A good week after the Oscars-that-were-not-as-good-as-Twitter, hashtag suck it, I’m still thinking of that distinct oddball category: the Best Foreign Language Film. Just what is “foreign”, and what is not, when the language is cinema for all?
Look at the imbalance: over here are the 99.9 percent of potential all-American, impossibly-white-perfect-gleaming-teeth-in-selfies award winners. There, in that tiny corner are the “foreigners”, whom no one knows (unless you are Roberto Benigni whose life turned Very Beautiful, as he leapfrogged gleefully towards his prize) not even the cameras, so they don’t swing to you as much as they should. There is polite patter when one out of the five “foreign” nominee is announced as the winner, a few “foreign” dudes show up and regale us with their charming accents, and everyone is relieved because the real show can go on: pleased Americans competing with each other and rewarding their own.
This time around, it was Paolo Sorrentino, who spoke Italian English and took off his expected top prize for The Great Beauty. The hat tip to Fellini through the film is so overwhelming that I’ve had a time un-entangling the lush, corrosive feel of La Dolce Vita from the lusher, more corrosive feel of The Great Beauty. Don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, because just like Fellini’s timeless classic, this spoke of its time and time past with sure, masterly strokes. It’s just that someone had done it before him, and that was a true original. But was there another film in that bunch I could have rooted for? Not really.
What happens when a child accuses an adult of molestation, and the adult protests his innocence? The Hunt from Denmark is a bleak but ultimately affirming character study of a small town and its people riven by the incident. Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the accused and his growing isolation, is very good. It is an excellent film, but clearly did not make the final cut when pitted against the dazzling Italian diva.
I liked Omar too, the Palestinian film that gives us a sharply-felt view of what it is like to live in a land surrounded by hostiles, and by compatriots who give you the beady eye when things start unravelling. It is a love story and a thriller and a slice of life all rolled into one, maybe the best Palestinian film of 2013, but not good enough for an Oscar.
I found the other much-talked about contender The Broken Circle Breakdown, from Belgium, both predictable and unexciting. It tells the story of a musician couple and their daughter’s
bitter fight against cancer. There are some interesting moments, and nice music, packaged in frenetic bouts of coupling and a great deal of flatness. The Cambodian The Missing Picture re-creates the horrific regime of Pol Pot in an innovative fashion by mixing actual documentary footage and clay figurines that stand in for human characters, and is intermittently engaging. But like The Act of Killing, which was overlooked for the Best Documentary award, The Missing Picture must have been too grim for a set of voters who have clearly looked for the uplifting and the upbeat in all films, whether they are “local” or “foreign”.
And that brings me back to my original point: exactly what is “foreign”? Do films that come out of Europe, which also has white people, and whose avant-garde filmmaking principles (especially from such countries as France and Italy) have strongly impacted American filmmakers, count as less “foreign” than the ones that come out of “The Middle East”, and the “East”?
By that score, Bollywood has always been a whole other planet, and Indians do themselves no favour by picking films that pander to regional sentiments rather than choosing what would work best in the “foreign language” stakes. It is the trickiest category at the Oscar party and is clearly been created only to give the predominantly white Americans the feeling that they are being “inclusive”, but how do you get a group of people who know very little (going by the trenchant critiques in their own media) about the cinemas of the world to agree upon films that come from elsewhere, and that are so wildly divergent in tone and tenor and story-telling techniques?
To be a truly relevant part of the Oscars, the Foreign category needs to be much larger, and more “inclusive”. Either that or scrap it. If you can have 10 films jostling for Best film, which are mostly American, you can surely have the same number for “foreign” films, not just 5. There needs to be a knowledgeable-about-world-cinema band within the voting panel, and from an Indian perspective, people who can differentiate between mainstream Bollywood and a sharp non-Bollywood product that could come from anywhere in India.
To be specific and local is to be universal. Unless something better comes along, let’s send the brilliant Marathi film Fandry, which talks of the real India in a moving, unsentimental way, for Oscars in the coming year. And see where we get with that.