Bullhead, directed by Michael R. Roskam, Belgium
Footnote, Joseph Cedar, Israel
In Darkness, Agnieszka Holland, Poland
Monsieur Lazhar, Philippe Falardeau, Canada
A Separation, Asghar Farhadi, Iran
It’s often a surprise when a consensus masterpiece, like Farhadi’s cogent, knotty domestic drama, finds its way into the Oscar’s Foreign Language quintet — because, in this category, weirdness usually abounds. Begin with the labyrinthine nominating process: A committee in each of 60-some foreign countries chooses one film to submit to the Academy, whose screening group whittles the number to eight and then to the official five nominees. Since the national committees are vulnerable to various political pressures, the “obvious” movie (obvious, that is, to the international critics who see hundreds of foreign films at festivals) isn’t always submitted.
This time, for instance, the Spaniards declined to name Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, the Foreign Film winner of four year-end critics’ groups. The Canadians might have cited the epically romantic Café de Flore (which copped 13 nominations in the Canadian Genie awards), but they went with the unimpeachably uplifting Monsieur Lazhar (nine Genie nominations), about an Algerian man who replaces a beloved teacher in a Montreal school. The Belgians took a different route: Instead of The Kid With a Bike, a relatively cheerful opus from the oft-laureled Dardenne brothers, they picked the debut feature Bullhead, the raw tale of a hulking cattle farmer who (SPOILER ALERT) was literally gelded as a youth (also Crushing Metaphor Alert). Bullhead made the Academy’s final, may we say, cut (END SPOILER ALERT), as did Monsieur Lazhar. Two other highly acclaimed films didn’t—the Mexican Miss Bala and the German Pina—though Wim Wenders’ tribute to the late choreographer Pina Bausch did land a nomination in the Documentary Feature category.
Maybe the Foreign Language jury nixed Bala and Pina for their bravura camera style; the three major finalists all work in the prevailing mode of dramatic realism. Footnote is a tart, smart comedy about two Talmudic scholars, father and son, who vent their generational animosities when one of them wins a coveted prize. That prize is unlikely to be the Oscar, since the big challenger to A Separation is In Darkness, Holland’s third movie set in World War II — and the first two (the 1985 Angry Harvest and the 1991 Europa Europa) both boast Oscar pedigrees, earning nominations for Foreign Film and Adapted Screenplay, respectively. In Darkness documents the true story of a Polish-gentile sewer worker who reluctantly hides more than a dozen Polish Jews in the fetid canals under Lvov. Aside from its sure narrative hand and harrowing vignettes, the movie plays like a homemade version of Schindler’s List, winner of seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Director (Steven Spielberg) in 1994. Hollywood loves Holocaust films.
Can In Darkness upset the favorite? Probably not. Winner of 10 critics’ prizes for Foreign Language Film, and a few more for Original Screenplay, A Separation is a finalist in both categories for Oscar Night. This powerful fable reveals a tense tangle of opposing forces — secular vs. religious, urban vs. rural, middle-class vs. working-class — in what outsiders think of as Iran’s monochrome, monotheistic society. The irony is that such a nuanced film appears just as war drums herald a confrontation that could involve Iran, Israel and the U.S. in a nuclear showdown. Despite or because of this prickly historical moment, we think the Academy will stick with A Separation. Back in December, the headline on TIME’s review of the film asked: “How About an Oscar for This Fascinating Iranian Drama?” We’re still asking, and hoping.