Morocco strikes first in the foreign language Oscar race

Posted by · 12:09 pm · August 17th, 2012

I’m surprised it’s taken this long for me to have to write one of these posts — international submissions for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar usually start trickling through in July or so. So expect a lot more of these announcements before the October 1 deadline for submissions. We’ll be keeping track of them — or doing our best to, as they begin flooding in in the thick of festival season — on our Contenders page for the category.

Anyway, Morocco is first out of the gate this year, having selected Faouzi Bensaidi’s socially-minded thriller “Death for Sale” as their best hope for awards glory. Perhaps the country’s selectors are feeling a little more confident, having unexpectedly cracked the nine-film longlist for the first time back in January with the under-the-radar prison drama “Omar Killed Me,” and therefore having come tantalizingly close to their first Oscar nomination. Not a prolific film industry by any means, Morocco has only entered the race eight times since 1977.

For those of you who don’t know the drill in this eternally tricky category, here’s how it works. Rather than selecting the Best Foreign Language Film nominees from the year’s eligible releases in the US, as is the system in all other feature film categories (including, as of this year, Best Documentary Feature), the Academy instead invites all countries to independently submit one film to represent their industry in the race. It needn’t be a 2012 release in the US — though it does have to have been released in its home country at some point in the 12 months preceding the October 1 deadline.

It’s a system designed to level the playing field between modest film-producing nations like, say, Morocco and world cinema powerhouses like France, though it has its own problems. All too often, local politics and committee mentality conspire to prevent countries submitting their most exciting or most internationally acclaimed films: as in 2002, when Spain chose the pleasant but minor “Mondays in the Sun” ahead of Almodovar’s masterful “Talk To Her,” which wound up winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Sometimes, however, a counter-intuitive pick pays off: eyebrows were raised last year when Belgium slighted the Dardennes’ Cannes favorite “The Kid With a Bike” for the far bleaker “Bullhead,” but their tough-sit selection wound up on the final nominee list.

Once the submissions list has been finalised in October, the Academy begins formally screening all the contenders to volunteer voters in the category: it’s at this stage that you can begin to hear rumblings about what’s really impressing them. In January, the top six vote-getters from the branch voters are joined by a further three picks from a smaller executive committee — designed to rescue worthy but less broadly appealing films that might have slipped through the cracks in the initial voting. From this official longlist of nine, the branch then votes again to determine the final five nominees.

It is, year after year, a category with no safe bets whatsoever: for every winner like “A Separation” that seems predestined, there’s another critical and/or festival darling that fails to impress voters as much as something far less celebrated. (Hello, Academy Award winner “Departures.”) So, at this stage, Morocco has as good a chance as any of making the grade, even if “Death for Sale” was hardly a talking point at the Berlin Film Festival back in February, where it premiered. (I confess this is the first I’ve heard of it.)

Bensaidi’s film is apparently a politically-tinged noir, centering on a petty thief who turns police informant to free his prostitute girlfriend from prison, only to fall in with old underworld acquaintances for one last heist. Reviews at Berlin were encouraging rather than ecstatic: Variety’s Alissa Simon wrote that the film’s “gripping realistic digressions… make for far more compelling viewing than the stylized noir theatrics.” It did, however, win the CICAE Award in Berlin’s Panorama strand, and will pop up again in Toronto.

One country that has a stronger on-paper case for a nomination than most is Denmark — yesterday, the country announced their shortlist of three possible submissions, and their selectors are spoilt for choice between three very Academy-friendly propositions: Susanne Bier’s “Love Is All You Need,” Bille August’s “The Passion of Marie” and Nikolaj Arcel’s “A Royal Affair” (already on release in the States).

At first glance, the obvious choice would appear to be Bier. The internationally renowned director has brought her country its only two nominees in the category in over 20 years: “After the Wedding” in 2006, and “In a Better World” in 2010, which wound up taking the gold. Her latest, reportedly in a lighter, more comic vein than those earnest melodramas, underlines her crossover appeal (particularly to voters with less exotic tastes) with a cast that includes Pierce Brosnan and Paprika Steen. The film will premiere in a few weeks at the Venice Film Festival, where I’ll be sure to report on it.

Bier isn’t the only Oscar winner in the running, however: August won the prize in 1988 for “Pelle the Conqueror,” which led to an English-language career (trading in such Europuddings as “The House of the Spirits” and “Les Miserables”) that never quite caught fire. Five years after his flop Mandela drama “Goodbye Bafana,” he has finally returned to his home country for a period biopic, depicting the tempestuous romance between 19th-century Skagen painters Marie and Peder Severin Kroyer.  

As baity as that sounds, however, my hunch is that another historical biopic could be the one to watch: it may sound like rote corset porn, but “A Royal Affair,” for all its hoop-skirted splendor, is a surprisingly brisk and invigorating account of the love triangle between 18th-century Danish monarch King Christian VII, his queen and the court physician — played by Mads Mikkelsen. The film took critics by surprise at Berlin, where it wound up winning Best Screenplay and Best Actor for Mikkel Folsgaard, and his since done healthy arthouse business internationally. If selected, it’s easy to imagine voters warming to it, and it’s a dark horse to watch in the design categories as well.

The Danes won’t announce their final selection for another month, but I’m intrigued to see what shape of bait they opt for. (EDIT: A commenter below quite understandably asked why Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” — which was very well received at Cannes, and won the Best Actor prize for Mikkelsen — isn’t in the running. The answer, curiously enough, is that it’s only being released in Denmark in January 2013, months after other European territories get it, and therefore falls outside the eligibility window. It’s an unusual situation, but the film remains a strong possibility for next year’s submission.)

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