This is a long post, and I hope and enlightening one. Stay with me, please, so you will understand my predictions.
This year's five films nominated for the Best Foreign Language (BFL) Film Oscar® are a varied lot, and critics are hinting that the race is too close to call. Actually, they aren't that much different in their themes from the five films nominated for Best Picture, and knowing AMPAS® from first-hand experience, I'm going to call the race.
Themes encompass the choices of two young Palestinian men recruited as suicide bombers (PARADISE NOW - Palestine); a young male hoodlum about to explode in the South African shantytown of Soweto (TSOTSI - "gangster," South Africa); resistors to the Nazis from inside WW II Germany (SOPHIE SCHOLL - The Final Days, Germany); an Italian incest victim brought to awareness when a nightmarish memory resurfaces (DON'T TELL (La Bestia nel Cuore, Italy); and a spontaneous temporary Christmas truce between German, British, and French soldiers fighting in the trenches during World War I, (MERRY CHRISTMAS - (Joyeux Noel, France)
These are, from all accounts outstanding films, and at least three have U.S. distribution. Unfortunately, the rules for this category deem that the majority of the members of AMPAS cannot participate in the choice of the winner.
It works like this: Unlike most Oscar categories, voters for BFL Film nominees must see all five contenders in a theater, and sign certification that they have before they receive a ballot for this category. Viewing the films on videotape or DVD can't count.
All the nominated BFL films are shown at least once in the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater, L.A., and in their New York City theater, as well as in local theaters in both cities, but Critics and filmmakers complain that the restriction means that probably less than 1,000 of the Academy's roughly 6,000 members will actually cast votes in this category. Only the Foreign and Documentary categories carry the same restriction. All members may vote for all other categories, except for this one and Documentary, even if they have not actually viewed the films involved.
Okay, what about the nominees' chances? First, mostly the older members of AMPAS have the time to view all the BFL and Documentary films, so the audience has a median age of about 60. Second, a large number of the members are Jewish, and/or supporters of Israel. Third, there are more male than female members of AMPAS.
Keeping the above demographics in mind, score points for SOPHIE SCHOLL (Who dares like the Nazis?). Remove points from PARADISE NOW, especially with the recent election of HAMAS in Palestine.
Add points for MERRY CHRISTMAS (nostalgia, Christianity, male bonding and such). Deduct points for DON'T TELL (it's a chick flick, and one that may make men uncomfortable to view).
What about TSOTSI? Add points because of current interest and sympathy for conditions in South Africa invoking good thoughts for Bishop Tutu and Bono, a juvenile punk finds redeeming value because of an unexpected relationship with a helpless baby (Who dares dislike a baby?), it's filmed mostly on location in Soweto (older members love films shot on location), Miramax is the distributor (great track record for independent film Oscar winners), and director/co-writer Gavin Hood is known in the U.S.
So, is TSOTSI my pick to win the BFL Film award? Sorry, I'll tell you later, but I will say that the two top contenders at this point, mentioned by others as well, are TSOTSI and SOPHIE SCHOLL, both for themes, milieu, over-all acting, and production values. They are both strong narrative movies and AMPAS members definitely prefer narrative films. Plus, standout performances by lead actors, South African Presley Chweneyagae, whose intensity may remind some of James Dean, and German Julia Jentsch, who plays a college student put to death for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets are big pluses for both movies.