Lost in Translation

The audience for foreign films is a loyal and passionate one. It is also increasingly embattled, prone to nostalgia and regret. "When I was an undergraduate, I lived for foreign films," says producer Mark Johnson ("Narnia"), who chairs the Oscar committee that selects foreign-language films. "In fact, it's where you took girls to impress them with how smart you were. Now the number of theaters that show foreign films is down to very few. My children, 17 and 18, have no interest in subtitled films. It's a cultural thing. Our interests get narrower and narrower."

For hard-core fans who love world cinema, who are exhilarated by glimpses of other lands and other visions, 2005 was a terrific year, full of stunning work from Germany ("Head-On"), France ("Cache"), Hong Kong ("2046"), Kurdistan ("Turtles Can Fly") and Italy ("The Best of Youth"). Commercially, however, it was the worst of times. The most successful foreign film of the year was "Kung Fu Hustle" at $17.1 million--making it the 116th biggest release--and a mere 10 foreign-language films broke $1 million here. Gone are the days when there was a guaranteed audience for a Kurosawa or Truffaut, when Claude Lelouch's "A Man and a Woman" could stay in one theater for two years. Who are the marquee directors now? Almodovar. Maybe Zhang Yimou, but only when he makes action movies such as "Hero."

This ought to be a fertile time for foreign film. We're told the world is shrinking and globalization is the wave of the future. News from overseas dominates the papers, and our economy is inextricably linked to China's. Yet culturally, America, which has always tended toward provincialism, has never been more navel-gazing. "It makes me angry and sad," says Harvey Weinstein of the Weinstein Co., "that we deny the American public the great potential to learn from other cultures." At Miramax, Weinstein released many of the most popular foreign films ever. "I'll never abandon my first passion."

Unfortunately, competition from American indies and documentaries have bumped foreign films off art-house screens. The hit-obsessed media are loath to cover foreign --films. "And there's another very big problem," says Focus Features' David Linde. "Television broadcasters are very reluctant to air them." With no guaranteed cable outlet, a distributor can't spend much on a foreign film, further consigning it to oblivion. It doesn't help that after 100 years, many companies persist in using white subtitles against white backgrounds. Can't stand reading subtitles? No worries. Sometimes you can't read them anyway.

The theatrical audience for foreign art fare (as opposed to kung fu, anime and Japanese horror) is a decidedly graying breed. "These are adult-themed movies," argues Linde. "One of the greatest fallacies in the business is that there's something called a college market. There is no such thing. Where do NYU students go to see their movies? A big commercial theater." There are young cineastes, but they're watching their Wong Kar-wai on DVD. Increasingly, so is everybody else. The number of units Blockbuster carried this year was up by 64 percent, thanks to kung fu and horror, and the escalating renown of Gael Garcia Bernal, Audrey Tautou et al. For those who live in places where foreign films never play, Netflix is a godsend. Still, of the 1.4 million DVDs Netflix ships every day, only 5.5 percent are foreign.

Compounding matters, the Academy, which can shine so much light on international filmmaking, has mediocre taste. The system for nominating the five foreign films simply doesn't work. Each country can choose one movie to submit. (Imagine if each studio could submit only one film for best picture, and you get some idea of the political shenanigans that go on within each country.) The countries most often nominated, such as France and Italy, are the ones who've figured out that the nominating committee favors foreign films that aren't too foreign. Chairman Johnson has been trying to entice younger voters. The 300-or-so tend to be retired, because they're the ones who have time to see so many films. Year after year their choices have been staid and sentimental.

This year's surprise nominee is "Paradise Now," which examines the motivations of two Palestinian suicide bombers preparing an attack in Tel Aviv. For the committee, with its many Jewish members, to honor Hany Abu-Assad's film--a taut and disturbing thriller that conforms, stylistically if not ideologically, to a Hollywood syntax--is a breakthrough. Now that it's been nominated, however, there is pressure from Jewish groups that object to the film's being called Palestinian, on the ground that no such state officially exists.

Though it won the Golden Globe, the Oscar odds for "Paradise Now" seem long. The South African entry, "Tsotsi," is likely the movie to beat. It's about the transformation of a ruthless, baby-faced gangster in Johannesburg. This feral, nameless boy comes to terms with his own traumatic childhood when he impulsively rescues a 3-month-old infant from the back of a car he's stolen, after shooting the child's mother. The movie features a mesmerizing performance by Presley Chwene-yagae, and it gets to your emotions. But it doesn't unfold like real life. Every plot turn is as inevitable as a '30s gangster movie with Jimmy Cagney. (For a shattering, truly revelatory foreign film about Africa, see the documentary "Darwin's Nightmare.")

The other nominees aren't likely to challenge your assumptions, either. France's "Joyeux Noel" concerns a magical (true) incident in World War I when, on Christmas Eve, French, German and Scottish soldiers put down their guns to play soccer. It's an antiwar crowd pleaser, but hardly groundbreaking. Germany's "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" stars Julia Jentsch as a real-life student in Nazi Germany who joined a resistance group. Jentsch is brilliant, but dramatically and morally, the movie's cut-and-dried.

Johnson admits the committee has made mistakes in the past. "One of the great embarrassments was that we didn't nominate 'City of God'," he says. "That was one that was a little too controversial. The real slap in our face was that it went on to get nominated for four other Oscars." Johnson would love to introduce five wild-card films into the pool of prospective nominees. "Take the top film from the five major film festivals and add them to the mix," he says. That would at least open things up beyond the archaic one film/one country rule, which bears little relation to the reality of filmmaking today, where international coproductions are the rule, and national "purity" the exception. Is a little innovation such a foreign idea?