A Good Year for Foreign Languages at the Oscars

Sebastian Koch, left, and Martina Gedeck

Sebastian Koch, left, and Martina Gedeck star in The Lives of Others, a foreign-film nominee from Germany. Hagen Keller/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Hagen Keller/Sony Pictures Classics

With a picture called Babel nominated for best picture, it should surprise no one that Oscar's foreign-language film category has a high profile this year. What is surprising, though, is that the category's five nominees won't be alone in lending the live Academy Awards telecast (Sunday, Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. EST, on ABC) an international aura.

Not by a long shot, in fact. There's a foreign-language film among the best picture nominees (Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, filmed almost entirely in Japanese and nominated in three other categories, too); and there's an actress speaking Spanish in the best actress category (Penelope Cruz, in Volver). And two of the best supporting-actress nominees speak Spanish and Japanese (Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi, respectively).

Fully half the documentary short nominees were filmed in foreign tongues — The Blood of Yingzhou District in Chinese and Recycled Life, a film out of Guatemala, in Spanish. And then, there's Apocalypto, Mel Gibson's Mayan epic, which has a shot in three other categories. So foreign languages will be anything but rare at the Oscars this year.

They will, though, be especially brightly spotlit in their own category, particularly with Pan's Labyrinth riding director Guillermo Del Toro's horror-flick coattails to $30 million in grosses at U.S. multiplexes. The Spanish film follows a spunky 12-year-old girl who retreats into a exquisitely imagined fantasy world to avoid the cruel realities of life during the Spanish Civil War. It's more sophisticated in its storytelling than Del Toro's Hellboy pictures, but no less striking for its special effects.

Wartime privation also fuels the story of a more realistic Algerian entry, Days of Glory, about the North African troops who fought alongside the French in World War II. A rip-roaring war movie, it is simultaneously a wrenching portrait of the lasting, caustic societal effects of racism.

Water looks at a different sort of prejudice — one born of tradition and custom. The Canadian film's story about widows in Indian society — who have long expected to live out their lives in isolation and mourning — gains its power from its central character, a bright, lively 7-year-old whose family marries her to an older man, only to have him die a short time later. The thought of this child facing a lifetime of grieving is all but inconceivable.

Denmark's After the Wedding begins in an Indian orphanage, and seems at first a twin to Water, but instead turns into a mystery of sorts. The head of the orphanage returns to Copenhagen at the request of a wealthy stranger who offers him a hefty donation. Upon seeing the benefactor's wife, he does a double-take. While I shouldn't reveal more, it suffices to say that this singular soul discovers unexpected links to his past in the lives of others.

That, as it happens, is the title of the category's fifth, and to my mind, finest nominee. Germany's The Lives of Others tells of East Germany's secret police — the Ministerium fur Staatssicherheit, or Stasi — and its surveillance of artists during the Cold War. Exquisitely filmed in such bleached out colors that it might as well be in black and white, the film casts Ulrich Muhe as a Stasi drone. He spends much of the mid-1980s sitting in an attic, listening in via hidden microphones on a celebrated theatrical director. In Germany, the casting packed quite a wallop: Mühe was himself under surveillance in East Germany in the 1980s. The film packs a wallop, too.

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