When the Italian selection committee meets early this week to determine which film it will submit to the Oscar race for Best International Feature Film, it might well be the most consequential decision any country in the race will have made this year — and probably the only one that has the potential to give the category a genuine frontrunner.
That possibility exists because one of the 25 (!) films that the committee has said are in contention is Edoardo Ponti’s “The Life Ahead,” a drama that contains the first screen performance in a decade from Ponti’s mother, Sophia Loren. Not only was Loren the first actor to win an Oscar for a performance not in English, which she did in 1961 for “Two Women,” she’s considered a strong contender in this year’s Best Actress category for her affecting role as a retired prostitute who cares for the children of other women who haven’t left the profession.
Loren’s presence in the Best Actress race, and the visibility it could give a film that already has the formidable forces of Netflix behind it, would instantly make it the most prominent contender for the international Oscar. Five times in the past decade, the international race has been between films that had nominations outside the international category (or previously, the Best Foreign Language Film category) and films that didn’t — and four of those five times, the winner was a movie that was also recognized outside the category.
The only film in the past decade that got an outside nomination and lost to a film that didn’t get one was Alejandro G. Inarritu’s dark drama “Biutiful,” which was beaten by the far friendlier “In a Better World” despite a nomination for “Biutiful” lead actor Javier Bardem. In the other four years, the winners were “Parasite” last year, “Roma” in 2018, “Ida” in 2014 and “Amour” in 2012, all films with nominations in other categories.
(It’s worth noting that in the case of “Parasite,” “Roma” and “Amour,” one of their nominations outside the international category was for Best Picture. Also, “Parasite” beat two films that had outside nominations, “Pain and Glory” and “Honeyland,” while “Roma” beat two others with outside noms, “Cold War” and “Never Look Away.”)
Still, it’s not a slam dunk that Italy’s Associazione Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche Audiovisive e Multimediali (ANICA), which is charged with making the selection, will choose “The Life Ahead.” As the long “shortlist” of 25 films suggests, the country has a plethora of choices this year, which also include a new version of “Pinocchio” from “Gomorrah” and “Dogman” director Matteo Garrone, and the documentary “Notturno” from Gianfranco Rosi, who was nominated for Best Documentary Feature (but not for Best Foreign Language Film) for his 2016 doc “Fire at Sea.”
Other contenders include three films that screened at this year’s Venice Film Festival: Claudio Noce’s “Padrenostro,” Emma Dante’s “The Macaluso Sisters” and Giuseppe Pedersoli’s “La Verita Su La Dolce Vita.”
Since the Oscars began handing out awards to non-English films in the 1950s, Italy has more wins than any other country — 11 (plus three honorary awards) — and its 32 nominations are second only to France. But since 2000, the country has either fallen from favor with Oscar voters or made the wrong choices: In this century, Italy is tied for 14th in Oscar nominations with only two, one for 2005’s “Don’t Tell” and one for 2013’s “The Great Beauty,” which won.
In that same time, Germany and France each have eight nominations, with Germany winning twice; Denmark has seven nominations and one win; Mexico, Canada and Poland have five nominations, with each country winning once; Sweden and Israel have four nominations each; and Belgium, Argentina, Japan, Austria and Russia all have three nominations.
Among the Italian directors who have been passed over by Oscar voters in recent years are Garrone (twice), Rosi, Nanni Moretti, Giuseppe Tornatore, Paolo Virzi, Marco Bellocchio and even Roberto Benigni, the hyperactive two-time winner for “Life Is Beautiful,” who was in the running with his own 2002 version of “Pinocchio,” but didn’t even make the shortlist. (Begnini also stars in Garrone’s version of the classic story.)
There’s no guarantee that “The Life Ahead” would turn the tide for Italy, particularly with voting in the category moving completely online for the first time. But in a year in which the highest-profile submission so far is probably Denmark’s ode to drunkenness (“Another Round”), “The Life Ahead” would probably make an Italian film the frontrunner for the first time since “The Great Beauty.”
The 86-year-old Sophia Loren, meanwhile, may not need the Italian committee to choose her movie to get a ticket to the Oscars. Judging by the initial reaction to her performance in “The Life Ahead,” she could well already be part of that show, in whatever form it ends up taking. But if the film is selected, it will only be the third time in her 70-year-career that a film she appears in has been Italy’s submission to the Oscars international race.
The first time came in 1965, with Vittorio De Sica’s “Marriage Italian-Style,” and the second in 1977 with Ettore Scola’s “A Special Day.” Both were nominated.