Of all the nomination processes that lead to Academy Awards, none is more complicated - or controversial - than the foreign language film award.
It's commonly called the "foreign film" award. Not so. Nominees must be in a language other than English, hence films from England, Australia and Canada (except for Canadian films in French such as the recent "The Decline of the American Empire") are not eligible in this category.The controversial part of the foreign language award stems from the fact that the National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its voters have no control over the nominations. The countries themselves can nominate one film per year. The system has been criticized for its inequities.
Critics claim that governments, especially military or communist dictatorships, sometimes refuse to nominate films showing those countries in a bad light. Politics in the selection committee can also eliminate likely choices.
Three years ago Akira Kurosawa's widely acclaimed "Ran" was not submitted because of wrangling among Japanese committee members. The directors branch of the Academy rallied to the great filmmaker and nominated him for best director.
This year's nominations for the foreign language Oscar managed to dodge controversy. Two of the entries stand out: Spain's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," which has attracted rave reviews; and Denmark's "Pelle the Conqueror," winner of the Cannes Film Festival prize for best picture.
"Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," written and directed by Pedro Almodovar, concerns two Madrid women whose personal and professional lives are in chaos. The comedy has been a big success in the United States ($4.4 million in 17 weeks of limited release), and critics have compared it to the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey and George Stevens.
The star, Carmen Maura, is not surprised by the American response. Her friendship with Almodovar goes back to when he worked for the Madrid telephone company and she was a television talk-show hostess.
"When I began to work with Pedro 10 years ago and we had a very special situation together," she said during a visit here, "I said to him: `Hey, Pedro, don't worry, because in one time the Americans will understand you.'
"I am very proud of Pedro Almodovar. I think he's very genuine. His sense of humor is very American sometimes, and mine also. So I understand why you Americans like `Women on the Verge."'
Max Von Sydow, who stars in "Pelle the Conqueror" along with young Pelle Hvenegaard as his son, also has high praise for his director, Danish Bille August.
"He's very, very sensitive and has a great hand with people, especially children. Very soft-spoken, he seems almost shy. But he's a brilliant man, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what he'll do in the future."
"Pelle" ($1.1 million during 11 weeks of limited domestic release) concerns a Swedish peasant who brings his son to a Danish farm, where the father endures a series of indignities as a lowly worker. The film waS shot on the bleak landscape during one of the coldest winters in decades.
"It looks more rugged than it really was," Von Sydow said. "We had to spend a few cold days and nights out in the open, but thank God, we had warmth nearby."
"Hanussen," the entry from Hungary, is the third of three impressive films by Istvan Szabo on themes of human folly and free will. The first, "Mephisto," won the Oscar for foreign language film of 1981. The second was nominated in 1985. All three star Klaus Maria Brandauer, known to American audiences as Meryl Streep's husband in "Out of Africa."
Brandauer plays Erik Jan Hanussen, whose apparent genius for telepathy makes him a theatrical star in Germany. His fame leads him into the inner circles of Nazi power, with unexpected results.
"Salaam Bombay," directed by Mira Nair, is the nominee from India, earning $1.8 million during 22 weeks of limited U.S. release. Filmed with grim realism, the story concerns a young boy who is abandoned by his family to the streets of Bombay, where he consorts with thieves, drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps.
The Belgian entry is "The Music Teacher," directed by Gerard Corbiau. The story concerns a vocal coach imposes his strict discipline on two singers, entering them into a competition sponsored by a wealthy patron who hates him.