Oscars: How Real-World Events Could Impact the Foreign-Language Race

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Courtesy of TIFF; Courtesy of Kino Lorber; Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Anti-Trump sentiment over the so-called Muslim ban arguably powered Iran's 'The Salesman' to its 2017 Oscar, and global political fault lines could rock this year's contenders.

Spare a thought for Toni Erdmann. In 2017, Maren Ade's German comedy, about the relationship between a workaholic career woman and her prankster father, was the favorite to win the foreign-language Oscar.

Then Trump happened. On Jan. 27, newly elected President Trump enacted Executive Order 13769, the first so-called Muslim ban, blocking visa-free travel to the U.S. from six Muslim-majority countries, including Iran. Asghar Farhadi, whose Tehran-set drama The Salesman was also a foreign-language contender, slammed Trump for the move and said he would boycott the Oscars. And on Feb. 26, Farhadi's The Salesman won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film.

For the 2018 foreign-language hopefuls, real-world events could again intervene to tilt the scales. And again, the film with the most to lose is this season's frontrunner, another European comedy: Ruben Ostlund's Swedish art world satire The Square.

The most obviously political football in the race is Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot, from Israel. The film, a look at the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and the Israeli soldiers who man security checkpoints, has plenty of fans in the Academy. And Israel, which has been nominated 10 times for the foreign-language Oscar, is arguably overdue for a win.

But at home Foxtrot has proved controversial, in particular for a scene in which Israeli soldiers kill a family in their car and then cover up the act. Israel's culture minister, Miri Regev, has blasted the film, saying it "shames the reputation of the Israel Defense Forces" and "undermines" the country.

Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — a move resoundingly rejected in a vote by the U.N. General Assembly — adds another twist. Will Academy voters view support for Foxtrot as tacit support for Trump's Middle East politics?

It's a similar issue with Loveless, from Russian auteur Andrey Zvyagintsev. Few in the Academy would want to be seen supporting Moscow or Vladimir Putin, especially with the ongoing investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign ahead of the 2016 election. The irony: Zvyagintsev is, if anything, anti-Putin. His 2014 Oscar nominee, Leviathan, which skewered government corruption, was condemned by the Kremlin, with many officials calling for it to be banned. Loveless, the story of a divorcing couple whose child goes missing, is similarly relentless in its criticism of contemporary Russia. The director uses the couple's toxic relationship to portray a decaying and morally corrupt society.

Local, not international, politics color both The Insult, Lebanon's Oscar contender, and In the Fade, from Germany. The former is a legal drama focused on Lebanon's sectarian divide (a Christian car mechanic and a Muslim construction worker come to blows over a dispute concerning a rain gutter); the latter looks at the rise of racist violence in Germany through the story of a neo-Nazi who murders the Kurdish husband and child of a German woman.

Oscar voters wanting to make a statement without wading into the stickier issues of global politics could take a shine to foreign-language entries from Chile and South Africa. Sebastian Lelio's A Fantastic Woman, about a Chilean transgender woman (played by transgender actress Daniela Vega) who faces scorn and discrimination after the death of her older boyfriend, is a powerful story of LGBTQ identity and acceptance. John Trengove's The Wound examines South Africa's hyper-macho and homophobic culture through a story of a closeted gay man tasked with initiating a teenage boy in the traditional ways of manhood. Both have stirred up controversy at home, but both, from the Academy's perspective, could be safe bets.

Then again, Academy voters, exhausted from the first year of Trump, could be in the mood for a little escapism. In that case, Oscar odds point to On Body and Soul from Hungarian director Ildiko Enyedi. The surreal love story, between a woman with autistic tendencies and an emotionally (and physically) crippled man, could be just the respite from politics the Academy craves.

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