Once again, the Academy Awards have blundered. In 2008 the Oscar for Best Foreign Film landed on an obscure, but safe Japanese flick that no one saw or cared to see, overlooking two stunning competitors, The Class by Laurent Cantet (winner of the Palme d'Or) and Waltz With Bashir by Ari Folman. Same stunt this year: the Academy annointed the Argentinian film The Secret in their Eyes by Juan Jose Campanella, an unfocused, overwrought thriller larded with philosophical truisms (see my forthcoming review in Film Journal) that will attract only modest niche business -- and this over The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke and A Prophet from Jacques Audiard, two way superior works of far-reaching gravitas.
Last year the Academy's impaired judgment seemed like an anomaly. This year maybe not. What's the deal here? Putting on my conspiracy theory hat, I'd like to suggest that the Academy's choices reflect a not so subtle impulse to discount and dismiss world cinema. Hollywood blockbusters rack up a lot of dough by reaching their long tentacles into foreign markets (one of the few places it doesn't dominate is South Korea). Perhaps the Academy's thinking -- not necessarily conscious -- is, why give its imprimatur to important works of artistry that might detract from stories for fourteen-year-olds with game-changing effects? Also, cinematically-savvy audiences may gradually get turned off by tent pole fare, so let's keep 'em dumb with films like Shutter Island, which equate a wholly implausible final twist with intellectual stimulation.
The Academy inclines, too, toward feel-good films that avoid challenging the status quo. You'll say, well, what about Best Picture winner, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker? Here's an indie film on fighting in Iraq -- a demonstrably unpopular topic with American viewers -- famously made against the odds with little money? But the Hurt win for Best Picture is not that surprising -- Hollywood goes ape over the storyline of the film's difficult genesis, which could double as any scenario about the plucky up-against-it hero who overcomes insurmountable obstacles to achieve a goal.
Then, too Locker is politically safe. Bigelow has been quoted as saying it's apolitical. An expertly crafted exercise in pure cinema, Locker zeros in on a particular type of soldier addicted to danger. That's interesting, but kind of a one-note theme. Locker takes no stance on exactly who these poor guys are who dismantle ied's -- not the sons of the power elite, you can bet on it. Nor does it question the U.S. adventures in the Mid East. Yeah, I know, you can't fault a film for being what it doesn't aspire to be -- but compared to a film like Oren Moverman's The Messenger toplined by Ben Foster -- the great unrecognized performance of 2009 -- it offers a small snapshot of combat.
In contrast, White Ribbon and Prophet, the two foreign Oscar snubs, loom large in their ambition to understand not only individuals, but how they are creatures of the society they inhabit. These two films are anything but politically safe. Made by Austrian Michael Haneke, White Ribbon is an act of great bravery -- after all, he's indicting his culture; and a daringly original attempt to achieve at least a glimmer of understanding about a historical horror that continues to confound us. While Prophet manages to be both grimly entertaining and a study of how a blank slate of a boy achieves manhood and an identity through the French prison system which -- and here's the subversive part -- strikingly resembles and overlaps with the "straight world" outside.