A Golden Age of Foreign Films,Mostly Unseen

The Academy Awards help to perpetuate the growing irrelevance of world cinema in American movie culture.

Written by New York Times | Published:January 30, 2011 11:19 pm

One of the few surprises at the Golden Globes two weeks ago was the award given to Carlos,the French director Olivier Assayas’s five-hour-plus reconstruction of the life and career of the notorious terrorist of the 1970s and ‘80s Carlos the Jackal. The award represented a high point of cosmopolitanism : 11 languages spoken on screen; dozens of locations across Europe and the Middle East; a polyglot cast led by a Venezuelan star,Édgar Ramírez,who has the potential to become an international sex symbol. What more could you want from a foreign film?

Except that Carlos was not nominated for the Golden Globe in that category (the winner was In a Better World,from Denmark): it was made for,and first shown on,French television,a fact that also rendered it ineligible for consideration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,which announced its nominees last Tuesday. Mr. Assayas’s dark-horse victory at the Globes was for best miniseries or motion picture made for television. But its exclusion from the Oscars seems somewhat arbitrary.

So does everything else about the way the Academy deals with movies from the rest of the world. An elaborate and mysterious winnowing process pares down the thousands of potential nominees to five. This year they are Dogtooth from Greece,Incendies from Canada,Biutiful from Mexico,Outside the Law from Algeria and In a Better World.

Of these,only Biutiful,whose globally famous star,Javier Bardem,was nominated for best actor,may play at a theatre near you.

Worthy films are passed over all the time,but this year’s selection is reminder of the American film establishment’s systematic marginalisation and misapprehension of much of world cinema.

For some reason,the Academy insists on a one-film-per-country rule,which places a large part of the decision-making process in the hands of film industries at least as corrupt and agenda-driven as our own. Why should Of Gods and Men have been France’s only shot? And what determines the nationality of a film in any case? Why is Rachid Bouchareb’s Outside the Law an Algerian rather than a French film,given that its director is a French citizen and that it was made with mostly French financing? And what makes Biutiful,shot in Barcelona with a Spanish cast,a Mexican film?

My complaint is about the peculiar and growing irrelevance of world cinema in American movie culture,which the Academy Awards help to perpetuate.

There are certainly examples from the last decade of subtitled films,nominated or not,that have achieved some measure of popularity: Crouching Tiger,Hidden Dragon; Pan’s Labyrinth; The Lives of Others; The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But these successes seem more and more like outliers. As fashion,gaming,pop music,social media and just about everything else have combined to shrink the world and bridge gaps of culture and taste,American movie audiences seem to cling to a cautious,isolationist approach to entertainment.

And the Oscars reinforce this,frequently ignoring accessible and entertaining movies from other countries and settling on a frequently random-seeming list of finalists. Every year,the world turns its attention to Hollywood,and Hollywood remains,in keeping with long tradition,a notably welcoming place for far-flung talent. Bardem,a somewhat surprising nominee for best actor this year,has already won for a supporting role in an English-language film (in 2008,for No Country for Old Men); Pedro Almodóvar won for best original screenplay in 2003,and Marion Cotillard took best actress honors five years later for her performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. She also won the chance to play wide-eyed,exotic,seriously underwritten love interests for Johnny Depp (in Public Enemies) and Leonardo DiCaprio (in Inception). The scale of Hollywood’s appetite,its unrivalled power to vacuum up ambition and artistry from around the world,is part of its legend and grandeur.

But it also casts a long shadow over the rest of the globe,which struggles for visibility. My concern here is more with cultural protectionism—the impulse not to conquer the rest of the world but rather to tune it out.

This may itself be a product of superabundance. New technologies and traditions proliferate and cross-pollinate so rapidly that even a permanent resident of the international festival circuit would have trouble keeping track of it all. The list of national cinemas to watch seems to grow every year,so that even a superficial sense of the cinematic state of things can seem to require an up-to-the-minute awareness of what is happening in South Korea,Serbia,Kazakhstan,South Africa,Thailand and a dozen other places.

Their work is almost invisible here,though it commands a fair amount of attention in the flourishing and contentious cinephile wing of the blogosphere. But it is nonetheless available to anyone with the curiosity and patience to navigate the new,fast-evolving cosmos of V.O.D. and streaming Web video. The Academy will sometimes take notice—more often it will not—but a whole world of movies is out there waiting to be discovered. A. O. SCOTT

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