Iran scored its first foreign language film Oscar nomination in 14 years on Tuesday dominating a field of movies with subjects ranging from Jewish refugees in wartime Poland to corruption in the Flemish beef industry.
"A Separation," Iranian director's Asghar Farhadi's searing domestic drama, also scored a nod for best original screenplay, boosting the movie's chances for Oscar gold to crown what already has been critically-acclaimed run at Western film festivals.
Israeli film 'Footnote' nominated for Oscar
Jewish film school with soul
The foreign language film nominees were rounded out by Israeli film "Footnote", "In Darkness" by Polish director Agniezska Holland, Canadian entry "Monsieur Lazhar" and "Bullhead" from Belgium.
But expected titles like Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In", and Chinese film "Flowers of War" starring Christian Bale, were edged out of an often difficult to predict field of contenders.
"From a personal point of view, it means that being local and being universal are not opposite of each other," "Separation" director Farhadi told Reuters about the nomination, speaking from Paris where he is working on his next film.
"For Iranian filmmakers in my country, it means that the power of cinema is still superior to that of political problems," Farhadi told Reuters.
In recent years, the Iranian government has severely restricted some of its most acclaimed writers and directors, including film director Jafar Panahi, known for his gritty films that examine social issues in the Islamic Republic. He was jailed in 2010 and banned from making movies or traveling abroad by an Iranian court. Some of Hollywood's most influential names, including Steven Spielberg, have called for Panahi's release.
More recently in 2011, Iranian officials arrested four filmmakers on suspicion of selling their films to foreign broadcasters, and sentenced Iranian actress Marzieh Vafamehr, who appeared in "My Tehran for Sale," to 90 lashes and a year in prison, which was later overturned by an appeals court.
"A Separation", about an Iranian couple going through a divorce, won the top prize at Berlin's film festival in February 2011, and a US Golden Globe last week. It is the first Iranian film to be Oscar-nominated since 1998's "Children of Heaven."
The thrill of a nomination
Holland's movie "In Darkness" chronicles the rescue of Jewish refugees in the Polish city of Lvov during World War II. It is Agniezska Holland's second Oscar nomination following 1990's "Europa Europa."
Although she's a veteran of awards ceremonies, Holland still felt a rush hearing her name announced.
"Every time is like the first time," she gasped when reached in Warsaw. "And this film was more difficult than any of my movies in terms of the conditions, in terms of the ambition, in terms of the shooting."
Joseph Cedar was in Jerusalem doing homework with his six-year-old son when he heard the title of his movie, "Footnote," announced in Beverly Hills by Oscar organizers.
"We jumped up and down and screamed and mostly felt a great relief," he told Reuters. "I'm still not sure it's not a mistake."
"Footnote" focuses on a father-son rivalry in Talmudic studies, but is not autobiographical. "I am a father and I am a son, but other than that it's not directly linked to my own family," said the director.
Filmmaker Philippe Falardeau was attending the Sundance Film Festival in Utah when his "Monsieur Lazhar," the Canadian entry, was announced as a nominee on Tuesday.
"When I heard the word 'Canada' I started screaming. I didn't even hear the name of my film," he said.
"Monsieur Lazhar" tells of an Algerian immigrant who takes over a classroom full of elementary kids after their teacher commits suicide. It is the second year in a row a Quebecois film has been in competition after last year's "Incendies".
"It's quite ironic to see an intimate film exist alongside a big Hollywood production," Falardeau said.
The fifth nominee, Belgian entry "Bullhead," directed by first-time filmmaker Michael R. Roskam, is a crime drama focusing on corruption in the Flemish beef industry.
The 84th Academy Awards, the world's top film honors, will take place on February 26 in Hollywood.