Awards Watch: Foreign Language IV

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If this were any other category, it would be a two-horse race.

But it's the foreign-language Oscar, meaning the two films that might otherwise be the obvious front-runners may have to settle for a wealth of international awards instead.

Michael Haneke's Austrian entry, the stark black-and-white period drama "The White Ribbon," has already garnered the most high-profile honor on the fest circuit, a Palme d'Or at Cannes, as well as a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film and a European Film Award for best film.

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And Jacques Audiard's violent prison tale "A Prophet" (France) boasts a grand prize in Cannes and was named best foreign-language film by the National Board of Review.

Between the two, "Ribbon," would appear to have an edge, if only because "A Prophet's" bloody milieu could prove to be too much for queasy Academy voters. But that's not to say either one dominates the much-harder-to-predict Oscars, handicapped by a complicated voting process that has drawn as much attention as any of the past winners.

For years, that process was lambasted as giving a small number of older voters undue power. In an attempt to broaden the race, the Academy allowed its foreign-language executive committee to add some contenders, creating a short list of nine nominees before the final five were chosen.

Is that enough?

Yes, says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. "Every year since the changes in these rules, there seems to be less criticism from the international filmmaking community," he notes. "There are still pitfalls with each step of the process, but because these five films are quite exceptional, I've heard very little criticism this year. It's very rare that you have a year where all five of the films are so good."

Indeed most of the criticism these days is directed at how individual countries decide on their respective submissions. (Each country is allowed to put forward one movie in the foreign-language Oscar race.)

This year is no exception: The Chilean drama "Dawson Isla 10" was chosen over the far more high-profile festival favorite "The Maid," and Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces" was never in the running because Spain chose Fernando Trueba's "The Dancer and the Thief."

Rounding out the list of contenders is an uncharacteristically black field. Israel's "Ajami" focuses on the rising tensions between Arabs and Jews after a gang-related killing; Peru's "The Milk of Sorrow" examines how the lingering effects of rape are passed down through the generations; and Argentina's "The Secret in Their Eyes" tells the story of a retired criminal prosecutor planning to write a novel about a 25-year-old rape-and-murder case.

There isn't a lighthearted entry in the bunch, suggesting voters are serious about shedding the lightweight label that has dogged the category in the past.

This is a race that traditionally includes a number of uplifting, "Life is Beauti ful"-style crowd pleasers that the foreign-language voters have a clear soft spot for. Look no further than last year's winner "Departures," which came out of nowhere to beat both the gritty, animated war doc "Waltz With Bashir" and Laurent Cantet's acclaimed Palme d'Or winner "The Class."

Without films like "Departures" in the running this year, there's no telling which way voters will lean.

"None of the contenders are traditional audience-pleasers the way 'Departures' was," says veteran publicist Fredell Pogodin. "There's nothing here that would fit the category of being a 'heartwarmer,' so I don't see anything coming out of nowhere to bump all the others."

"There are many reasons 'Departures' won," Barker adds. "Last year, you had a lot of films that were very innovative and 'Departures' was more conventional, (but) this year you've got a little of both."

If voters decide to choose the least provocative entry, the smart money would likely be on Juan Jose Campanella's "Secret," which could become the first Argentine entry to win the award since Luis Puenzo's "The Official Story" in 1986. Another possible scenario could see a classic Academy "do over" in which Israel's "Ajami" is handed the gold in an effort to atone for last year's "Bashir" snub.

The race is further complicated by the fact that one of the foreign-language voters' favorite subjects -- World War II -- is nowhere to be seen, which could be a boon to "White Ribbon." Director Haneke's unforgiving world view may offer no reassuring, "Cinema Paradiso"-like comforts about the resilience of the human spirit, but at least it is set during the years leading up to WW I and is laden with enough anti-authoritarian angst to remind voters of the Nazi-era themes they sometimes favor.

All of which appears to relegate the Peruvian entry to longshot status. But, given past upsets, "Milk of Sorrow" director Claudia Llosa may want to have an acceptance speech ready, just in case.