Greece and Poland first to enter foreign Oscar race

Posted by · 9:36 am · July 21st, 2011

The Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film — or, to use its formal title, Most Inoffensively Socially Conscious Non-English-Language Feature To Pass Through The Academy’s Narrow Qualifying Hoops Whilst Remaining Sufficiently Low-Profile For Voters To Feel Like They Discovered It For Themselves — is truly the gift that gives all year round.

Scarcely have the previous year’s nominees finally trickled out to US theaters, to a chorus of polite indifference, than countries begin formally submitting their chosen contenders for the next year’s award — and the baseless speculation and generally befuddled head-scratching begins anew. In the past few weeks, Greece and Poland have become the first countries to enter the race ahead of the Academy’s October 1 deadline — and while such early birds are rarely heard from again in the game, these two films (both from female directors, and one of which I’ve seen) are rather higher on the radar.

Poland, in particular, appears to have intensively focus-grouped the Academy’s foreign-language branch and subsequently created their Oscar entry in a purpose-built lab: Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness” is a true-life Holocaust drama about a Leopold Socha, a reformed petty criminal who heroically helped numerous Jewish refugees hide in the sewers of Nazi-occupied Lvov.

If that premise isn’t baity enough — insert perennial joke about voters’ predilection for WWII stories here — Holland is a name director with some Oscar history. Now a busy figure on the American TV scene (she was Emmy-nominated last year for directing the “Treme” pilot), she received a Best Adapted Screenplay nod in 1991 for another Holocaust survival tale, “Europa, Europa” — largely, it is assumed, as a rebuke to Germany for controversially failing to submit the widely acclaimed film for the foreign Oscar race. (To add insult to injury, the German committee refused to submit any film that year, claiming none of the possibilities were good enough.)

Holland was very likely cheated out of an easy win that year (the Oscar eventually went to a far lesser WWII pic, the Italian trifle “Mediterraneo”), and if any members of the branch have memories that stretch back to the 1991 race, that could work in her favor. Another major plus point: Sony Pictures Classics have already snapped up US distribution rights to the film. SPC know what they’re doing, having backed four of the last five winners in this category, and several nominees besides. Things are looking good for the still-winless Poland to score their first nomination in this category since Andrzej Wajda’s “Katyn” (a WWII drama, would you believe) in 2007.

By contrast, Greece’s entry “Attenberg” has no such baitiness going for it — though it does have a certain practical and aesthetic kinship with 2010’s most eyebrow-raising nominee, “Dogtooth.” Yorgos Lanthimos’s critically beloved but tough-sell story of parental repression and perversion was presumably assisted into the nominee circle by the executive committee formed by the Academy to counter the general voters’ milquetoast tendencies; now the sophomore feature of Lanthimos’s producer and protégée Athin Rachel Tsangari — produced, in turn, by Lanthimos — will be hoping for a similar helping hand.

I wouldn’t count on it getting one — not least because, in the interests of parity, the executive committee is unlikely to use its powers on two such closely related films just one year apart. “Attenberg” could, as I wrote at last year’s Venice Film Festival, be dismissed as “Dogtooth”-lite: in addition to common themes of sexual discovery and youth alienation, the films share a similar brooding, deadpan humor. (The curious title, if you’re wondering, stems from the heroine’s obsession with revered British wildlife documentarian David Attenborough.)

But Tsangari’s gentler, more wistful film can stand on its own two feet: its sad-shuffle comedy and acute heartbreak have stuck with me over the months, while the Best Actress award won at Venice by beguiling newcomer Ariane Labed (over feisty competition, including eventual Oscar champ Natalie Portman) was one of the sharpest calls made by Quentin Tarantino’s jury. Strand Releasing have the US rights; read my short review here and check out the trailer below.

[Photo: Strand Releasing]

→ 10 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

10 responses so far

  • 1 7-21-2011 at 9:41 am

    Will said...

    Haha. This article is ace, Mr. Lodge.

  • 2 7-21-2011 at 10:22 am

    Anthony B. said...

    Is there a reason so many countries wait until the last minute to choose their submissions?

    I know most countries have their own nominating procedures, but it seems like having the submissions in earlier would give the films more time to gain traction and notoriety in the US.

  • 3 7-21-2011 at 11:24 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I know which one out of these two I’d like to see!

  • 4 7-21-2011 at 2:53 pm

    Knative said...

    That Polish one is probably going to win, eh?
    Hope it’s good.

  • 5 7-21-2011 at 3:37 pm

    Michael W. said...

    It’s always fun to see what is being chosen from the different countries.

    And being from Denmark and Denmark being the current holder of the foreign language titel, I’m of course excited to see what we will submit.

    I will be very surprised though if it doesn’t turn out to be “A Family”.

    It won the main jury award at last year’s LA Film Festival and also took home the critics’ award at Berlin last year. So it could definitely be a contender for a nom.

  • 6 7-21-2011 at 4:13 pm

    Bill_the_Bear said...

    Anthony B., some countries might wait until a film that they want to nominate is released. (For example, Canada waited until late September last year because “Incendies” didn’t hit theatres until September 17.

    I don’t really know what Canadian film will make it this year. One possibility is “En terrains connus,” which won the Jury Prize at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival.

    Another is “Café de Flore,” which is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, whose “C.R.A.Z.Y.” was also nominated a few years ago. That one won’t be released until late September, though. (And the trailer looksnot all that great, if you ask me.)

  • 7 7-21-2011 at 4:45 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Anthony B: As Bill says, I’m sure a lot of countries simply wait so as to have the largest selection of seen titles to choose from. (Some possibilities may only premiere at Venice or Toronto in September, for example.)

    Getting submitted a few months early for the Oscar race would make little difference to a film’s US profile as long as it remains unreleased — and the submitting country obviously has no say on the film’s US release date.

  • 8 7-22-2011 at 12:13 am

    Simon Warrasch said...

    Ariane Labed won last year over Natalie Portman the Coppa Volpi at the Film Festival in Venice! But i have my doubts if she will be nominated for an Academy Award! I don’t think so! Nevertheless it was an incredible performance!

  • 9 7-22-2011 at 3:03 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Thanks, Simon. I actually do mention Labed’s Venice win in the article. I agree that it’s a wonderful performance — though yes, there is, sadly, zero chance of her being recognised by the Academy.

    (PS. Just a friendly suggestion — you might want to ease up on the exclamation marks. It reads a little like shouting.)

  • 10 7-22-2011 at 3:31 am

    Steve G said...

    Your description of the ‘Most Inoffensively Socially Conscious Non-English-Language Feature…’ nails it. Though I’d maybe insert ‘and mildly spiritually uplifting’ after ‘socially conscious’ because you’ve got to feel that you’ve done something worthy just by watching it, you know?