In a recent article for the The New York Times, Dennis Lim wrote: “There was a time when the Academy Award for best foreign-language film reflected the state of world cinema: Fellini films won back-to-back Oscars in the mid 1950s, as did Bergman films in the early ’60s. But the category has come to suggest a peculiar gulf between Academy opinion and the tastes of critics and audiences alike.” Ever since AMPAS put this category’s oddball selection committee in lockdown as punishment for their dire string of nominees throughout much of the 90s and early aughts, the quality of the nominees since then has arguably improved, even if the spoils continue to go to the namby-pambiest of films. We know this (it’s why we predicted a win for The Lives of Others over Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006), but try telling that to those who are knee-jerkingly pegging The White Ribbon for this award now that Michael Haneke’s film has a Golden Globe to bookend its Palm d’Or.
If this were the ’50s or ’60s, a distinctive artiste like Haneke would be an Oscar winner. But these are different times we live in, namely one where the average age of the AMPAS member permitted to vote in this category is 65 (at least according to Gary Palmucci, general manager of Kino International)—and their level of exposure to the world appears to be the three-block radius between their Upper West Side pad and the subterranean theaters at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. For White Ribbon, an austere, allegorical, black-and-white rumination on the rise of fascism, to win this prize would imply that we’ve traveled through some sort of time-space continuum and returned to a time when, well, austere, allegorical, black-and-white ruminations on the nature of fascism were frequently nominated and frequently won here.
Despite the lazy comparisons it’s earned to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, A Prophet is less of a throwback than Haneke’s White Ribbon. Jacques Audiard’s uneven but dynamic drama about a man’s rise to power inside a prison consumed by violence and racial tensions has been a popular favorite of the festival circuit this past year, but given that its most notable scene, in which the main character slices a man’s throat with a razor blade he keeps inside his mouth, is nearly as graphic as any kill scene from Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, it definitely won’t get the support of a voting body that prefers its violence in the Afterschool Special mode of Tsotsi.
Ajami is out—if you don’t believe me, ask Vanessa Redgrave—and so is The Milk of Sorrow, one of the best films nominated for an Academy Award this year but also one that rivals Haneke’s in terms of austerity and allegorical heavy-lifting (the story uses the personal trauma of a young woman who keeps a potato inside her vagina as a jumping off point for a fierce address of a country’s history of political and sexual violence). Which leaves Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes. This prosaic but competently made political drama and love story, given how it’s been meticulously crafted in the same self-consciously hushed manner as The Lives of Others and The Counterfeiters, is practically a how-to guide on winning the foreign-language Oscar.
Will Win: The Secret in Their Eyes
Should Win: The Milk of Sorrow