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There is no such thing as a best international acting Oscar, but the choice for this year’s Academy Award for best international feature could be decided as a competition between the acting veterans (Javier Bardem, Noomi Rapace, Dan Stevens) and the newcomers (Italian first-timer Filippo Scotti, Kosovar breakthrough Yllka Gashi), whose performances are at the heart of the contenders for the 2022 awards.
Many of the more high-concept films in the running this year — including Julia Ducournau’s French horror-thriller Titane, the South Korea action-adventure Escape From Mogadishu and the Hungarian period horror movie Post Mortem — didn’t make the international feature shortlist, leaving a group of 15 that are less defined by the theme or genre of their stories than by the actors who bring them to life.
The survivors include several standout performances from established talents, with name recognition highest for Spaniard and Oscar winner Bardem, who gives a slickly entertaining turn in Fernando León de Aranoa’s dark workplace dramedy The Good Boss as a charming, if ethically dubious, head of a family-owned factory who crosses every sort of boundary in the name of business. Swedish star Rapace, who has made a career out of playing badasses since her international breakthrough in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), reinvents herself with a fragile and guarded performance in Icelandic entry Lamb, playing a sheep farmer scarred by trauma, whose life is transformed by a mysterious discovery, one that will ultimately destroy her and her husband.
German Franz Rogowski and Iranian Amir Jadidi are not familiar faces in Hollywood, but their recent work — Rogowski as a gay German man repeatedly arrested for violating “deviancy laws” in the decades after World War II in Sebastian Meise’s Austrian prison drama Great Freedom, and Jadidi as a divorced father struggling to get out of debt in A Hero, from Asghar Farhadi — should raise their stock among Oscar voters.
But arguably the standout performances among this year’s international feature contenders come from the freshman crowd. Scotti holds his own against Italian acting legend Toni Servillo (The Great Beauty) as a fictionalized version of director Paolo Sorrentino in the filmmaker’s autobiographical The Hand of God. Gashi is riveting as the granite-faced war widow fighting to set up her business to provide for her children in Kosovo entry Hive. And Norwegian theater actress Renate Reinsve gives a star-making (and, at Cannes, an award-winning) performance in her first leading role in a feature, playing the charming and contradictory Julie in Joachim Trier’s romantic drama The Worst Person in the World. The youngest debut comes from Maya Vanderbeque, who plays 7-year-old Nora in Laura Wandel’s first feature, Playground, Belgium’s Oscar contender. Vanderbeque is dazzling as a first-grader who faces bullying and intimidation in the Darwinian world of the school playground.
Even Denmark’s Oscar entry, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary Flee, revolves around a core performance: that of the pseudonymously named interview subject Amin, who offers the sometimes harrowing testimony of his life story, which includes his flight as a child refugee from Afghanistan to Denmark and his coming out as a gay man.
Alongside the individual standouts among the 2022 international contenders, there are several double acts that could tip the balance. Both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association have given their best film honor to Drive My Car, the Japanese entry from director Ryusuke Hamaguchi. The slow-burning drama, adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, centers on a series of long drives around Hiroshima and the conversations that take place between Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an internationally acclaimed stage actor and theater director, and his surly, chain-smoking driver, Misaki (Toko Miura). Their terse formal exchanges slowly evolve into candid, painful confessionals as the two taciturn individuals begin to open up to each other.
It’s a schema echoed in Compartment Number 6, Finland’s Oscar entry from director Juho Kuosmanen. Seidi Haarla plays Laura, an archaeology student on her way, by train, to Russia’s remote northwest and forced to share a compartment with a boorish, misogynistic drunk played by Yuriy Borisov. But what starts as a meet-uncute slowly changes as the two thaw during the long journey. As in Drive My Car, it’s the exchanges between the leads that lend Compartment Number 6 its dramatic tension and provide the film’s final emotional payoff.
The union of opposite but complementary acting styles is on display in German contender I’m Your Man, a sci-fi romantic comedy in which the naturalistic sardonic performance of German theater veteran Maren Eggert as Alma, a no-nonsense research scientist, comes up against the stylized comic turn of Brit Dan Stevens, playing Tom, a romantic (and German-speaking) robot designed to be Alma’s perfect match. Eggert won the best lead performance prize in Berlin for her role, but it is the chemistry between her and Stevens — as the film progresses, both Alma and Tom become less robotic and more lovingly “human” — that drives the story forward.
In Plaza Catedral, Panama’s shortlist contender, veteran Mexican actress Ilse Salas finds her perfect sparring partner in newcomer Fernando Xavier De Casta. She is Alicia, an architect turned real estate agent who, after losing her 6-year-old son in a freak accident and her husband to divorce shortly afterward, has emotionally withdrawn from the world. At first, her encounters with De Casta’s Chief, a rough-talking teenage parking attendant, only reinforce her frosty disdain. But when Alicia finds Chief on her stairway, bleeding from a bullet wound to the stomach, the two develop a bond, gradually and without a touch of sentimentality from director Abner Benaim. De Casta’s surly but subtle performance is made all the more intensely poignant by the fact that the actor was murdered in an act of gun violence just months before the film’s release.
Only two of the 15 films that made this year’s international feature shortlist boast true ensembles. But the performances from the women in Tatiana Huezo’s Prayers for the Stolen, a Mexican drama set against the country’s drug war, are undeniably powerful. And the group of mainly nonprofessionals in Sherab Dorji’s crowd-pleasing Bhutan entry, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom — most of them drawn from among the locals of the Himalayan village where the movie was shot — could charm even the most cynical Oscar voter.
Academy members from all branches can take part in the nominations for best international feature, but they will need to watch the performances in all 15 shortlisted films to vote. Nomination voting runs Jan. 27 to Feb. 1. The nominations for the 94th Academy Awards will be announced Feb. 8.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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