“Son of Saul,” Hungary’s official entry to the Oscars, is the early frontrunner to win Best Foreign Language Film. This compelling drama tells the harrowing story of a guard at an Auschwitz death camp who, believing a young boy’s corpse to be that of his son, becomes determined to give him a proper burial. This Sony Pictures Classics release was a senation at Cannes, winning the Grand Prix. And it well could be that rare foreign-language film to cross over into the Best Picture race.
Only nine films in languages other than English have been deemed worthy of a Best Picture bid — “Grand Illusion” (1938); “Z” (1969); “The Emigrants” (1972); “Cries and Whispers” (1973); “Il Postino” (1995); “Life is Beautiful” (1998); “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000); “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006); and “Amour” (2012) — and none won.
Whether or not “Son of Saul” will join these ranks remains to be seen. Nominations for director Laszlo Nemes and leading man Geza Rohrig may seem like long-shots at this point (and indeed, both hold odds of 100/1), yet neither should be counted out entirely, especially Nemes. The directors branchthey loves foreign filmmakers. An Original Screenplay bid for Nemes and Clara Royer also isn’t out of the question (they’re ranked in 11th place by our experts). And the film's subject matter, albeit grim, may work in its favor as well. Oscar voters love Holocaust films, and the first-person perspective used in "Son of Saul" helps distinguish it from similar works.
If "Son of Saul" reaps bids for both Best Picture and Best Foreign-Language Film, Oscar history makes it a strong favorite to win at least the latter. Four of the five double nominees won this consolation prize: “Z,” “Life is Beautiful,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Amour." “The Emigrants" was bested by Italy's "The Garden of the Fitzi Continis." Of the other four foreign-language films that contended for Best Picture, “Grand Illusion” predated the creation of this category in 1956 while "Cries and Whispers," “Il Postino” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” were ineligible for this award.
Let's take a more in-depth look at these nine foreign-language films that broke into the Best Picture race.
The nomination for “Grand Illusion” was a first for the academy: Jean Renoir’s humanistic story of POWs in the first World War introduced American audiences to French poetic realism, and helped open the doors to other foreign-language films being recognized in acting, writing, directing, and craft categories. It’s nomination for Best Picture was, oddly enough, its sole bid.
It took 31 years before another foreign-language film, “Z,” contended for the top prize. Costa-Gavras’ verite-style political thriller from Algeria was nominated for Directing and Adapted Screenplay (Costa-Gavras and Jorge Semprun) and won Film Editing (Francoise Bonnot). The film hit a nerve with American audiences who were beginning to seriously question the motives of their governmental leaders.
While Jan Troell’s “The Emigrants” may have lost the Foreign-Language Film prize in 1971 to “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” it came back the next year to contend for Picture, Director, Actress (Liv Ullmann), and Adapted Screenplay (Troell and Bengt Forslund). And its sequel, “The New Land,” was nominated for Foreign-Language Film the same year. “The Emigrants” tells the story of a family from Sweden — headed up by Ullmann and Max Von Sydow — who move to the land of opportunity, while “The New Land” chronicles their life in America. The double feature was an uplifting reminder to audiences of how hard work and perseverance can pay off in America.
Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” is an intense portrait of a woman dying of cancer and the monstrous sisters who come to comfort her. Distributed stateside by Roger Corman’s New World, the film opened to rave reviews, even topping Roger Ebert’s best of the year. Bergman received nominations for Writing and Directing, as did costume designer Marik Vos. The Swedish filmmaker’s longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist won the first of two Oscars for his vibrant work (he triumphed again in 1983 for the director’s “Fanny and Alexander”). For Bergman, “Cries and Whispers” marked the high-point of a long career that had yielded such introspective classics as “The Seventh Seal” (1957), “Wild Strawberries” (1957), and “Persona” (1966).
“Il Postino” is one of the earliest examples of Harvey Weinstein’s winning ways with the academy. The Italian production about a lonely postman (Massimo Troisi) who takes lessons in love from Pablo Neruda was a smash hit at the box office. Miramax mounted a sizable Oscar campaign going so far as to send out copies of the films soundtrack — which included readings of Neruda’s poems by various celebrities — to voters. Add to that sympathy for Troisi, who died just a few hours after filming his last scene and “Il Postino” was nominated for six Oscar, winning for Luis Bacalov’s Original Score. Besides Best Picture, it also contended for Director (Michael Radford), Actor (Troisi), and Adapted Screenplay (Troisi, Radford, Anna Pavignano, Furio Scarpelli, and Giacomo Scarpelli).
The studio mounted another brilliant campaign three years later for “Life is Beautiful,” Roberto Benigni’s drama about a man protecting his son from the horrors of a concentration camp, capped off by an endorsement from Pope John Paul II. Benigni became the second actor to win an Oscar for a foreign-language performance (Sophia Loren in 1961's “Two Women” was the first), and the film also won for Score (Nicola Piovani). It also contended for Director (Benigni), Original Screenplay (Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami), and Film Editing (Simona Paggi).
Probably the closest a foreign-language film has ever come to winning Best Picture was Ang Lee’s martial arts epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which reaped a whopping 10 bids. It won four — for Foreign-Language Film, Cinematography (Peter Pau), Art Direction (Tim Yip), and Score (Dun Tan). It also contende for Picture, Director (Lee), Adapted Screenplay (Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus, Kuo Jung Tsai), Costume Design (Tim Yip), Film Editing (Tim Squyres), and Original Song. Despite winning the DGA, Golden Globe, and BAFTA awards, Lee lost the Oscar to Steven Soderbergh for “Traffic.”
Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” was shot as a companion piece to the director’s summertime release “Flags of Our Fathers.” “Letters” examined the WWII battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective, creating sympathy for General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and his men. Fresh off his Best Picture winning “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), Eastwood was once again nominated for helmer, as were scripters Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis. The film handily walked away with the Sound Editing award.
The last foreign-language film to compete in the top category to date was Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner “Amour.” Voters who revered Haneke’s filmography were no doubt surprised by his more humanistic handling of the material. The film delves into the lives of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), a long-married couple whose love is tested when Anne suffers a severe stroke. Riva reaped a Best Actress bid, while Haneke was recognized for Writing and Directing.
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Photo: Geza Rohrig in "Son of Saul." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics