‘A Separation,’ ‘In Darkness’ Make Oscar Foreign-Language Shortlist

3D dance documentary “Pina” and four-and-a-half hour epic “Warriors of the Rainbow” also make the cut

Last Updated: January 18, 2012 @ 10:53 AM

Iran's "A Separation," Canada's "Monsieur Lazhar" and Poland's "In Darkness" are among the nine films to make the shortlist in the Best Foreign-Language Film category, the Academy announced on Wednesday.

A SeparationAlso making the cut: Belgium's "Bullhead," Denmark's "Superclasico," Germany's "Pina," Israel's "Footnote," Morocco's "Omar Killed Me" and Taiwain's "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale."

"Pina," a 3D documentary about dance pioneer Pina Bausch, is an unusual selection for voters in the category. "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale" is a four-and-a-half hour epic about a native uprising against Japanese occupiers in 1930, which according to Academy voters played like gangbusters at a sparsely attended Saturday morning screening.

Films from several high-profile international auteurs failed to make the shortlist, including Aki Kaurismaki's wry "Le Havre," Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse" and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia."

Other films that were not selected included France's "Declaration of War," Mexico's "Miss Bala" and China's "The Flowers of War," with Christian Bale.

Volunteers who made up the foreign-language general committee viewed all 63 nominees at Academy screenings over the past three months, and scored each film on a scale of six to 10.

The six films with the highest average scores moved on, and a 20-person executive committee met on Tuesday night and added three films of its own choosing to complete the shortlist.

The foreign-language shortlist always prompts guessing games about which films were voted in by the general committee and which were saved by the executive committee. Among this year's selections, the general committee seems likely to be responsible for "Footnote," "Monsieur Lazhar," "Superclasico," "In Darkness," "Warriors of the Rainbow" and "A Separation" — though if that last film was not voted in by the general committee, it certainly would have been a save.

"Bullhead" was a probable executive-committee save, and "Pina" and "Omar Killed Me" may have been as well.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, two specially-chosen committees – a 20-person committee in Los Angeles and a 10-person committee in New York – will watch the nine shortlisted films, three each day, and then vote for the five nominees.

Going into those screenings, it's worth remembering that the phase-two committees are generally closer in makeup to the executive committee than to the general committee — so that films that are placed on the shortlist by the executive committee tend to fare well when it comes to receiving nominations.

The phase-two committee is going to have at least one extremely long day, though, with the 267-minute running time for "Warriors of the Rainbow" making it something of a Herculean task on a day that also includes two other screenings.

The shortlist:

Belgium, "Bullhead," Michael R. Roskam, director;
Canada, "Monsieur Lazhar," Philippe Falardeau, director;
Denmark, "Superclásico," Ole Christian Madsen, director;
Germany, "Pina," Wim Wenders, director;
Iran, "A Separation," Asghar Farhadi, director;
Israel, "Footnote," Joseph Cedar, director;
Morocco, "Omar Killed Me," Roschdy Zem, director;
Poland, "In Darkness," Agnieszka Holland, director;
Taiwan, "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale," Wei Te-sheng, director.

Over the past several months, TheWrap has seen 43 of the 63 submissions, including eight of the nine shortlisted films (all except "Omar Killed Me"). Here are the reviews of the shorlisted films:

Belgium: "Bullhead"
Director: Michael Roskam
It's not film noir, it's farm noir. Roskam's film starts out as a black comedy and turns into a dark drama about a gallery of characters – crooks, cops and the occasional innocent bystander – intersecting with what its director calls "the Belgian hormone mafia." (Apparently, there really is such a thing.)

The film is visceral, tough, intermittently funny and occasionally affecting, with a style that seems to be as pumped full of steroids and hormones as its characters, both human and bovine. About a third of the way in, though, an incident with a young boy takes place that is so horrific that it tips the scales and makes a fairly dense plot involving the cattle hormone traffickers, an informant and a police investigation seem thoroughly secondary.

Canada: "Monsieur Lazhar"
Director: Philippe Falardeau
The story of an Algerian immigrant teacher who takes over a traumatized fifth-grade class after the suicide of their former teacher, "Monsieur Lazhar" is in some ways vaguely reminiscent of the 2008 French entry (and Oscar nominee) "The Class," but with better-behaved kids, a less-accomplished teacher and significantly less grit in the shooting style,

The winner of awards at 11 different film festivals, Falardeau's film is subtle, understated and free of the usual classroom-drama clichés; Lazhar (played by the French comic Fellag) is no Mr. Chips or John Keating ("Dead Poet's Society") inspiring and saving his kids, but a good man uneasily making his way through a difficult situation with equal parts heart and bluff. After the screening I saw (not an official AMPAS screening, but one nonetheless filled with Oscar voters), the buzz was strong. 

Denmark: "Superclasico"
Director: Ole Christian Madsen
What hath "Simple Simon" wrought? That quirky Swedish comedy made the shortlist last year, and now at least two Scandinavian countries have followed suit with lighter entries of their own.

