Oscar Foreign Language Race Heats Up With Bold Choices From France and Italy

Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” and the documentary “Fire at Sea” are the Oscar submissions from the two most awarded countries

Last Updated: September 26, 2016 @ 10:58 AM

France and Italy, the two countries with the most nominations and the most wins in the Academy Awards race for Best Foreign Language Film, both chose their Oscar entries on Monday — and both countries went for bold films that may be outside the mainstream of the race.

France, which leads all countries in the Oscar foreign language race with 39 Oscar nominations, including one last year for “Mustang,” opted for Paul Verhoeven‘s troubling psychological drama “Elle.”

The film stars Isabelle Huppert as a hard-driving professional woman who is brutally raped by a masked man in the opening scene, but then begins a teasing interplay with the men who might be her assailant. Verhoeven’s first film in a decade, it raises uncomfortable questions about complicity, and drew divisive (if largely favorable) reaction when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

The film was chosen over a four-film shortlist that also included Francois Ozon’s lavish period piece “Frantz.”

Italy, which last won three years ago for “The Great Beauty” and holds the record with 14 Oscar wins (to 12 for France), chose the Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea” (“Fuocoammare”), a rare documentary to make the Oscar foreign race.

To make the film, Rosi spent a year on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where thousands of refugees land on their way from Africa to Europe. Rosi humanizes the crisis with his deliberate, fly-on-the-wall cinema verite filmmaking, focusing not only on the refugees but on locals like a doctor who cares for the migrants and a young boy more concerned with playing with his slingshot than with the tragedies that surround him.

“Elle” and “Fire at Sea” are both unconventional and challenging films for the Oscar race, but both must now be counted as real contenders in a year that has seen more than 75 countries announce selections as the Oct. 3 deadline nears.

Other top contenders include Germany’s “Toni Erdmann,” which won raves in Cannes; Iran’s “The Salesman,” which was directed by Asghar Farhadi, whose “A Separation” won in 2011; Spain’s “Julieta,” by past winner Pedro Almodovar; Chile’s “Neruda,” from past nominee Pablo Larrain; Mexico’s “Desierto,” an immigration drama directed by Jonas Cuaron and starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan; and Israel’s “Sand Storm,” which last week won six Ophir Awards.

Dark horses could include Denmark’s “Land of Mine,” Sweden’s “A Man Called Ove,” Finland’s “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki,” Egypt’s “Clash,” Romania’s “Sieranevada,” Saudi Arabia’s “Barakah Meets Barakan,” Singapore’s “The Apprentice” and South Korea’s “The Age of Shadows.”

TheWrap has the complete list of submissions here, and will continue to update as more films are announced.

The official list of Oscar foreign language entries will be announced in early October, with screenings for Academy voters beginning later that month.