Foreign Films in Focus

How Far Can 'Roma' Go in the Oscars Foreign-Language Race?

Courtesy of Netflix
'Roma'

If Alfonso Cuaron's autobiographical drama gets a nomination for the Academy's top prize, history suggests it will be a virtual lock to win a fiercely competitive category.

Even a year ago, the idea of a black-and-white, Spanish-language movie with no stars and a 2-hour, 15-minute run time winning the Oscar for best picture might have seemed absurd.

But as Alfonso Cuaron's Roma continues to clean up this awards season — recently adding three Golden Globe nominations and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association best film honor to its stack of trophies — the Netflix title is now an odds-on favorite to get a best picture nomination, joining the small club of non-English-language movies to compete for Oscar's top honor. The prospect of Roma going the distance and becoming the first foreign-language movie to win best film is going from unthinkable to credible. The Academy Awards' preferential voting system for best picture — in which members rank their choices and ballots are reallocated over potentially several rounds of voting — could also work in Roma's favor.

A separate question is what Roma's best picture campaign will mean for its chances in the smaller but still fiercely competitive foreign-language race. Cuaron's movie (based on his own childhood) is Mexico's official foreign-language contender and all but guaranteed a nomination in that category. But if Roma also nabs a best picture nom, how could that affect its foreign-language run?

It's a question that might not apply just to Roma, since another high-profile international title — Pawel Pawlikowski's Polish drama Cold War — has an outside chance of securing a best picture nomination as well. Cold War was unexpectedly snubbed by the Golden Globes, but Pawlikowski's follow-up to his Oscar-winning Ida is among the top foreign-language contenders and one of only a handful of films — including Japan's Shoplifters, Burning from South Korea and the Belgian entry Girl — likely to have any chance of beating Roma in the category.

Non-English-language best picture nominees are rare but not unheard of. There have been nine, ranging from Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion in 1938 to Michael Haneke's Amour in 2012. It's 10 if you include Alejandro G. Inarritu's Babel in 2006, which featured four interlocked stories, only one of which — the installment starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett — was in English. And five of those best picture contenders — Costa-Gavras' French-Algerian drama Z in 1969, Jan Troell's 19th century period piece The Emigrants in 1972, Roberto Benigni's Italian comedy-drama Life Is Beautiful in 1998, Ang Lee's Chinese fantasy epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2006 and Haneke's French-language drama Amour — were also nominated in the foreign-language category.

Grand Illusion was nominated before the foreign-language category was introduced (in 1956), and several of the other foreign best picture contenders either didn't qualify or weren't put forward by their respective countries. Clint Eastwood's Japanese-language Letters From Iwo Jima, a 2006 best picture nominee, was an American production and thus ineligible. Italy chose to nominate Giuseppe Tornatore's The Star Maker in 1995 instead of Michael Radford and Massimo Troisi's critical and box office hit Il Postino, assuming (correctly) that Il Postino would get sufficient awards attention elsewhere. Il Postino picked up five Oscar nominations, including best picture, and won one — best original score for Luis Bacalov — while Tornatore's period drama received a foreign-language nomination, though it lost out to Marleen Gorris' Dutch drama Antonia's Line.

When a best picture contender is nominated in the foreign-language category, however, it almost always wins. Z (1969), Life Is Beautiful (1998), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Amour (2012) all took home Oscars for best foreign-language film. Troell's The Emigrants is the only outlier. The story of poor Swedes — played by acting legends Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann — who immigrate to Minnesota lost out to Vittorio De Sica's Italian literary adaptation The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. The Emigrants also is only the second foreign-language best picture nominee — along with Renoir's Grand Illusion — to not win at least one Oscar in another category the same year.

While the Academy, so far, has balked at giving a foreign title the top prize, the extra attention given to a best picture nominee — the seal of approval that comes with being among the Oscar top echelon — seems to help a film's chances elsewhere. The additional marketing push that accompanies a best picture nom (and Netflix this year has shown it is ready to pull out all the stops to campaign for Roma) doesn't hurt, either.

General popularity and brand-name recognition could play a much bigger role in the foreign-language category this year thanks to changes in the Academy's voting procedure. AMPAS has made it easier to vote in the foreign-language race by reducing the number of films a member must see in order to qualify — from 16 to 18 to just 12 eligible films — and by dumping "required viewing" lists that directed members to specific titles. In theory, this should benefit films that already have considerable buzz or awards cred going in, such as Venice festival winner Roma, Japan's Palme d'Or winner Shoplifters or Poland's Cold War, which won best director at Cannes and collected five European Film Award nominations. Academy voters will rank every foreign title they see, and those votes will be tallied to select six of the nine nominees for the foreign-language shortlist, with the foreign-language executive committee adding three more titles from the discard pile. The shortlist will be announced Dec. 17.

The second round of voting — whereby the group of nine is narrowed to the final five nominees — has also been opened up. This year, any member of the general committee who qualifies to vote by seeing the required 12 films in round one can take part in phase two of voting. Members who have already seen some or most of the shortlisted films in phase one will only be required to watch the ones they haven't seen.

Increasing the voting pool should be good news for more conventional, crowd-pleasing titles in the foreign-language race. A film like Never Look Away from Germany — the kind of lush, sweeping European period drama general audiences are familiar with — might be among the beneficiaries of the rule change.

But at the moment, there is no more prominent, or popular, film in the race than Roma. With or without a best picture nomination, Cuaron's love letter to his childhood in 1970s Mexico City remains the foreign-language film to beat.

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.