"Superclasico" is a comedy of misadventure that starts when a Danish man and his teenage son travel to Argentina to see the wife who has left him for a younger soccer star. In a way, the film's most amusing and vibrant characters are the peripheral ones: a cranky old man in a bar, the self-centered soccer star, a stern but randy maid …

The film is twisted, dark and silly, with a sweet ending that could make it stand out amidst the generally downbeat competition in this category. "Simple Simon" notwithstanding, "Superclasico" is not necessarily the type of film you'd expect to see advance, but by all reports it played well at its Academy screening and has some high-placed supporters.

Germany: "Pina"
Director: Wim Wenders
Veteran German director Wim Wenders ("Paris, Texas," "Wings of Desire") has made a brilliant and beautiful dance documentary about the visionary work of his longtime friend, the late choreographer Pina Bausch, and her Tanztheater Wuppertal.

Bausch's daring, startling and gorgeous work stakes out a bracing territory between modern dance and performance art, and Wenders makes remarkable use of 3D to vividly create the spaces in which the Bausch's work takes place; it's the most effective 3D film I've ever seen, and one that marvelously captures the experience of a Bausch performance.

Crucially, I say this as an aficionado who's seen Bausch's company every time they’ve come to Los Angeles since 1984. Those who haven't been won over and aren't familiar with her company – and let's face it, most Oscar voters fall into that camp – may find her repetitive, slow-paced choreography infuriating (or maybe just boring) rather than mesmerizing.

To the foreign-language committee's credit, they're screening the film for voters in 3D (as opposed to the documentary branch, whose members will view it on 2D screeners). The tricky part will be persuading those voters, who generally expect and respond to serious narrative dramas, that it's okay to recognize a documentary about art in this category. That rarely happens, but I'd like to think "Pina" is arresting enough to turn the trick (or to sway the executive committee).

Iran: "A Separation"
Director: Asghar Farhadi
With a lead character who loses the audience's sympathy in the first scene, "A Separation" is a tough but compelling drama that touches on tradition, justice and male-female relationships in modern Iran. When a family court refuses a woman's petition for divorce so that she can leave the country (and her husband's Alzheimer's-stricken father) with her 11-year-old daughter, she leaves her husband to hire a caretaker; things go awry with the new caretaker, and the husband ends up back in court, where a web of lies on both sides is gradually stripped away to its uneasy conclusion.

At a time when Iran's repression of its filmmakers is coming to the forefront, "A Separation" – filmed without government support by a director who was briefly banned from making it after a speech that offended the state – deals with contradictions and conflicts in Iranian society without openly criticizing the ruling regime.   

Voters' desire to support Iranian filmmaking may help the film's chances, though "A Separation" is challenging and complex enough to earn a berth on its own. Still, this is one of the films that I suspect may need the help of the executive committee to make the shortlist.

Israel: "Footnote"
Director: Joseph Cedar
Eliezer Shkolnik is a cranky, vaguely misanthropic academic who's spent his entire career exploring a narrow study of alternative versions of the Talmud from his post at  Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His son Uriel is a professor of the same discipline at the same university, with a career that threatens to eclipse his father's. This fact does not please Eliezer, but it gives Joseph Cedar ample fodder for both dramatic and comic angst.

The winner of the Palme d'Or for screenplay at last May's Cannes Film Festival, "Footnote" is polished, funny and very Jewish, which puts it in good stead with the category's general committee. ("You can't be too Jewish for the Academy," said one member in assessing the chances of the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man," which scored a Best Picture nomination two years ago.) The film doesn't feel as weighty as other recent Israeli submissions – which include "Ajami," "Waltz With Bashir" and "The Band's Visit" – but its tale of spats between unyielding, esoteric scholars is an unlikely crowd-pleaser of sorts.

Poland: "In Darkness"
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Being about World War II and the Holocaust is no longer a free pass to a nomination (and maybe it never was), but it can't hurt. And Holland, an Oscar nominee for her screenplay to "Europa Europa" 21 years ago, finds a novel way to approach that conflict: her film, which will receive a stateside release via Sony Classics, tells the true story of a small-time thief who against his better judgment winds up hiding more than a dozen Jews in the sewers of the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lvov during the war.

The film is somber, large in scale and slowly paced, with a distinctly reluctant hero. Holland takes her time telling the story, which helps build the palpable sense of claustrophobia and oppression as months go by for those trapped just below enemies who would ship them to the camps if they knew of their existence.

There's a pretty good chance that four of the films I've seen so far will make the shortlist, and a couple of them will receive nominations. But of them all, I would say that this is the surest bet. I'd be astonished if it doesn't make the shortlist, and surprised if it doesn't get a nomination.

Taiwan: "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale"
Director: Wei Te-Sheng
This was the last entry I watched, mostly because I couldn't bring myself to put in a four-and-a-half hour screener. Late last week, though, a committee member told me that voters, who were themselves dreading a Saturday morning marathon screening, were startled to discover that the film was strong and exciting. He was right: This telling of the story of the Wushe Incident, in which native Taiwanese rebelled against repressive Japanese rule, is a powerful and visceral experience, an old-school action epic that remains consistently involving through 276 minutes of battles and beheadings.

The film – which, in fact, is two separate films that can be shown together in the manner of "Che" or "Carlos" – is produced by John Woo, who obviously knows how to stage involving large-scale action sequences. It's also a brutal action film with a heart, and with a compelling lead performance by Lin Ching-Tai as the tribal chieftain who can no longer submit to the abuses of colonial rule, and leads an uprising he knows is likely suicidal.  


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