It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who truly understands how the Oscars work that the still above isn’t from Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. You will say, but how can it lose? This remarkably scripted drama, after all, won the Golden Globe, performed almost as well as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life on year-end lists and polls, and presently rests at #69 on IMDb’s Top 250. As for its unique appeal, it reaches beyond preconceived notions of a society most people—not just the ones who vote in this category—are unfamiliar with. In short, a win for A Separation feels right because voting for it feels like the right thing to do. To which I ask, but for whom?
One need only look back at the middlebrow tosh that’s taken this prize for the last 25 years, from Cinema Paradiso and Indochine to The Sea Inside and The Secret in Their Eyes, to see that there’s very little precedent for a film of A Separation’s caliber to join their ranks. (All About My Mother may be a notable exception, but even then some will tell you that the film marked an unfortunate turning point in Pedro Almodóvar’s now-defanged career.) Voters in this category have so systematically turned their backs on some of the most critically acclaimed films of our time, favoring instead bald-faced, bound-to-be-forgotten manipulations, that it’s become a strike for a film in this category to actually exhibit a worthwhile sense of craft—a fact I should have more strongly taken into account when predicting Susanne Bier’s reprehensible In a Better World would fall to Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies.
To be fair, it should be acknowledged that for many years the winner here was just one rotten apple among many (click here and cringe at the nominees from 2003-05), and that the problem with this category wasn’t so much the films that were winning as it was the films that weren’t being nominated. Called out one too many times by detractors, the embarrassment of the Academy became so pronounced that it was necessary to create more tribunals to monitor the category’s selection process than the Hague deems appropriate in order to designate a dictator’s actions as crimes against humanity. Of course, while AMPAS’s intervention on behalf of ciniphilia has allowed worthwhile films to compete for the Oscar here, no amount of face-saving meddling can in the end force the voters hand when it comes to actually picking a winner.
We know the demographic that votes here, and to be fair, we should acknowledge that the vision A Separation gives us of life in its particular corner of the Arab world is far from the political and moral provocation of undeserved losers such as Incendies and Paradise Now. While we don’t doubt that Angelina Jolie and Vanessa Redgrave will almost instinctually rally behind this gripping film, one that depicts an Iranian family going through hassles not uncommon in Beverly Hills, from divorce to bad housekeepers, let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that they found the time to see all the nominated films. What we must ask ourselves is: Who would Estelle Harris vote for?
Not Josef Cedar’s Footnote, only one of three Oscar-nominated films I haven’t seen this year, in part because I’ve been warned that it plays like a sour Talmudic lesson. Definitely not Bullhead. The Revanche of this year’s race, Michael R. Roskam’s aesthetically fetching but singularly literal-minded drama fixates with almost ludicrous abandon on the mental psyche of a mobster who was castrated with a rock when he was a boy. Less ouch-y, more warm and cuddly, and certainly a strong contender here given that it out-panders every other nominee by a healthy ratio, is Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, something of a marriage between The Class and Patch Adams, and one that would be completely deplorable if it wasn’t so well acted.
That leaves In Darkness, Agnieska Holland’s account of a group of time-travelling space aliens who journey to Brazil in the 1940s to steal the only existing print of the rough cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. No, I’m kidding, A Separation would totally win the Oscar over that film. In Darkness is about some Polish dude who hides a group of Jews from the Germans in occupied Lvov…in the city’s sewers…for 14 months…where they must live with rats, underneath a church, without light and contraception, deliver babies without saying a peep, and with the fear that at any moment their savior might no longer want to protect them if he senses his own life is at risk.
In Darkness emanates from a nuance-free void, but that’s either intended or to be expected, maybe both, given the nature its subject matter. In darkness, everyone remains a cipher—some would say equals. It’s absolutely hair-raising from beginning to end, almost luridly so, and critics were falling over each other to leave the screening in order to get their tears lapped up by a hungry Rex Reed, but Michael Atkinson says it best: It “essentially thrums the same self-sacrifice-versus-self-preservation chord. It’s not fair, but there it is: We’ve been here before.” Indeed, one need only study the Academy’s very long history of honoring films both directly and indirectly about the Holocaust to know that this is Holland’s Oscar to lose, and if this picture is any indication, maybe Sony Pictures Classics wants it that way.
Will Win: In Darkness
Could Win: A Separation
Should Win: A Separation