This year’s Oscar winner in the Best Foreign Language category, The Secret in Their Eyes, began its American commercial run last week. I saw it in a preview screening a couple of weeks back.
Among the four flicks it beat out was Ajami, the latest of three straight finalists from Israel that came up short. Writing for JTA, Tom Tugend has speculated on why Israel’s superbly high quality and innovative film industry has not yet come up with this ultimate prize:
To general surprise, the winner turned out to be the little-seen or publicized Argentine movie “The Secret in Their Eyes,” a thriller about an unsolved 25-year-old case involving the murder and rape of a young woman. Critics have become used to odd choices by the foreign film selection committee, but this year’s pick seemed to repeat the previous year’s pattern too closely to be coincidental. In both years, four of the five finalists were edgy, tough and innovative films, while the fifth tended to be softer, conventional and more in the Hollywood tradition.
Due mainly to a convoluted selection process, the judges on the selection committee tend to be older academy members with more time on their hands and more attuned to traditional movies. Schory has no doubt that these circumstances led to the selection of the conventional Argentine film over the edgier entries, such as the highly favored “A Prophet” from France, “The White Ribbon” from Germany and “Ajami.”
“What happens is that a large portion of judges favored the one conventional film, while the rest split their votes among the more innovative films,” said [Katriel] Schory [executive director of the Israel Film Fund], who left Los Angeles immediately after the Oscar ceremonies to return to Israel. A similar analysis was proposed last year by Kenneth Turan, the respected film critic of The Los Angeles Times, when the obscure Japanese film “Departures” beat out far more sophisticated entries from France, Germany and Israel. …
In a NY Times review that shares this viewpoint, A.O. Scott described Departures, last year’s winner from Japan, as follows: “Overlong, predictable in its plotting and utterly banal in its blending of comic whimsy and melodramatic pathos, Departures is, in the end, interesting mainly as an index of the Academy’s hopelessly timid and conventional tastes.”
Having not seen it, I cannot evaluate Scott’s opinion of Departures, but after seeing the Argentinean film, I’d tend to discount this view of the selection process. Although not trailblazing in the way that Ajami and perhaps some of the other contenders were this year, there is nothing particularly conventional about it. It essentially stitches two timelines together: one from the era of corruption, violence and lawlessness that characterized Argentina in the 1970s–before and during its rule by the right-wing military junta–and the latter in the early 1990s. It is not without flaws–e.g., it makes an unnecessary twist that tediously drags out its conclusion–but it is fundamentally gripping and powerful.
In 2008, a language issue prevented the poignantly comic The Band’s Visit from being Israel’s nominee, because the Egyptian and Israeli characters communicated to each other in English—as they would have in real life. In my view, The Band’s Visit would have been a stronger contender than the grim war drama, Beaufort, which lost out to Austria’s The Counterfeiters—a searing Holocaust film that was not in the least bit conventional.
My feeling is that 2009–with Waltz with Bashir, a psychological war drama rendered into animation–should have been Israel’s year. I still wonder if Israel was being punished by the Oscar committee for its bloody invasion of Gaza, which had only ended a couple of weeks before the awards ceremony. Surprisingly, insofar as I can recall, this possibility was not part of the discussion.