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Academy Awards--Best Foreign Language Film

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I had planned to post my predictions for all the Oscar categories, but then I read David Carr's predictions in The New York Times and discovered that his were almost exactly the same as mine, including the more obscure awards like sound mixing and the shorts. So I decided to stick to the subject I know best: Best Foreign Language Film. Sixty-one nations submitted films to the Academy Awards category for best foreign language film. I managed to see 42 of the 61, including all five of the final nominees. Before calling attention to some of the films that did not make the cut, here are a few words about the nominees, four of which deal directly with political or human rights issues, and all of which are worth seeing.

Pan's Labyrinth (Mexico)

A beautifully-made drama about a young girl who slips into an exotic fantasy world while her stepfather tortures and kills anti-Franco guerrillas in 1944 Spain, Pan's Labyrinth is the foreign language film that has engendered the most buzz. On closer inspection though, most of the buzz is about the buzz, and I have yet to talk with an actual voting member of the Academy who is as enthusiastic about the film as are the critics and the buzzsters. The film is also nominated for Art Direction, Cinematography, Makeup, Original Score and Original Screenplay.

The Lives of Others (Germany)
If Pan's Labyrinth proves too weird for most Academy voters, this is the favorite to win the Oscar. Set in 1984 East Germany, it tells the tale of a Stasi spy whose unbending loyalty to the Communist system begins to crack when he takes an interest in the lives of the playwright and the actress he is surveilling. Filled with tension, tragedy and redemption, The Lives of Others fits the formula of a Foreign Language winner.

Days of Glory (Algeria)
Days of Glory (Indigènes) isn't really an Algerian film. The director is French, the actors are French, everything about the film is French. It's just that the filmmakers and the stars are French Arabs. The story follows a group of Arabs who join the French army during World War II. Days of Glory caused a sensation even before it was completed because all of France's most famous Arab actors joined forces to bring attention to the miserable treatment of Arab veterans in France. As the film points out, the French government eliminated benefits to Algerian veterans in 1959. In 2002, a law was passed granting the veterans and their families restitution, but no money was forthcoming until Jacques Chirac saw Days of Glory last year. This is a powerful war story that actually changed public policy.

Water (Canada)
For the first time, the Academy allowed countries to enter films that are not in a language native to the country. Canada immediately took advantage of this new rule by entering the Hindi-language Water, which exposes the Hindu practice of condemning widows to spend the rest of their lives in an ashram. The most beautiful of the ashram's widows is put to use as a prostitute to raise money to support the others. Even though the action takes place in 1938, the subject is still considered so controversial among religious conservatives that the director, Deepa Mehta, after threats to her life, was forced to move production from India to Sri Lanka.

After the Wedding (Denmark)
A Danish man, Jacob, who runs an orphanage in India, reluctantly returns to Denmark to meet a rich man who might donate a large sum to support the orphanage. Upon arrival, Jacob learns that the rich man is married to Jacob's ex-lover and that Jacob himself is probably the father of the couple's daughter. An odd plot in summary, but director Susanne Bier's characters are extremely well-developed, with strengths and weaknesses, just like real people.

Among the non-nominees:
Most Overlooked Entry
Strange as it seems, the film that earned the most enthusiastic response at the Academy showings did not win a nomination. That film is Vitus from Switzerland. The title character is a child prodigy, specializing in piano-playing, who, at the age of 12, decides that he doesn't want to be a prodigy anymore. The role of Vitus is played by a real child prodigy, 14-year-old Teo Gheorghiu. Members of the Academy's foreign language committee were still talking about Vitus weeks after its screening, while drinking coffee, tea and hot chocolate in the lobby between films. The omission of Vitus from the list of nominees can be attributed to the new system instituted by the Academy this year. Previously, committee members, numbering in the hundreds, would assign scores to each of the films they saw, and the five films with the highest average scores gained nominations. This year, the top nine films were shortlisted and then a smaller committee of thirty, including twenty members who were not members of the foreign language committee, watched the nine and voted on the top five. Vitus made the shortlist of nine, but not the final five. Sony Pictures Classics has bought the U.S. distribution rights to the film. I hope they release it soon so that others may see it.

Worst Entry
Migration (Basain), the entry from Nepal, portrays a poor rural family whose lives go from bad to worse as they are exploited by moneylenders, the local elite and a cad from the army. What makes this film stand out is not the movie itself, but the subtitling, which has to be the worst I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of subtitled films. I got the impression the distributors ran the script through the Nepalese version of Babel Fish and then inserted the resulting mush without bothering to show it to an actual human being. At the Academy screening, I was one of only eight people still in their seats when Migration ended. The characters kept saying, "I feel tensioned." I felt the same way...I think.

Worst Filming Conditions
If you think Deepa Mehta had it tough being forced to flee India to complete Water, check out the alarming story of Mohamed al-Daradji, the director of the Iraqi entry, Dreams. Born in Baghdad, Daradji left Iraq as a teenager and became a Dutch citizen and a film student in England. He returned to Iraq after the U.S. invasion and volunteered at a mental hospital whose patients had wandered off during the chaos that followed the invasion. Inspired to make a film about the plight of the hospital, he and his crew were shot at by U.S. helicopters, kidnapped and threatened with death by Sunni militia, kidnapped and beaten by Shiite gunmen, who turned them over to the Americans, who put hoods on their heads and threatened to send them to Abu Ghraib. The Dutch Embassy finally secured their release. I will never again take seriously the whining of American filmmakers. By the way, one of the characters in Dreams is a soldier, Ali, serving in the Iraqi army on the Syrian border in December 1998. He goes crazy when the U.S. bombs his position and kills his best friend. Yes, it's true; the U.S. was already bombing Iraq under President Clinton. In fact, you have to go back to Ronald Reagan to find a U.S. president who didn't bomb Iraq.

Most Unexpected Star
The entry from Kazakhstan, Nomad, is a big-budget template historical epic about an 18th century heroic warrior who unites his nation. Most of the leading roles are played by actors and actresses with names like Doskhan Zholzhaksynov and Ayana Yesmagambetova. But the hero, Erali, is played by Jay Hernandez, a Chicano from Montebello, California, who is best known for his starring role in the horror film Hostel. Go figure.