globe win is quite telling.

  • 20 2-18-2010 at 9:35 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    As a point of reference:

    The Globes are voted on by 90 foreign journalists, nearly all of them Europeans, who responded to the themes of the film.

    The foreign language committee in the Academy is a bunch of white Americans, many of them on the older side, and many of which didn’t like the film.

  • 21 2-18-2010 at 9:46 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***The most critically acclaimed film of the bunch is “The White Ribbon”…***

    Mmmm… I don’t think that’s true. Check Rotten Tomatoes; “A Prophet” is ahead.

  • 22 2-18-2010 at 10:08 pm

    Kevin said...

    Kris, note that I did preface my comments by saying that I will probably end up taking your lead and predicting “Eyes” to win the prize (seeing as your Departures pick was right on the money). I just don’t think the foreign film race is anywhere near as cut and dried as, for example, Best Actor.

  • 23 2-19-2010 at 12:49 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “I knew who I was addressing but for some reason at that moment I thought of Guy (to who this actually may imply even more) and the fact that he was from South Africa. Must have sounded totally uncalled for.”

    And it doesn’t sound uncalled for — not to mention condescending in the extreme — when you’re referring to my South African nationality? (What, I get allowances for being articulate despite coming from a third-world country? Whether or not that’s what you meant, that’s how it reads.)

    I have no idea what you’re getting at in your well-written but mostly empty rant, Maxim, but I’m afraid it makes you look like the greenest person here.

    No doubt I have just failed your maturity test. I can live with that.

  • 24 2-19-2010 at 5:51 am

    Simon Warrasch said...

    THE WHITE RIBBON!!!!

    Runner Up: A Prohet

    That’s all i have to say!

  • 25 2-19-2010 at 9:45 am

    stylewriter said...

    It’s time for the Academy to dump Blue Ribbon panels and country submissions. The category was created to introduce the world’s cinema. We now live in an age where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon steamrolls to a $100 million gross, Art house theaters reside in almost every major metropolitan area, and the Internet has moviegoers knowing about movies months and sometimes years before they come out. It’s time to allow the category to be like Best Picture and Animated Feature: if you’re released in a theater, you qualify. If you aren’t, you don’t.

  • 26 2-19-2010 at 10:35 am

    Bill M. said...

    @Stylewriter I partly agree with you on your comment.

    The AMPAS wants to get the diversity of 50-60 countries submitting their picks (the process of a particular picking what film to submit is flawed but it’s the process nonetheless), The White Ribbon would have been the only eligible film to be nominated for the Oscar if you’re saying that it should apply to the rules of distribution during the calendar year. Annually at least 3 nominees if not 4 or 5 don’t have distribution locked in prior to the Oscar nomination.

    To fix up the branch I say allow 3 films per country to be submitted, if a country like Albania submits a film they will hedge their bets obviously on one film since their production totals aren’t very high. But countries like Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Mexico, Japan, etc could have at the very least 5 worthy submissions which would be better films than 80-90% of these smaller international cinema’s so it would be fair if the bigger countries have the opportunity to submit up to 3 films. For instance this year France could have submitted: Summer Hours, A Prophet, 35 Shots of Rum, The Beaches of Agnes, Coco before Chanel while Germany along with the White Ribbon would have sent Woman in Berlin, and on.

  • 27 2-19-2010 at 12:29 pm

    Matthew Lucas said...

    I really, really didn’t like EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS. I found it bland and conventional, something that belongs on television more than theaters, which probably means it will play well with this branch. And I wasn’t a huge fan of THE MILK OF SORROW either, which is beautifully crafted but I agree about the inaccessibility. It’s heavy handed symbolism with the potato is also a HUGE drawback.

    I like A PROPHET, but kind of had the opposite reaction, where I think it is overrated and THE WHITE RIBBON is the one that deserves the attention. I thought Haneke’s film was one of the best of the year, and I really hope to see it go all the way on Oscar night.

  • 28 2-19-2010 at 6:38 pm

    movieman said...

    Will win: “A Prophet”
    Could win: “The Secret in Their Eyes”
    Should win: none
    Should have been here: none

    I haven’t seen any of these films. My predictions are based on buzz only.

  • 29 2-25-2010 at 8:44 pm

    Diedre said...

    I saw the movies nominated by the Academy for the Best Foreign Movie Award and
    I was quiet impressed by The Milk of Sorrow. This movie portraits very intelligently
    The violence against women issue which is so current world wide. It firstly focuses
    on the effect on the victims as human beings and later in the impact they have in their
    children which are collateral victims of the violence. The movie shows violence against
    women as consequence of terrorism but it is obvious that in any war situation this problem would arise. The psychological aspect of it, makes the movie really interesting, the victims are marked for life out those horrible experiences. However, it takes strong women to get over those terrible times, start again and give themselves a chance in life. In the end you see Fausta a child of rape getting rid off all her fears and looking ahead with hope without feelings of hate or bitterness. It is a history that could be taking place in the middle east, south america, asia or africa these days. That makes it a very current topic!

    On the other hand, the acting was really convincing. Magaly Solier was superb as a young women which is affected emotionally and psychologically by violence. Her caracter Fausta is also naive and defenseless Against the hypocrisy of society and injustice. She was able to reflect all that effortlessly. Fantastic performance!.

    The movie has a number of excellent photographic shots which gives it a very professional touch, pretty unexpected for a low budget picture. Moreover, the scenography tells the history of the victims of terrorism which had to leave their homes in the country side to find a safe place near the capital to start again. That is the reality of many underdeveloped countries where people migrates to the capitals escaping from something such as: poverty, abandonment, unemployment, civil wars, etc. This problem is not often displayed in the big screen.

    In my opinion, The Milk of Sorrow is the best foreign movie made last year followed by Ajami which is also a brave representation of another current world wide issue: The situation in Palestine. The daily life for those who live in that place (where death is part of the background), which becomes harder as tolerance issues arise. However, it can be difficult at times to understand how the history unfolds. Very realistic scenography though!