Our fourth piece on this year’s exciting Foreign Language Oscar race continues with 3 films that are high in many Oscar watchers’ predictions but we believe they may be over-estimated. Unlike our previous article, which dealt with 3 underdogs flying under the radar, we’re discussing three films that may not be the sure-things some think for reasons we detail below.
From Hungary: ON BODY AND SOUL (Trailer)
1) The Story: In a slaughterhouse, a disabled man and a seemingly heartless woman start having identical dreams where they meet each other.
(2) Quick Review: Playing commercially at the moment in several European countries at the moment, this is a love-or-hate type of film. It is dreamy, creative and original – but it’s the sort of film in which you need to be really on board its bizarre premise to keep following the story. It’s slow at times but well shot, well-acted and doesn’t lack originality but the idea of associating dreams with soul and real-life with the body is not fully explored here and doesn’t always hit the right marks. Still, it’s a film with a big heart and a message of compassion.
(3) Will it appeal to AMPAS voters? This film looks to be more of a Golden Globes thing, in which its romantic themes, calm structure, European setting and creative execution may appeal to the HFPA. AMPAS typically likes war films, flashy stories, melodrama or ‘important films’ and this film doesn’t have that. True, they did nominate a purely romantic film last year (Tanna, Australia) but that film had a bit of a ‘Timbuktu/Embrace of the Serpent’-style of discovery and exotic feel to it, being a window to tribal life rarely seen on screen. While the film won big at Berlin and is very accessible with a straight-forward story and beautiful execution, some voters may feel it’s not flashy enough or doesn’t stand out in a way that puts it high in their rankings.
(4) Historic precedents/stats Hungary has been nominated 9 times, won twice (1981’s Mephisto and 2015’s Son of Saul) and was on the shortlist once, which is a solid track record.
(5) Overall chance for a nomination. While we do realize many Oscar watchers, perhaps swayed by this film’s impressive Berlin win or due to the beautiful execution of the film, may believe it’s a very strong contender, we argue otherwise. If the film does make the shortlist, we don’t think it goes all the way. At the moment, we’d give it a 45% chance for a nomination. It’s not above 50% because of its cozy, slow nature that lacks a stand-out structure that makes it that memorable. But it’s a film that’s worth seeing for sure.
From Norway: THELMA (Trailer)
1) The Story: Thelma is a university student whose family is over protective. They call her every day to check on her and get to ask almost intrusive questions. Gradually Thelma is attracted to another female student. As she gets to discover her feelings, she also unlocks some supernatural powers which were long dormant in her.
(2) Quick Review: One of the many LGBTQ films in this year’s FLF race, this is a delicate, atmospheric and captivating film about discovering who you really are – and staying true to it. The film comes to life thanks to a fantastic lead performance by Eili Harboe as Thelma, and is able to keep the viewer intrigued throughout. The film’s biggest plus is its atmosphere and performances, and it does have hints of haunting, intriguing films such as Let The Right One In, but it just doesn’t deliver a knock out because it’s a film of low stakes. In a sense, it’s a beautiful exploration of identity and courage, but its second half needed higher stakes and a stronger story that makes it much more than what it is. By the end of its second third, you sort of get what the film wants to say and it all becomes clear but the final third doesn’t elevate the story overall and leaves some unanswered questions. It’s a unique film – but handled in a way that’s a bit..simplistic.
(3) Will it appeal to AMPAS voters? The film has two elements AMPAS typically does not embrace. Genre and LGBTQ let alone being female-led. So it’s a definition of a film that AMPAS does not touch. However, it’s also very engaging and accessible. It will surely have its supporters but not overwhelmingly compared to other films. If AMPAS wants to pick an LGBTQ film in this category this year, this probably won’t be it. The Wound (South Africa) takes that spot over this and A Fantastic Woman.
(4) Historic precedents/stats Norway has been nominated 5 times and was on the shortlist once (2016’s The King’s Choice).
(5) Overall chance for a nomination. We’ll give this one a 40% chance for a nom. It’s not a divisive film like Poland’s Spoor or even Hungary’s On Body and Soul, but like the latter, it just doesn’t deliver the fireworks or knockout that makes it a must-vote-for film for a voter. Plus, voters willing to champion its themes will have other films that did it better and in more memorable ways.
From Argentina: ZAMA (Trailer)
1) The Story: In the late 18th century in a remote South American colony, corregidor Zama’s situation deteriorates as he longs for a better assignment from the Spanish Empire.
(2) Quick Review: We entered this film with sky-high expectations after its raves in Venice and other film festivals and ended up disappointed. While we did appreciate the craft, we felt the story just failed to engage. The film has long scenes where basically nothing is happening, and it’s a typical ‘critics film’ with snob appeal. The problem with the film, or rather its merit according to critics, is that it’s a film about despair, about the subconscious. It does not have a linear, flashy story where characters talk, suffer, engage in debates or betray one another. For two hours, we follow a man who is losing himself, seeing hope of returning home fading away. But it’s a film that does not strive to engage – it showcases but doesn’t pull you in. It leaves you on the outside looking in, and doesn’t succeed in making you really invested in Zama’s struggles. Fans of Martel will certainly love it (and they certainly did) for they will appreciate the risks this film takes.
(3) Will it appeal to AMPAS voters? This is interesting because the film’s snob appeal makes it a candidate for a committee save. In fact, the only way we see Zama making it in is via a committee save as we’re almost sure it won’t appeal to regular AMPAS voters. It just lacks the intrigue, the drama, the character investment and if seen on a screener, it may turn off voters due to pacing. Take another slow film that won for example, Ida, which did appeal to AMPAS but that had themes that are so up their alley. This one simply doesn’t.
(4) Historic precedents/stats Argentina is the leader of South American countries in this category with 7 nominations and 2 wins (1985’s The Official Story and 2009’s The Secret in Their Eyes).
(5) Overall chance for a nomination. We’ll give this one a 35% chance for a nomination – and that chance isn’t lower because we believe it may be a committee save. At the same time, there are more films that will inspire passion among the committee and they can’t save except 3 films. We also do realize that many Oscar watchers feel this one is a slam dunk, but with this committee? We’d argue otherwise.
Next week: we take a look at some Asian FLF contenders including Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, now playing on Netflix.