Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief, Federico Fellini's La Strada, Luis Buntilde;uel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Costa Gravas' Z, Francois Truffaut's Day for Night. This brief list includes just a few shining examples of the Academy's illustrious choices for their Best Foreign Language Film award in its 61 years of existence. These insightful commentaries on society, politics and cinema were refreshingly free of the heavy-handed messages that often plagued the American films that picked up the top prizes, like Best Picture and Best Director.
They addressed urgent issues in embedded ways, through a nation's history or current climate. They represented outstanding international filmmaking and important film movements (like Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave). They ushered in cinematic innovations and provided a fresh experience of another culture for Americans who didn't have the money to spend a week in Paris or don't mind "reading a movie." The Best Foreign Language Oscar itself, although accepted by the director at the ceremony, is awarded to the country in which it was made and selected. Then why, in the past few years, has the award gone to the most unexciting and, even more frustrating, most American choice?
The only current trend in the Academy's decisions has been their decision to allow the most sterile foreign film to stroll off the stage with a golden statuette. The award no longer celebrates a nation and a film, but how a film in a language other than English can relate to an American audience. Topical films with "Issues" (with a capital "I") like racism, genocide, African "thugs," euthanasia and cancer have won over the past few years: The Lives of Others, Tsotsi, The Sea Inside and The Barbarian Invasions.
These films target Americans who want to believe they've seen something of substance but they're really only witnessing a conventional plot that's dripping with liberal guilt. The Lives of Others and Tsotsi, in particular, focus on a character who-by the end-has turned from a foreign so-called "monster" into a humane, understanding individual. Instead of being revolutionary, these films wallow in the pity of a past event, offer an apology, and fondle the audience by concluding with an ending that is calculated to make you feel good. Year after year, the foreign language film branch of the Academy Awards accepts that apology, however dull or disingenuous the plea.
Due to their well-known sensibility, the "safe choice" has always been a default winner within the Academy in terms of its main awards. But it shouldn't be invading this category-the category that once honored Buntilde;uel, Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. As with most criticism, judgment between what one considers "good" and "bad" is certainly subjective-but that's not the problem. Over the past two decades, the Academy has consistently shown a lack of judgment and more of a formula for success. It's not a matter of taste, it's a matter of advertising. They have become a brand-a group of shrewd film lovers who should be evaluating the relevance, intelligence and dexterity of a film, but instead functions more like a marketing focus group.
Not just one, but two, innovative and widely praised films were squashed before the nominations were announced this year on Jan. 22. Despite the Academy's stringent eligibility rules, Romania had selected its brilliant 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days-which was also expected to honor the recent influx of fantastic features to come from Romania-and France put up the charming animated memoir of Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis.
Both features are risky and highly immersed in its nation's culture-4 Months isn't afraid to shy away from the ugliness of 1987 communist Romania and explicitly state the word "abortion" (unlike Best Picture nominee Juno), whereas Persepolis is a caustic observation on a girl's life during the fall of the Shah in Iran and the depression that occupied most of her adult life. They possess a dry sophistication-a sophistication that is apparent through their lack of ostentatious refinement. They trust the audience to observe and absorb the atmosphere of this other country. However, due to an ever-changing system of voting, an archaic elctorial body that has given up on critical thinking and American audiences that would rather be patted on the back than learn something, these two films were missing.
Still, this isn't an issue of elitism or taste. If Hollywood wants to condescend to a crowd that will accept anything that pushes their pleasure buttons, that's fine-it's an unfortunate scenario any discerning cineaste must accept. There is, however, an alarming homogenization of foreign film currently taking place in the American cinema scene as well. This recent flow of conventional international movies crowding the arthouse screens in America represents the worst problems with cinematic globalization.
It symbolizes the white-washing of an arthouse culture that, in the recent years with the burgeoning of "indie pop" cinema, has already come dangerously close to resembling bleach. This type of cinema should not be rewarded.
It's common knowledge that the populist vote often wins the top prize, Best Picture-but the Academy's neutralization of the Best Foreign Language Oscar is offensive and even further proof of American narcissism.