Why did we underestimate ‘Amour’ at the Oscars, and what could it win?

The combined predictions of our Oscar experts, editors, and users forecast only three nominations for “Amour“: Best Foreign Language Film and, by close margins, Best Actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and Best Original Screenplay. Overall, we ranked the film 11th for Best Picture, and Michael Haneke a distant 9th for Best Director. Despite these odds, the film reaped all five of those nominations. Should we have seen it coming?

It’s difficult enough for foreign films to break through in major categories at the Oscars. Haneke, though a director of international renown, had up to now had not made a significant impact with the Academy. He appeared for the first time as a Foreign Language Film nominee in 2009 for “The White Ribbon” (losing to Argentina’s “The Secret in Their Eyes”). Part of the reason for this delayed recognition may be his cold storytelling style, a far cry from the emotional warmth the Oscars usually prefer.

The film’s subject matter was also a potential disadvantage. “Amour” tells the story of an elderly woman (Riva) slowly dying after a debilitating stroke and cared for by her devoted husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Last year, an LA Times study revealed that the median age of Academy members is 62, while only 14% of members are under 50. A film like “Amour” might hit uncomfortably close to home for Hollywood’s aging elite. Thus, there was doubt, not only about whether voters would like it, but whether they would watch it at all.

Now that “Amour” has been nominated for five Oscars, including Picture and Director — a rare feat for a foreign film — how many can it win?

Foreign Language Film seems like the safest bet, especially given the snub of France’s blockbuster hit “The Intouchables,” which seemed like its chief competition. Our odds overwhelmingly favor it to win the category. However, one can never be too sure of outcomes in this race, which is prone to controversial upsets and omissions.

Wins for Picture and Director are unlikely. Esoteric art-house films rarely win against more mainstream Hollywood productions; “The Hurt Locker” was an exception, but “Amour” makes “The Hurt Locker” look like “Avatar.”

However, victories in its remaining two categories are certainly in the realm of possibility.

Riva could be a dark horse in the Best Actress race. Hers is the kind of physically, emotionally demanding performance voters often honor, and she is not only liked but beloved by the film’s supporters. The actress turns 86 on Oscar night and would be the all-time oldest winner of any acting award, breaking the record set by Christopher Plummer last year at age 82. This gives her candidacy added historical import.

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However, foreign films seldom win acting awards. Not counting foreign-language roles in primarily English-language films, only three have ever won: Sophia Loren in “Two Women,” Roberto Benigni in “Life is Beautiful,” and Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose.” And while Riva’s performance will certainly appeal to Hollywood aesthetes, winners are determined by the Academy’s entire membership, who historically have preferred young starlets like Riva’s competitors Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook“) and Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty“).

That leaves Best Original Screenplay, and with the adapted race crowded with Best Picture frontrunners like “Lincoln,” “Silver Linings,” and “Life of Pi,” this could be an opportunity for “Amour” to surprise.

It competes against “Zero Dark” and “Django Unchained,” both snubbed in the Directing race in favor of Haneke. Also nominated are “Flight,” which only has one other nomination (Best Actor for Denzel Washington), and “Moonrise Kingdom,” which has no other nominations. One could argue, then, that of the five films “Amour” has the strongest overall Academy support.

With Haneke a distant longshot to win the Directing prize, and Foreign Language Film decided by a select group who have attended special Academy screenings of the nominees, the writing category may be the best opportunity for voters at large to focus their support for the veteran filmmaker.

It’s possible the film’s impressive nominations haul is award enough, but we underestimated “Amour” once before. Perhaps it will surprise us again.

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