sweet mud 298.88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel hasn't been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 22 years (since Uri Barabash's Beyond the Walls), but given the recent renaissance in Israeli films, will this be the year that an Israeli product finally breaks through again? Not likely.
Even though the Ophir Award winner this year, Dror Shaul's Sweet Mud, is a fine film, there's very little chance. Here's why:
1. Competition is fierce. The list of countries submitting films for consideration has just been released, and a record-breaking 61 are competing for the five spots.
2. One of these 61 films is Pedro Almodovar's Volver - a highly praised drama that won an ensemble Best Actress Award at Cannes and stars Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura. Almodovar, who won an Oscar for the screenplay of Talk to Her, is assured one of the spots.
3. This leaves four places, but there are an extraordinary number of celebrated films competing, among them Rachid Bouchareb's Days of Glory - a French/Algerian co-production that is Algeria's nominee, which won an ensemble Best Actor Award at Cannes, and is about North African troops fighting for France during World War II; Rolf de Heer's Ten Canoes, which won a special jury prize at Cannes and is the first feature ever made in an indigenous Aboriginal language; Deepa Mehta's superb Water, the third film in her enormously original and moving trilogy about women in India, and which, because of its financing, is the Canadian selection; Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower - a period romance starring Gong Li, the entry from China; Mexico's entry, Pan's Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro, a visually inventive fantasy which many expect to win big at Cannes; Daniel Burman's crowd-pleasing comedy-drama from Argentina, Family Business ; and Black Book, a drama of the Holocaust and Resistance movement by Hollywood director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers), the entry from his native Netherlands. Lights in the Dusk, by critics' darling, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, is the official entry from Finland, but Kaurismaki says he wants to boycott the Oscars because of his opposition to the Iraq War. I suppose if filmmakers are avoiding Israel as a protest, why not also boycott the US?
4. In addition to these prize-winning and highly praised films, there are movies from countries with almost no film industry, and which may benefit from the novelty value of having an entry. That, plus the fact that most of these movies are from war-torn countries, or countries in great turmoil, guarantees interest in them. The most prominent of these are: Nomad from Kazkhstan, directed by Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains), Talgat Temenov and Ivan Passer (the US film Law and Disorder), which Hollywood types may nominate to assuage their guilt at having laughed at Borat; Mohamad Al-Daradji's Dreams, from Iraq; and Philippe Aractingi's Bosta from Lebanon.
Note: The Palestinian authority did not submit a film this year.
NONE OF these illustrious competitors should detract from Shaul's achievement with Sweet Mud, but after years of seeing strong Israeli films go unrecognized by the Oscar Foreign Film Nominating Committee, I'm convinced there are some unique aspects of working here that sometimes make it difficult for Israeli films to cross over. There are many aspects of life here that are so uniquely Israeli they are simply hard to get across outside the country. For example, Sweet Mud has drawn praise for its accurate and chilling portrayal of what kibbutz life can be like when members turn on each other. But whether the subtleties of Shaul's vision can be comprehensible to international viewers is another story. Joseph Cedar's Campfire faced similar obstacles two years ago because it took a highly critical look at the nationalist religious community, but apparently did not strike much of a chord with reviewers outside the country. Someone who has no idea what B'nei Akiva is can certainly enjoy the film, but will miss many of its subtleties.
But who knows? This could be Israel's year. As screenwriter William Goldman once, famously, said about Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything."
The Oscar nominations will be announced on January 23.