Every year since 1956, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the United States accepts submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film from countries all over the world. As the hype for more popular contenders often claims the spotlight, many moviegoers dismiss the foreign nominees as a less interesting category. While this may be unfortunate, it is beyond a doubt that the wide range of films submitted here present a diverse window into the world, perpetuating stories rooted in conditions often unimaginable to wide audiences, and preserving a sort of cultural status quo for future viewers.
The 90th Academy Awards ceremony will take place on 4 March this year, and the list of nominees has already been announced. The Best Foreign Language Film category is particularly intriguing, as the interest in participating has been growing continuously in the past few years, leading up to a record 92 submissions in 2018. This of course raises many questions – With only one film per country accepted, how do these films get chosen? What happens in the case of political conflicts of interest, if a nation is not universally acknowledged as a country? (Read about a controversy regarding Palestine’s Divine Intervention in the early 2000s here.) Is a shortlist of nine films, five nominees and a single winner truly representative of the state of world cinema today? Is a distinction between an English-speaking Best Picture and a foreign language nominee truly necessary at the world’s perhaps most renowned motion picture awards ceremony? Thousands of films are produced on a yearly basis around the globe, and while not every film turns out as a crowd-pleasing, critically acclaimed success, festivals and prestigious awards are certainly a useful way to attract a larger audience’s attention to them. For this reason, The Saint has created an informative list of last year’s foreign Oscar submissions; as there is obviously not enough space to discuss all 92 of them, the focus will lie on those that almost made it or ended up on the shortlist, some that may have appeared on a social media newsfeed, and some that may receive a UK theatrical release in the future.
A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica, Sebastián Lelio, Chile)
With his main interests lying in the concept of sin in the eyes of religion, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio has established himself with films like 2005’s The Sacred Family and 2013’s Gloria. Both tales of adultery, they explore the broadness of love and the power of youth over old age. It should come as no surprise that A Fantastic Woman’s premise was rooted in similar themes, focusing on the abrupt tragedy in the relationship between a young woman and an older man, as he unexpectedly dies. The woman is then deprived of her grief as she is a persona non grata among her lover’s friends and family. Actress Daniela Vega initially joined the production as a script consultant, after Lelio and co-writer Gonzalo Maza realized their plot carried the potential for an accurate representation of the transgender living experience. Vega’s reportedly vibrant personality impressed the filmmakers so much, that she landed the lead role of Marina. The film has since been screened at numerous festivals, earning several nominations for Vega, Lelio and Maza; it is now one of the five nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film category, and its current release date in UK cinemas is 2 March. (You can also catch it at the Cameo Picture House in Edinburgh on 13 Feb.)
The Insult (قضية رقم ٢٣ / L’insulte, Ziad Doueiri, Lebanon)
A misunderstanding between a Christian nationalist and a Palestinian refugee results in a quarrel blown out of proportion, drawing in political tension and unresolved disputes from the past. Set in today’s Beirut but inspired by the Lebanese Civil War (1975-’90), director Ziad Doueiri (known for his collaborations with Quentin Tarantino as camera assistant) continues to depict conflicts in Middle Eastern politics, and his portrayal in The Insult seems to be no less successful than his previous efforts. Having fled Lebanon at the time of the war (at the age of 18), he often relies on his own experiences in his storytelling – note his 1998 film West Beirut, inspired by autobiographical elements. A tense courtroom drama, The Insult is another among the five Oscar nominees. Its UK release date is yet to be announced.
Foxtrot (פוֹקְסטְרוֹט, Samuel Maoz, Israel)
Every year, Israel submits its Ophir Award winner for Best Film to the Academy Awards. There are of course some exceptions, but Foxtrot is not one of them – in Israel, it has already been acknowledged as the year’s most outstanding Israeli feature, and was an Oscar favourite until the nominations were announced. While it did not make it beyond the shortlist, it is a timely tale of the harrowing experiences of soldiers at war. Samuel Maoz’s film aims to provoke empathy, focusing on both a young soldier and his family’s lives. It also features a memorable dance scene, which has since boosted its popularity (you can catch a glimpse of it in the trailers), with many quickly referring to it as one of the best in history. While such claims might be slightly premature, they may be right, and the only way to find out is by catching the film in theatres if it gets a release date.
