Much as I am loathe to give any further wind to the orgy of self

congratulations and poor taste that was this year's Academy Awards,

given that it has been something of an ongoing discussion on this blog

I do feel obliged to offer a few words to the outcome of the Best

Foreign Language Film contest. That much-maligned category, which has

undergone nearly as many cosmetic makeovers in recent years as the

previous Best Actress winners seen on the Kodak Theatre stage last

night, drew a fair amount of unwanted attention earlier this season

when, despite all the reforms spearheaded by current Foreign Language

nominating committee chair Mark Johnson, Matteo Garrone's widely

acclaimed mafia drama Gomorrah failed to secure a nomination despite being Italy's official submission for the award.

Still, many (including Johnson) argued that the eventual five nominees

were nothing to scoff at, since they managed to include French director

Laurent Cantet's The Class (winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival), Austrian director Götz Spielmann's superb revenge drama Revanche (an audience favorite at least year's Telluride and Toronto festivals) and Israeli director Ari Folman's animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, a film that rivaled Gomorrah

in terms of its torrential acclaim from critics and audiences alike

from Cannes up through its commercial release in U.S. cinemas last

December. Given that Folman's film was also in the running for, but

failed to secure, a nomination in the Academy's Best Animated Feature

category, it had generally been considered the favorite to win in the

Foreign Language category. But alas, when the envelope was opened, the

Oscar instead went to Japanese director Yojiro Takita's relentlessly

medicore tearjerker Departures, about an unemployed cellist who

takes a job as an “encoffinment” specialist, preparing dead bodies for

cremation. (As if that weren't enough, Waltz with Bashir was

also omitted from the Oscar telecast's montage of animated features

from 2008, having evidently been deemed a less significant achievement

than Space Chimps and Star Wars: The Clone Wars.)

Admittedly, the win for Departures wasn't a total surprise.

While it may be one of the lesser-known of the nomainetd films (by

virtue of the fact that it played relatively minor film festivals and

has yet to be commercially released in the U.S.), voters in the Foreign

Language category are obliged to see all five nominated films, thereby

placing the contenders on a somewhat level playing field. And when I

found myself at a dinner last week with several knowledgable parties

(including a longtime foreign-language film publicist and the head of a

European country's national film commission), it was generally agreed

that if there was a surprise winner, it was going to be the Japanese

film. Beyond that, there is the simple fact that, along with Germany's The Baader Meinhof Complex, Departures

was easily the most conventional, Hollywood-style movie of the five

Foreign Language nominees — the one with “universal” (read:

one-dimensional) characters, a direly familiar fish-out-of-water

scenario and an incessantly sentimental musical score applied like a

thick shellac.

Meanwhile, I'm sure various conspiracy theories will emerge in the next few days as to exactly how and why Waltz with Bashir got

screwed. Speaking to an audience at last year's New York Film Festival,

Folman himself pointed out that his film, which examines the

controversial role played by Israeli soldiers in the massacre of

Palestinians during the 1982 occupation of Southern Lebanon, had been

criticized by some extreme leftists in Israel for not being

self-critical enough. But I doubt that Academy members objected to the movie on similarly political grounds.

Rather, it seems more likely that Folman's film was simply too

innovative for the Academy's notoriously calcified tastes. Certainly,

by Academy standards, it was one of the more radical works ever to be

nominated in the Foreign Language category — a fragmented memory film

in which truth and illusion collide on a tide of uncertain

recollection. There are multiple narrators, dreams masquerading as

reality (and vice-versa), and so many genres exploded moment by moment

that it becomes imossible to squeeze the film into an easily definable

box. And while Waltz builds to a conclusion that many

(including this critic) counted among the most emotionally devastating

in movies last year, it is a moment that is earned by the film rather

than cheaply calculated, and which raises more questions than it

answers. That's something that many viewers of Folman's film have found

thrilling to behold, but which may well have inspired paroxysms of rage

in Academy voters who stand by the belief that a movie should have a

clear beginning, middle and end and send people out of the theater

feeling better about “humanity.”

Even the somewhat more conventional The Class may have suffered

for similar reasons, since despite the familiar trappings of its

inspirational-schoolteacher scenario, it was that rare such film about

a teacher who tries, but in many cases fails, to make a difference, and

who is as complex and flawed a character as any of his troubled

students. Like Waltz, Cantet's film also liberally mixed

documentary and narrative techniques, using a real teacher and real

students in a fictionalized scenario based on real events — too much,

perhaps, for Academy voters to wrap their heads around (much in the way

that, for decades, documentary films featuring extensive use of

dramatic re-enactments were considered anathema to the Academy's

documentary nominating committee). Or it could simply be that the

Academy felt the nomination was honor enough for films starring

non-professional talent made well outside of their own countries'

“studio systems.” Such films do little to stroke the egos of actors

(the Academy's largest voting branch) who seem to relish sitting in the

Kodak auditorium while being reminded how fabulous they are. It's hard

to imagine a Hollywood remake of Waltz with Bashir or The Class that would have roles in it for many of last night's nominees, but an American Departures starring Sean Penn as the cellist/undertaker and Kate Winslet as his clueless wife…well, that may already be in the works.

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