Can 'The Past' Be Beaten for the Foreign Language Oscar? (Analysis)

Asghar Farhadi delivered Iran its first Oscar two years ago, but can his latest fend off strong entries from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Poland and Denmark, among others?
"The Past"

This week, the Academy revealed that a record 76 countries have submitted films for consideration for the best foreign language film Oscar. Nobody has screened all of them yet, but, having seen many of them at festivals, press screenings or via screeners, I feel qualified to identify some of the category's top contenders.

Right now, my hunch is that Iran's The Past is the film to beat. Its writer-director, Asghar Farhadi, is the same man who was responsible for A Separation, another film about domestic strife, which brought Iran its first-ever Oscar in this category just two years ago. The one big difference between the two films: the newer one, for which beautiful Berenice Bejo (The Artist) was awarded the best actress prize at Cannes, was set and shot in Paris and spoken in the French language, whereas the older one was more Iranian, having been shot in Tehran and spoken in Farsi. For those reasons and others to do with subject matter -- it deals with divorce -- some cultural hard-liners in Iran argued that The Past was "too French." But since Academy rules permit countries to submit films even if they are in a language other than the country's own national tongue, and Iran doesn't have a "more Iranian" alternative that is in the same league as The Past, savvier minds eventually prevailed.

Still, a win for The Past is anything but assured.

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As was the case when The Separation was up for the Oscar, Iran's most prominent challenger for the award is, ironically, probably its biggest real-world nemesis, Israel. Two years ago Israel came up short with Footnote, but this year it returns with another formidable contender, Yuval Adler's Bethlehem, a thriller about the relationship between an Israeli intelligence agent and his young Palestinian informant. The pic recently was awarded an impressive six Ophirs (the Israeli Oscars), including best film.

Israel has been a fairly regular contender for the best foreign language film Oscar over the 56 years in which it has existed as a competitive category, racking up 10 nominations -- more than every country except France (36), Italty (27), Spain (19), Sweden (14) and Japan (12). Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, never even entered a film prior to this year, when it submitted Wadjda -- a film by a female director (Haifaa Al-Mansour), no less! (This year also brings the first-ever entries from Moldova and Montenegro, and the first entry from Pakistan in 50 years.)

Other acclaimed entries include Italy's The Great Beauty, a Fellini-esque portrait of present-day Rome and Romans; Denmark's The Hunt, which stars Mads Mikkelsen, who won the best actor award at Cannes in 2012 for his work in the film; Palestine's Omar, which was awarded a Jury Prize at the most recent Cannes film fest; Hong Kong's The Grandmaster, a kung fu actioner directed by the internationally revered filmmaker Wong Kar Wai; Chile's Gloria, a dark comedy about a middle-aged woman's attempt to find love; Poland's Walesa, Andrzej Wajda's biopic of Polish politician and activist Lech Walesa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and served as president of Poland between 1990 and 1995.

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As always, considerable attention is also being focused on the films that did not make the cut: France's lesbian love story Blue Is the Warmest Color, which was awarded Cannes' Palme d'Or but is ineligible for this race because its French distributor elected not to release it domestically until later in the fall (France went with Renoir instead); Japan's Like Father, Like Son, a film about a father facing a moral dilemma, which was awarded a Jury Prize at Cannes but passed over at home in favor of The Great Passage; India's The Lunchbox, a fan favorite at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, which was left out at the expense of The Good Road; and the Czech Republic's, Burning Bush, a film by past Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland which was disqualified -- and replaced by The Don Juans -- because a version of it was broadcast on European TV, in violation of Academy rules.

All 76 films will soon be screened by members of the Academy's foreign language committee, who will pick five for a shortlist, to which four others will be added by an executive committee. That shortlist, which will be released publicly, will then be whittled down to five nominees by a smaller group, and then, for the first time, the entire Academy will be sent screeners of those films and invited to vote for a winner.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg