Mexico's 'Heli,' Poland's 'Walesa' among latest foreign Oscar entries

Posted by · 8:28 am · September 20th, 2013

National submissions continue to trickle in for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race, with the tally currently sitting at 37 entries. That’s a competitive number already, though when you consider that last year’s longlist contained nearly double that number of films, you realize just how much more crowded things are going to get before the deadline for entries — only 10 days away. Among the countries we’re waiting to hear from are such previous nominees (some of them with heavyweight possibilities this year) as Denmark, Israel, Italy, Canada, Iran and China. So the list of predicted nominees to your right, strong as it is, could change a lot in the coming weeks.

This week’s highest-profile new entry to the race comes from Mexico — a country that, last nominated three years ago for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Biutiful,” has been making commendably bold submissions of late. 2011’s drug-running thriller “Miss Bala” and 2012’s devastating school-bullying drama “After Lucia” were both several shades too bleak for Academy sensibilities. I don’t expect that to change with this year’s choice: Amat Escalante’s brutal underworld study “Heli,” which was one of the most controversial (and critically contentious) titles in Competition at Cannes this year.

Steven Spielberg’s jury handed Escalante the Best Director award for this structurally fragmented story of police corruption and cocaine trafficking, wherein one working-class family rather severely gets the brunt of both. It was one of the less popular wins of the festival, though there’s little denying the youngish provocateur’s formal flair. Exquisitely composed and and sensually vivid as “Heli” is, I personally thought it self-regarding and insubstantial, dressing up a rather unchallenging moral stance in imagery smugly calculated to shock. One particularly nightmarish sequence, combining full-frontal nudity with graphic torture, was a Cannes talking point — it’ll send many members of this largely genteel Academy branch scrambling for the doors.

So the film’s chances of surviving the general branch vote are approximately nil. Will the executive committee come to the rescue? I suspect not. “Miss Bala” and “After Lucia” were both richer, less emptily sensationalistic films that attracted a more unified critical following at Cannes; if they couldn’t make the cut, I find it hard to imagine “Heli” getting the green light. They’d probably have given themselves a better shot by selecting one of this year’s Un Certain Regard titles, the engrossing youth immigration tale “The Golden Cage,” but kudos to Mexico for throwing caution to the wind.

A safer bet might be Poland’s entry, which comes from 87-year-old Andrzej Wajda — a veteran both of his own industry and of this particular category. Arguably the most prominent and politically vital filmmaker in Polish history, Wajda has been entered in this category on seven previous occasions. Four of those films wound up with a nomination: 1975’s “The Promised Land,” 1979’s “The Maids of Wilko,” 1981’s “Man of Iron” (which also won him the Palme d’Or) and, most recently, 2007’s “Katyn.” All of them lost, though Wajda received an Honorary Oscar at the 1999 ceremony “in recognition of five decades of extraordinary film direction.”

No surprise, then, that his political biopic “Walesa: Man of Hope,” which premiered this month at the Venice Film Festival, has been chosen as this year’s Polish submission. As the title implies, it’s a companion piece to his landmark works of anti-Communist protest cinema, “Man of Marble” and the aforementioned, Tony Stark-free “Man of Iron.” The film, which follows the trajectory of Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa from dockyard laborer to Nobel Prize-winning people’s hero, was respectfully if not ecstatically received by critics at Venice (where it played out of competition) and subsequently Toronto. I missed it myself, but was informed by colleagues that it’s straightforward, impassioned storytelling, very much of a piece with Wajda’s previous work. That could well be enough for another nomination.

Two films with significant Filipino elements joined the race this week. One, obviously enough, is from the Philippines, though it comes with a twist of Hebrew. Hannah Espia’s debut feature “Transit” tells the story of single Filipino father working in Israel, forced to hide his children from the authorities after the Israeli government announces plans to deport the children of foreign workers. Winner of both Best Film and the Audience Award at the Filipino-focused Cinemalaya Film Festival in July, it was selected from a nine-film shortlist that also included Brillante Mendoza’s Venice 2012 entry “Thy Womb.”

The second Flipino entry in the race, somewhat less obviously, comes from the United Kingdom: British director Sean Ellis’s crime drama “Metro Manila” premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award in the World Cinema division. (Eagle-eyed Oscar buffs may recall that Ellis was a Best Live Action Short nominee a few years ago for “Cashback.”) It tells the story of an impoverished farmer who moves his family to the country’s capital in search of a better life, only to become involved with an corrupt armored truck company. It opens in the UK today, in fact, so I’ll check it out in the coming week and see if we have a contender on our hands. It’s worth noting, though, that the UK has only scored nominations in this category with British-set, Welsh-language features.

Finally, Switzerland has entered the race with “More Than Honey,” Markus Imhoof’s polished documentary on the growing endangerment of the world’s bee population. It’s travelled the festival circuit extensively (it played Toronto last year) and has played well with audiences and critics alike, but it’s hard to see it generating much, uh, buzz in this category.

Check out the updated submissions list here.

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