Latin America's Frontrunner in Foreign Oscar Race is 'No,' With Gael Garcia Bernal

Gael Garcia Bernal 'No' film still - H 2012

Gael Garcia Bernal 'No' film still - H 2012

Without question, the Latin American film with the best shot at the 2013 Foreign Language Oscar is Pablo Larrain’s No from Chile, starring Gael Garcia Bernal as the brilliant young Chilean adman who helped topple the dictator Pinochet in 1988. Though Larrain’s last Oscar bid for Chile, 2008’s Tony Manero, failed to make the final five, he may have a better chance this time. No won the Art Cinema Award at its Cannes world premiere, and The Hollywood Reporter reviewer David Rooney wrote, “the nitty-gritty of the campaign’s evolution provides an engrossing narrative.” At the Telluride Film Festival, attended by the ebullient Bernal, No’s outdoor screening was interrupted by a torrential downpour – yet almost nobody left. A good sign.

On the Oct. 7 Feinberg Forecast by THR awards analyst Scott Feinberg, No is second on the list of “possibilities” for the Foreign Oscar (though far down the list from his picks of likelier winners, labeled “frontrunners” and “major threats”). Seven out of nine film pundits on the Gold Derby prediction poll put No in their top five picks for the Foreign Oscar.

But the director, a maverick like his hero, chose to shoot the film on murky, low-def U-matic film from the period, an artistic decision that may increase its gritty realism but will certainly cost it commercially, and possibly with Oscar voters.

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Mexico, which has scored eight Foreign Oscar nominations since 1960, hopes to win at last with Michel Franco’s After Lucia, which won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes. The hot-button topic of high school bullying could attract Oscar voters, but the austere, unrelenting, Lars von Trier-like relentlessness of the film could hurt its chances, warned THR reviewer Rooney, who called it “an endurance test in abject cruelty.”

Columbia is evidently going more mainstream with its submission,El cartel de los sapos (The Cartel of Snitches), based on the life story of drug lord Andres “Florecita” Lopez. Director Carlos Moreno got Grand Jury Award nominations for 2011’s All Your Dead Ones and 2008’s Dog Eat Dog at Sundance, and the latter won for cinematography. Colombian Academy president Laura Garcia said that El cartel de los sapos "represents a film trend in tone with the world’s biggest film industries: a solid story, clear filmmaking, impeccable directing and acting that go beyond the standards. …The film is a homemade product with a worldly scent. That’s why it will represent us at the Academy Awards."

The most heartfelt film in the Foreign Oscar race could be from Argentina: Benjamin Ávila’s Clandestine Childhood, inspired by the director’s traumatic youth. His mother and brother were kidnapped by the Argentine junta, and Ávila was forced to hide his identity to survive. The drama of a guerrilla fighter’s kid forced to live in secret could appeal to Oscar voters, and it could be significant that coproducer Luis Puenzo won Latin America’s first Foreign Oscar in 1985 for a film on a similar theme, The Official Story. On the other hand, there have been an awful lot of South American films about politically oppressed kids since 1985, and THR reviewer Neil Young wrote that “Ávila brings very little that's new, surprising or fresh to an already over-filled table - the picture is too mainstream for arthouses, too arty for multiplexes.”

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Brazil’s entry is Selton Mello’s O Palhaco (The Clown), about a father-son team of circus clowns on the road. It sold 1.4 million tickets in Brazil. Brazil hasn’t cracked the Oscar nominations since Walter Salles’ 1999 Central Station, which got Fernanda Montenegro a best actress nom. “This selection must be seen as an award itself,” said Brazilian secretary of audiovisuals Dourado Santana of O Palhaco.

The Dominican Republic has submitted Jose Maria Cabral’s Jaque mate (Checkmate), about a TV host who gets a call from his family’s kidnapper, forcing him to play out the hostage drama live for his vast audience. It’s inspired by a televised kidnapping in 1993 that riveted the nation. Though Cabral’s movie may be too far below the radar of international film festivals to register on voters’ screens, it’s auspicious that is the fourth Dominican entry ever in the Oscar race.

Venezuela, which has submitted over 20 films for the Foreign Oscar without a nomination, makes a bid with Hernan JabesPiedra, papel o tijera (Rock, Paper, Scissors), about two families’ intertwined fates.