February 24, 2006

Oscar’s foreign films make strange bedfellows

By Arthur Spiegelman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - You've got Palestinian suicide
bombers, young men about to explode in a South African
shantytown, Nazis, Italian incest victims and World War One

This year's five foreign-language Oscar nominees are a
varied lot, and there are hints the race is too close to call,
which has added excitement to what has been called the most
boring of the top Academy Awards categories.

For the first time in Oscar history, a Palestinian film,
"Paradise Now," is in contention, raising delicate political
questions and sometimes mean-spirited debate, like an e-mail
sent to film professionals in which an Israeli critic calls it
a Nazi movie replete with anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Few others agree. They generally hail Hany Abu-Assad's
movie, about two West Bank garage mechanics set to kill
themselves and others in Tel Aviv, as a tale aimed at
explaining what drives people to be suicide bombers without
condoning it.

Abu-Assad says he was stunned by the accusations.

"This is very painful. You never mean to make a movie to
offend or insult anyone. What you want is that people will go
and see the film and ask their own questions and answer them,"
he said.

Further complicating its chances at the March 5 ceremony is
the Islamist group Hamas' victory in the recent Palestinian
elections, according to some members of the Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Academy has many Jewish voters, and some have said they
will not vote for a Palestinian film at a time when a declared
enemy of Israel is taking power in the West Bank and Gaza.

Moreover, "Paradise Now" has stiff competition from at
least two other films: Germany's "Sophie Scholl: The Final
Days," about a small, ineffectual World War Two resistance
group crushed by the Nazis, and "Tsotsi," a South African film
about a young killer who discovers human decency.


Driving "Tsotsi" and "Sophie Scholl" are standout
performances by lead actors, South African Presley Chweneyagae,
whose intensity reminds some of James Dean, and German Julia
Jentsch, who plays a college student put to death for
distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets.

Rounding out the category are Italy's "Don't Tell," a tale
of incest and recovered memories, and France's "Joyeux Noel,"
set during an ad hoc Christmas truce between German, British
and French soldiers in the trenches of World War One.

Oscar experts say the winner may be determined -- like many
an election for political office -- by voter turnout. Unlike
most Oscar categories, voters for best foreign film must see
all the contenders in a theater, not on a videotape or DVD.

Critics complain that the restriction means that probably
less than 1,000 of the Academy's roughly 6,000 members will
actually cast votes in the category.

Other odd rules prevent the Academy from nominating some of
the best foreign films, they say.

This year, for instance, Austria's "Cache," a critical
favorite in Europe, was ineligible because a film must be shot
in the language of the country submitting it. "Cache" uses
French, not German, so it was out of the running.

"The system is so bad that if it isn't corrected, they
should just eliminate the category," said one longtime Academy
member, who asked not to be identified.

But Cristina Comencini, the director and screenwriter for
Italy's "Don't Tell," said she doesn't care if the system is
flawed. She is just happy to be nominated.

"I feel this kind of success is a sort of a miracle. I
showed this movie in big cities and always received a warm
reception. But I didn't expect a nomination," she said.