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Need Oscar excitement? Check out foreign films

The closest race could be between ‘Paradise Now’ and ‘Tsotsi’
/ Source: Reuters

You’ve got Palestinian suicide bombers, young men about to explode in a South African shantytown, Nazis, Italian incest victims and World War One soldiers.

This year’s five foreign-language Oscar nominees are a varied lot, and there are hints the race is too close to call, which has added excitement to what has been called the most boring of the top Academy Awards categories.

For the first time in Oscar history, a Palestinian film, “Paradise Now,” is in contention, raising delicate political questions and sometimes mean-spirited debate, like an e-mail sent to film professionals in which an Israeli critic calls it a Nazi movie replete with anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Few others agree. They generally hail Hany Abu-Assad’s movie, about two West Bank garage mechanics set to kill themselves and others in Tel Aviv, as a tale aimed at explaining what drives people to be suicide bombers without condoning it.

Abu-Assad says he was stunned by the accusations.

“This is very painful. You never mean to make a movie to offend or insult anyone. What you want is that people will go and see the film and ask their own questions and answer them,” he said.

Further complicating its chances at the March 5 ceremony is the Islamist group Hamas’ victory in the recent Palestinian elections, according to some members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Academy has many Jewish voters, and some have said they will not vote for a Palestinian film at a time when a declared enemy of Israel is taking power in the West Bank and Gaza.

Moreover, “Paradise Now” has stiff competition from at least two other films: Germany’s “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” about a small, ineffectual World War Two resistance group crushed by the Nazis, and “Tsotsi,” a South African film about a young killer who discovers human decency.

Close race, odd rulesDriving “Tsotsi” and “Sophie Scholl” are standout performances by lead actors, South African Presley Chweneyagae, whose intensity reminds some of James Dean, and German Julia Jentsch, who plays a college student put to death for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets.

Rounding out the category are Italy’s “Don’t Tell,” a tale of incest and recovered memories, and France’s “Joyeux Noel,” set during an ad hoc Christmas truce between German, British and French soldiers in the trenches of World War One.

Oscar experts say the winner may be determined — like many an election for political office — by voter turnout. Unlike most Oscar categories, voters for best foreign film must see all the contenders in a theater, not on a videotape or DVD.

Critics complain that the restriction means that probably less than 1,000 of the Academy’s roughly 6,000 members will actually cast votes in the category.

Other odd rules prevent the Academy from nominating some of the best foreign films, they say.

This year, for instance, Austria’s “Caché,” a critical favorite in Europe, was ineligible because a film must be shot in the language of the country submitting it. “Caché” uses French, not German, so it was out of the running.

“The system is so bad that if it isn’t corrected, they should just eliminate the category,” said one longtime Academy member, who asked not to be identified.

But Cristina Comencini, the director and screenwriter for Italy’s “Don’t Tell,” said she doesn’t care if the system is flawed. She is just happy to be nominated.

“I feel this kind of success is a sort of a miracle. I showed this movie in big cities and always received a warm reception. But I didn’t expect a nomination,” she said.