Oscars 2012: Considering the Foreign Language Nominees

Nader and Simin, A Separation Berlin 341x182

In an unusually strong field, "Bullhead" (Belgium), "Monsieur Lazhar" (Canada), "A Separation" (Iran), "Footnote" (Israel) and "In Darkness" (Poland) are all serious contenders for the Oscar.

The big news as far as the foreign language film Oscar candidates are concerned is that all five nominees this year are actually good. Very good, in fact. This is not to say that the finalists are absolutely the best five films entered by foreign countries this year—that debate could go on forever. But each of the nominees—Bullhead (Belgium), Monsieur Lazhar (Canada), A Separation (Iran), Footnote (Israel) and In Darkness (Poland)—is a legitimate contender, a film worth seeing and being discussed seriously, not an entry present for the wrong reasons. This isn't always the case.

Of the quintet, the most surprising nominee is Bullhead. A tough, blunt look at a group of duplicitous low-life criminals involved in running bovine hormones in the border area between French and Fleming-speaking Belgium, Michael R. Roskam's first feature is the opposite of a feel-good film. Nor is it about any grandly important themes, social issues or moral uplift. Rather, it focuses upon a unique, unforgettable central character, a physically damaged, steroid-amped brute who, while a tragic figure, is not exactly audience friendly or representative of any familiar aspect of the human condition. It's a peculiar and painful tale, brought vividly to life with powerful visuals and many pungent, even assaultive scenes. It's a very strong debut but not at all the sort of thing one expects the Academy to honor, even with a nomination.

VIDEO: 'Bullhead' Trailer

A different, better adjusted sort of damaged man is at the center of Monsieur Lazhar, which is much closer to the sort of serious, approachably humanistic foreign film the Academy has historically embraced. Philippe Falardeau's likeable drama revolves around an Algerian refugee who, for reasons not addressed until close to the end, has moved to Montreal and eagerly volunteers to take a position as an elementary school teacher where the previous instructor has committed suicide in the classroom. French in both language and sensibility, the film is sensitive, discreet and attentive to contemporary cultural issues and the tensions surrounding political correctness. Not as daring or adventurous as the other nominees, it has the tenor and types of virtues that some foreign language film winners have had in the past.

If film festival awards and critics groups' hosannas represent anything to go by, A Separation is the film to beat. All but unanimously acclaimed around the world, Asghar Farhadi's gripping family and legalistic drama reveals aspects of life in Iran in an accessible way that is essentially unprecedented and, not coincidentally, has been the most commercially successful Iranian film ever released in the West. While spotlighting numerous specifics about Iranian family dynamics and the justice system that are unavoidably fascinating for having never been seen before, the film is also disarming to Western audiences for its universality, for showing that, in many ways, middle-class Iranians are much like their equivalents elsewhere. Academy voters could be motivated by opposing impulses; some may not want to vote for an Iranian film on principle, whereas others might make a point of choosing it to demonstrate that they can rise above geopolitical and religious animosity.

VIDEO: 'A Separation' Trailer

Conflicting feelings of a different nature could come into play concerning Israel's entry, Footnote. Joseph Cedar's dynamic drama about highly competitive father and son Talmudic scholars is bracing most of all for the way it reveals the centrality of spirited religious and intellectual debate in Jewish and, specifically, Israeli life. But the dirtier side of the coin is how it unavoidably portrays fissures, personal pettiness and destructive rivalries within families, academia and society at large. The film is both troubling and invigorating, saddled with a distracting musical score and at its best when locked in a small conference room where academics argue to decide the winner of the Israel Prize. For some voters, much will depend upon how they feel the film reflects upon Israel.

The least surprising nominee, given its subject matter, is In Darkness from Poland. Agnieszka Holland's third feature about the Holocaust is a bit different from others, as the hero is a Catholic former thief in the Ukrainian city of Lvov who helps a handful of Jews hide in the frigid stench of the sewer system. Minimally lit in cramped quarters, the film is a grueling as the situation demands and there is a way in which the role of the protector resembles such classic anti-heroes as Rick in Casablanca in the way he evolves from strict mercenary to a man in touch with his inner mensch. Familiar in some ways and distinct in others, this is a film of undeniable dramatic strength, created with artistic integrity and a measure of dramatic unpredictability.