Although the Academy Awards has recognised the efforts of international movie makers via its Best Foreign Language Film (BFLF) category since 1947, it has also been guilty of failing to acknowledge some of the best non-Hollywood cinema on offer. Mark Fraser looks at 10 instances when Oscar shunned some mighty talent.
10. Yol AKA The Way (Yilmaz Guney, Serif Goren, 1982)
WINNER: Jose Luis Garci’s Volver e empezar AKA To Begin Again (Spain)
What begins as a seemingly low key story about five Turkish prisoners who are given a weekend pass ends up being – amongst other things – one of the greatest cinematic statements about forgiveness ever made. An emotionally exhausting and moving work which was unsuccessfully submitted as the Swiss entry for best foreign film at the 55th Academy Awards (writer/co-director Yilmaz Guney, who was incarcerated during the shoot, escaped from a Turkey gaol and fled to Switzerland with the negatives, after which the movie was edited in Paris). Although the academy wasn’t interested, Yol received both the Palme d’Or and the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) Prize at 1982’s Cannes Film Festival.
9. Lancelot du Lac AKA Lancelot of the Lake (Robert Bresson, 1974)
WINNER: Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (Italy)
Possibly one of the most offbeat and unglamorous accounts of the Camelot legend ever as King Arthur (Vladimir Antolek-Oresek) – after realising the quest for the Holy Grail was nothing more than a tragic waste of time – watches as the remaining Knights of the Round Table slip into some kind of torpor while his wife, Queen Guinevere (Laura Duke Condominas), has an affair with second-in-command Sir Lancelot (Luc Simon). Eventually, to break the boredom, Arthur leads his men into battle against his bastard son Mordred (Patrick Bernhard), during which all of them are violently slain. While it’s difficult to tell if cinema’s king of austerity, Frenchman Robert Bresson, played this for laughs, it’s undeniably a hilarious film. Certainly the Monty Python boys must have thought so, infusing some of it (especially the blood-gushing sword wounds and the grimy set design) into their own remarkable Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which was made a year later. Lancelot du Lac also picked up the 1974’s FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes.
8. Week-end AKA Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
WINNER: Jiri Menzel’s Ostre sledovane vlaky AKA Closely Watched Trains (Czechoslovakia)
Whatever one might think of the Paris-born Jean-Luc Godard, he has undeniably revolutionised the language of cinema. Oscar, however, hasn’t been particularly kind to the man, failing to recognise him until 2010, when he was finally given an Academy Honorary Award. Fittingly, he snubbed the judges by refusing to show up for the Los Angeles ceremony. Week-end is, for all intents and purposes, the culmination of Godard’s first phase of filmmaking – an extremely fertile period which saw the production of some 15 features (and a handful of shorts and documentaries) starting with the ground-breaking Breathless back in 1959. While much has been written about the visual richness of this movie, it should be remembered that another of its crowning achievements is its ambitious and still-relevant apocalyptic vision, being based on a story which is nothing less than: “A tale showing the deconstruction of Western civilisation. Instead of watching as usual the build-up from barbarism to military democracy to democracy we watch it go the other direction, regress from democracy to barbary” (John Kreidel, Jean-Luc Godard, Twayne Publishing, 1980, p 169).
7. Nanking! Nanking! AKA City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, 2009)
WINNER: Juan Jose Campanella’s El secreto dr sus ojos AKA The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina)
Shot in stunning black and white (by Cao Yu and He Lei) and boasting an opening battle sequence that is comparable to the finale of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), this film chronicles the invasion of the Chinese city of Nanking by the Japanese in 1937 and its brutal aftermath, during which the prisoners of war were slaughtered and a safety zone was set up for displaced civilians (and the injured) by German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley). The fact it was released so soon after the 2009 Oscar ceremony may have helped rule it out for the following year’s competition, but this is no excuse given it’s easily one of the most harrowing and beautifully executed war movies ever made.
6. Le salaire de la peur AKA The Wages Of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
Aside from the fact only one film was nominated annually for BFLF between 1947 and 1955 – suggesting this French masterpiece may have been overlooked by the academy anyway given it’s quota of anti-US sentiment – no 1953 foreign films were awarded an Oscar. Le salaire de la peur was, however, liked at Cannes, receiving the year’s Palme d’Or. It also won the Berlin Film Festival’s 1953 Golden Bear.
5. Shichinin no Samurai AKA Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
WINNER: Federico Fellini’s La Strada AKA The Road (Italy)
There’s no conceivable reason why this seminal Japanese movie wasn’t nominated for BFLF in 1956 given it received Oscar recognition in two other categories – Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Costume Design in a black and white movie (So Matsuyama and Kohei Ezaki respectively). Another tut-tut moment for the academy, particularly as Seven Samurai is now regarded in many circles as one of the most important pieces of cinema of all time. Fortunately, director Akira Kurosawa was given the Silver Lion Award at the 1954 Venice Film Festival for his efforts. The movie was also nominated for Best Film by the British Academy of Film and Television in 1956.
4. C’est arrivé près de chez vous AKA It Happened in Your Neighbourhood AKA Man Bites Dog (Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde, 1992)
WINNER: Regis Wargnier’s Indochine (France)
The term “black comedy” only begins to describe this brilliantly-executed Belgian mockumentary about a ruthless serial killer who uses the cash he steals from his victims to fund the movie’s ongoing production. An exceptional film on all levels – from the charismatic performance of Benoit Poelvoorde as the witty and highly intelligent murderer to Andre Bonzel’s superb black and white camerawork, which is as good as anything seen in similar verite-driven productions. Fittingly, this trio was given the Special Award of the Youth and the SACD (Author’s Society) gong for best feature at Cannes in 1992.
3. Europa AKA Zentropa (Lars von Trier, 1991)
WINNER: Gabriele Salvatores’ Mediterraneo (Italy)
A beautifully hypnotic and visually outstanding work which should never have been ignored by the academy.
2. Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes AKA Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
WINNER: Luis Bunuel’s Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie AKA The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (France)
What else is there to say except it’s simply amazing – mind boggling in fact – that this truly incredible piece of cinema wasn’t nominated for BFLF.
1. The Passion According to Andrei AKA Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
WINNER: Claude Lelouch’s Unhomme et une femme AKA A Man and a Woman (France)
It is difficult to blame Oscar for overlooking Andrei Tarkovsky’s second feature given its distribution was handled in a confusing way by the Soviet authorities. While it was first shown domestically towards the end of 1966, it wasn’t screened at Cannes until 1969 (where it received the FIPRESCI Prize). A wider release came in 1971, although it didn’t reach many foreign markets (including the US) until 1973. Adding to the confusion is the fact it has, over the years, appeared in a number of different cuts. Putting this history aside, there’s no denying Andrei Rublev is one of cinema’s crowning achievements.
Written and compiled by Mark Fraser
Over to you: what are your fave foreign language films snubbed by the Oscars?
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