'The Past,' 'Bethlehem,' 'Omar' among latest foreign Oscar entries as deadline nears
The deadline for Best Foreign Language Film submissions is now one day away. We're still waiting one some countries (including China), and there are usually a couple of post-deadline stragglers, but it's fair to say the field -- which now numbers 65 films -- is close to complete.And it's a field that just got even more competitive with a flurry of high-profile entries over the weekend, including a couple of Cannes award winners.
Chief among them is Iran's selection. Having won its first Oscar two years ago with Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation," and boycotted last year's competition for political reasons, the country has returned to the race -- and to Farhadi -- by submitting the director's French-Italian production "The Past."
It's at this point that I have to admit I called this completely wrong. I had initially thought that "The Past" -- by virtue of not being an Iranian production itself -- would not be eligible to represent Iran, though Academy rules stipulate only that "the submitting country must certify that creative control of the motion picture was largely in the hands of citizens or residents of that country." I was curious to see if Iran, which had shortlisted eight local productions alongside "The Past," would effectively punish Farhadi for defecting to work in Europe.
They haven't, and have probably acted in their own best interests by selecting Farhadi's Paris-set melodrama. "The Past" may not have been quite as breathlessly acclaimed as "A Separation" upon its Cannes premiere, with some critics likening it to highbrow soap opera, but it's still a highly Academy-friendly proposition: moving, tasteful and universally relatable, with strong performances from recognizable stars, including recent Oscar nominee Bérénice Bejo.
Sony Pictures Classics will no doubt campaign smartly for the film, and they're the company you want behind you in this category: they've won the award for the past four years running, after all. They also have a strong contender in another Middle Eastern submission, Saudi Arabia's groundbreaking "Wadjda" -- it's by no means unusual for them to have multiple horses in the final race, so it'll be interesting to see which film ultimately connects more.
"The Past" is a film Sony can feasibly campaign in general categories, too, as they did for "Amour" last year. The film likely hasn't quite the heft or the dazzling reviews necessary to make much headway in the Best Picture race, but Bejo -- who won at Cannes for her gutsy performance, and surprised viewers who knew her only for her bubbly (and voiceless) work in "The Artist" -- is a legitimate Best Actress prospect. Farhadi, meanwhile, nabbed a Best Original Screenplay nod for "A Separation," and could do so again, having now gained a lot of fans in the Academy.
Moving on, though remaining in roughly the same area of the map, both Israel and Palestine submitted films over the weekend -- and as many critics have already noted, their selections have rather a lot of narrative elements in common. I have yet to see Palestine's choice, Hany Abu-Assad's "Omar," which won the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard division at Cannes. Reviews have been largely glowing for the tale of a young Palestinian baker drawn into a plot to kill an Israeli soldier, only to be arrested and tortured by Israeli forces who attempt to make him an informant.