In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts, Fatih Akin, Germany)
Diane Kruger won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival last year for her portrayal of Katja, a grieving mother who loses her husband and son in a bomb attack. Labelled as a neo-Nazi race hate attack, authorities handle the case with ironic inefficiency, leading Katja to act on her own. While Fatih Akin’s revenge thriller is not as critically acclaimed as the other films on this list, it won Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, and competed for the Palme d’Or in Cannes last year.
Félicité (Félicité, Alain Gomis, Senegal)
As in the case of Foxtrot, Alain Gomis’s Félicité joined the festival circuit with plenty of success, including a record-breaking six awards at the African Movie Academy Awards. The film follows a single mother (played remarkably by Congolese singer Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu), known in a local bar for her musical performances, searching for help after her son suffers an accident. Félicité has been praised for its sensual representation of life on the streets of Kinshasa, and the captivating performance of its charismatic, sensitive lead. As Senegal’s first ever Oscar submission, it impressively landed a spot on the December shortlist. It is yet to receive a release date in the UK.
Loveless (Нелюбовь, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia)
Does money make us happy? This popular, debate-sparking question might not be an original subject for a film, but naturally, Andrey Zvyagintsev broadens it to illustrate the hardships of living in contemporary Russian society. Considered by many one of the greatest Russian directors alive, Zvyagintsev is no new name to worldwide audiences, having written himself into film history with masterworks The Return (2003) and Leviathan (2014). Perhaps not as anti-Putin as his previous works, Loveless focuses on a microcosmic familial environment, where tragedy strikes unexpectedly. The film criticizes the wealthy and offers a look at apathy at its most soulless. This year, Zvyagintsev will be attending the Academy Awards as a nominee for the second time after Leviathan. Loveless will start screening in the DCA on 23 February.
The Wound (Inxeba, John Trengove, South Africa)
South Africa’s candidate made it to the Foreign Language shortlist after it received deserved recognition at last years’ festivals (especially Sundance). The Wound depicts a subject rarely captured on film: based on Thando Mgqolozana’s novel A Man Who is Not a Man, it offers a detailed look at an initiation rite practiced by the Xhosa tribes of South Africa, and takes on the experiences of homosexual men who turn to the process for cultural and social acceptance. The novel and the film address the controversies surrounding the process, as the rites are commonly known to pose health risks during circumcision. The Wound raises questions of identity both in the eyes of oneself and the community, and employs actors originating from the Xhosa people with personal experiences of the initiation. The film is yet to receive a UK release date.
On Body and Soul (Testről és lélekről, Ildikó Enyedi, Hungary)
Director Ildikó Enyedi’s first feature in 18 years, On Body and Soul follows two eccentric slaughterhouse employees who discover they share the same dreams every night. While easily categorizable as a love story between outcasts, Enyedi’s vision stretches beyond the predictable aspects to deliver a sensual portrayal of intimacy, musing around the dilemma of sharing the most private secrets with a stranger. In a way, On Body and Soul is a mature fulfilment of Enyedi’s artistic vision, one she is known to never abandon – after all, she refused David Bowie’s offer to star in her 1994 film Magic Hunter, asking him to stay on as producer instead. On Body and Soul is among the five nominees, and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray within the next two months.
The Square (The Square, Ruben Östlund, Sweden)
In 2015, Ruben Östlund staged a freak-out when his film Force Majeure did not receive an Oscar nomination – it’s a memorable, funny clip that honours his film well. As a self-proclaimed fan of unbearably uncomfortable situations, he furthers his signature filmmaking style in The Square, this time earning that deserved Oscar nomination. Focusing around the arrangements of publicity for an art exhibition, the film makes fun of intellectuals, assembling an international cast including Danish actor Claes Bang, The Handmaid’s Tale’s Elisabeth Moss, The Wire’s Dominic West, and talented motion-capture actor Terry Notary. Dark and sharply funny, The Square is a worthy watch, and will arrive in UK theatres on 16 March.