The Barbarian Selections

Certainly the biggest surprise in this year's Oscar nominations were the four major nods to Brazil's "City of God," a hard-hitting look at the slum children of Rio. The movie was nominated for directing, editing, screenplay and cinematography. Funny thing is, last year Brazil submitted "City of God" as its entry in the foreign-film category--and it didn't even make the final five. (Movies qualify for foreign-film consideration the year they open in their home country. They are eligible in all other categories the year in which they open in the United States.)

The foreign-film nominating process has been a scandal for decades. This year, things have finally reached the boiling point. In a front-page story in Variety last week, many Academy members were calling for a revamping of the foreign-film committee. A similar fuss erupted a few years back over the documentary selections. The documentary branch cleaned up its act, revised the way films were chosen, and this year came up with five fine selections. For many reasons, the foreign-film dilemma is much harder to fix.

This year, 56 countries submitted movies, and from all accounts it was a banner year, the best in ages. And that's the problem. With one (arguably two) exceptions, the best movies were snubbed by the committee. The five foreign-language finalists are the French-Canadian "The Barbarian Invasions," "Evil" from Sweden, "The Twilight Samurai" from Japan, the Netherlands entry "Twin Sisters" and "Zelary" from the Czech Republic. The public has no reason to be outraged by the selections because most of these names will ring no bells. Only "The Barbarian Invasions"--considered the front runner for the Oscar--has opened in U.S. theaters. Three of the others will debut soon. But after having seen four of the five nominees (Miramax was unable to show me "Twin Sisters") and eight other films that were in contention, trust me, there's cause for alarm.

Year after year the nominating committee favors middlebrow, middle-of-the-road movies. Sentimental humanism is the favored mode. Movies that touch on World War II or the Holocaust and movies about children and grandparents go to the head of the line. European movies dominate (this is Japan's first nomination since 1981) The problem is that only Academy members can volunteer to be on the selection committee, and overwhelmingly the Academy members who have the time on their hands to take on this daunting job are retired. And, as one member quipped to Variety, it tends to skew "way retired." (With so many movies to view, the committee is split into three groups, each assigned 18 films, of which they must see at least 14) The younger members (in this context, "young" means 40s and 50s) are the most unhappy with the results and are leading the call for recasting the committee. But recruiting fresh blood is easier said than done, especially in the new shortened Oscar schedule, when there is less time to screen all 56 movies. How many working filmmakers have the time or inclination to volunteer?

There have been far worse movies nominated than the five this year. But given what they had to choose from, the committee's choices are safe and unimaginative.

Take "Evil." This melodramatic account of sadism and class snobbery in a Swedish private boys' school in the 1950s isn't dull, but it has no business being in the finals. It's a tale of persecution, injustice and revenge with hissable villains and a handsome, blond, cheerable hero. In other words, it's a Hollywood movie with subtitles. And that, I fear, is the reason it was nominated: it's the kind of filmmaking--punchy, unambiguous, morally black and white--that the old guard understands. As well intentioned as many of the committee members are, they are put off by foreign films that are too ... well, foreign. They know what they like, and they like what they know.

"The Twilight Samurai," set in the 1860s, is a handsome, well-crafted, low-key epic that tells the familiar tale of a reluctant warrior, a former samurai who has given up violence and gone to seed and then is forced back into action and, not surprisingly, triumphs. Director Yoji Yamado pulls off one superb set piece--the shadowy final showdown with his nemesis--but the movie, though it bends the genre slightly, certainly breaks no new ground. Again, the Academy has settled for the comfort of familiarity.

The committee seems to have a special fondness for Dutch movies in recent years: "Twin Sisters" is the seventh film nominated from the Netherlands, and three have gone on to win ("The Assault," "Antonia's Line" and "Character"). The synopsis of "Twin Sisters" neatly fits the favored sentimental and period patterns: two sisters, born in the 1920s, are separated at a young age. One is raised by a wealthy Dutch family, and falls in love with a Jewish playboy; the other is raised on a farm in Germany, and falls in love with a Gestapo soldier. Late in life, they meet again. Though I haven't seen it, I've spoken with several people who have, and they are, to put it kindly, nonplussed by its inclusion.

I can't complain, however, about the choice of "The Barbarian Invasions," Denys Arcand's wise, witty, and moving study of a sybaritic leftist professor confronting his mortality. (Two other Arcand films have been nominated in the past, "The Decline of the American Empire" to which "Invasions" is a sequel, and "Jesus of Montreal.") It's generally conceded to be the front runner, if only because it's the only known quantity. And, to give the Academy its due, recently it has often come up with the right winner, given the compromised options--Almodovar's "All About My Mother," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "No Man's Land," last year's "Nowhere in Africa." But remember, it's not just the committee members voting: any Academy member who has seen all five films (you're required to sign in at screenings) gets to vote for the Oscar winner, which results in a much more diverse voting pool.

"Barbarians" is no sure bet: many people are immune to its charms. If there's an upset winner, it's likely to be the Czech entry, "Zelary." It has epic scope, it's set during World War II, the filmmaking is traditional and it pulls on the heartstrings. And director Andrej Trojan has a very absorbing tale to tell. The heroine is a sophisticated beauty who works as a nurse in Prague and secretly aids the Resistance. But the Nazis are closing in on her and she's forced to hide out in a mountain village and adapt a new identity by getting married to an uncultured farmer many years older than herself. Gradually, reluctantly, she succumbs to the rhythms of her radically simplified new life--and begins to see her "husband" with new, loving eyes. Zelary is the name of the village, and in the course of this two-and-a-half-hour epic we come to know its inhabitants as intimately she does. It's a strong tale, and it's not hard to see why the committee went for it. I'd recommend "Zelary" to anyone. Would it have made my final five? Probably not.

The film whose omission has caused the biggest ruckus--because a lot of people have had the chance to see it--is the powerful Afghanistan entry, "Osama." Siddiq Barmak's unforgettable movie dramatizes the plight of women under the Taliban with devastating power. As artful as it is relevant, "Osama" may have proved too painful for the committee members to handle. I don't know how else to explain its absence. Regional bias? Only one film from the Middle East has ever been nominated.

Also excluded--surprisingly--was the film that swept the recent European film awards, Germany's "Goodbye, Lenin." Director Wolfgang Becker deals with the reunification of East and West Germany through the prism of edgy comedy. The hero is a teenage boy whose mother, a staunch East German socialist, happens to be in a coma when the Berlin wall falls. Fearing that the shock of the New World Order will kill her, her son moves heaven and earth to keep the truth from her when she regains consciousness. Madly inventive, Becker's lively and poignant satire deals with the theme of reconciliation on several levels at once and illuminates both what was gained and lost when the two Germany's rejoined. (It opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles.)

Already in theaters is the brooding, enigmatic Russian entry, "The Return," which won the Golden Bear at the Venice Film Festival last fall. The debut film of the stunningly talented Andrey Yvyaginstsev, it tells the primal tale of a prodigal father who returns from a long, unexplained absence to take his two sons--who barely remember him--on a mysterious trip to an island. Reminsiscent of both Tarkovsky and the Polanski of "Knife in the Water," it's a gripping and disturbing tale that poses riddles it refuses to answer: a cardinal sin in Hollywood, which likes to dot every i and cross every t.

One of the best films I saw at the Toronto Film Festival last September was the spellbinding Korean entry, "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring." Kim Ki-Duk's gorgeous fable--set on a floating monastery in the middle of a pond deep in the forest--encapsulates an entire lifetime in the relationship between an old Buddhist monk and a boy monk entrusted to his care. Each chapter of the movie shows us a different season, and a different stage in the younger monks life, as he encounters the temptations of the world and the evil within. Both simple and deep, this is not a movie Hollywood would ever dream of making. Nor, alas, would it dream of nominating. (It will show at the upcoming New Directors festival at New York's Museum of Modern Art prior to an April 2 release.)

Even more unconventional--and thus doomed from the start--is the Palestinian film "Divine Intervention," an absurdist, one-of-a-kind portrait of contemporary Palestine that is both comic and mournful. (Lorraine Ali wrote perceptively about the film for NEWSWEEK earlier this year.) The director, Elia Suleiman, has no interest in agitprop. A true original, he speaks in a filmic language few on the committee are familiar with--or willing to parse.

The same can be said for the gifted minimalist Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, whose "Goodbye, Dragon Inn" takes place entirely inside a movie theater playing a traditional Chinese martial-arts epic and has very few lines of dialogue. Tsai ("What Time is it There?" "Vive L'Amour") requires, and rewards, patience. Taiwan was brave to submit this challenging work, but if the country's filmmakers knew who was watching (and walking out of) this movie at the Academy theater in Beverly Hills, they would have known to abandon all hope.

Much more accessible--but still marvelously odd--are both the droll Norwegian comedy "Kitchen Tales" (now in theaters) and the Icelandic "Noi the Albino," a striking, seriocomic study of a 17-year-old outcast. This sure-handed, icebound film, from the gifted new director Dagur Kari Petursson, will be released in the United States on April 23.

These are the gems I've seen. There are, from all reports, many other treasures among the 56 submitted movies. Among the most highly touted: "Witnesses" from Croatia; the semidocumentary "The Story of the Weeping Camel" from Mongolia; Denmark's "Reconstruction"; the Cuban entry "Suite Habana"; "Fuse" from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hong Kong's "Infernal Affairs"; Thailand's "Last Life in the Universe," Argentina's "Valentin," and "Pornographia" from Poland.

Further blurring the issue, some of the greatest films may not have been submitted at all, given the often baroque internal politics that determine who gets to compete for an Oscar. Mexico, for example, didn't pick "Y tu Mama Tambien" when they had the chance, and Spain overlooked "Talk to Me" last year, which ended up winning the Academy Award for best original screenplay.

Maybe the best you can hope for is that nobody takes this Oscar category too seriously. So many mediocre past winners have vanished from memory (know anyone rushing out to rent "To Begin Again" or "Journey of Hope"?) And maybe next year everyone will be stunned when the overlooked "Osama" gets nominated for best direction, and the fight to change the system will start all over again. I'm not holding my breath.