In 2008, the committee that oversees the Oscars' foreign-language film category came under withering criticism for avoiding risky movies. Romania's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," a frank account of a young girl's illegal abortion, wasn't nominated, nor was France's "Persepolis" (a coming-of-age story set against the Iranian Revolution).
What a difference three years makes. The five movies up for one of global cinema's most prestigious prizes — selected this year from films submitted by 66 nations — are a study in gritty provocation.
"In a Better World"); Europeans attacking Muslims in the aftermath of World War II (Algeria's "Outside the Law"); a Barcelona con artist facing his own mortality while tormented by his role in the deaths of illegal immigrants (Mexico's "Biutiful"); and a man who rapes his mother during the Lebanese civil war (Canada's "Incendies").
And those are the safer films. The most provocative choice is unequivocally Greece's "Dogtooth," about parents who imprison and torture their children. Mark Johnson, the Hollywood producer who runs the motion picture academy's foreign-language committee, says he has even received e-mails from members objecting to the nomination.
"People are really upset about it, about the violence, about the incest. It really splits people," Johnson said. "But the reason we came up with the system is we can make sure movies that are unconventional got considered."
In the wake of the 2008 controversy, the committee changed the tiered voting system that yields the five nominees. It empowered a small executive committee of about 20 members to add three movies of their choice to a pre-nomination shortlist of six films.
The idea was that a larger group (the foreign-language committee is several hundred strong) might shy away from tougher fare. But the executive committee — which includes the noted Polish-born cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and "The Player" screenwriter Michael Tolkin — could provide a corrective. This year, the executive committee used one of its wild cards on "Dogtooth," according to a person familiar with the voting process who was not authorized to speak about it publicly.
"The new rules have caused the five [nominees] not to be as traditional as in the past," said Michael Barker, the co-head of distributor Sony Pictures Classics, which is releasing "Incendies" and "In a Better World" in the United States.
(The five final nominees are chosen in a phase in which a group of about 30 members from across the academy whittle down the list from nine candidates; as producer and executive committee member Ron Yerxa puts it, every stage has "a different kind of democracy.")
In the case of "Dogtooth," even those closest to the movie doubted it stood a chance. "It didn't seem like the kind of film the academy would choose," director Yorgos Lanthimos said by phone from Greece this week, offering a small laugh.
"Dogtooth" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2009, where it won a top prize and generated a fierce discussion that has yet to abate. Some have found the film sensationalistic, while others have seen in it a metaphor for disconnection from the modern world.
The Oscar nomination — and controversy — has helped fuel DVD sales of "Dogtooth" for Kino Lorber, a New York-based distributor of esoteric art films. Many theaters actually rejected the movie in 2010, and that repudiation may have actually boosted its Oscar chances. "It drew attention to the film, and when it opened later, people were thinking about the Oscars," said Rodrigo Brandao, director of publicity at Kino Lorber.
But the gritty complexion of the 2011 Oscar nominees — which stands in contrast to the more populist 10 best picture nominees — is not only a matter of rule tweaks. Cinema in many foreign countries is often heavier than Hollywood fare, but lately it seems to have gone from dark to darker. (For instance, the most comedic foreign-language submission this year came from Sweden, not a country known for light and mirth in its cinema. It wasn't nominated.)
Johnson also believes that countries have curtailed the practice of submitting the film they think stands the greatest chance of winning over stronger films; Johnson, academy Executive Director Bruce Davis and others routinely talk to submitting bodies in foreign countries to discourage the practice of trying to game the system at the expense of quality.
Still, internal politics can play as strong a role as aesthetics in determining a country's submission. This season, for instance, a flap developed in Italy when the nation put forth "The First Beautiful Thing" as its submission instead of the better-known and, in some circles, better-regarded "I Am Love," starring Tilda Swinton.
While all 5,755 voting members of the academy can cast ballots in most categories for Sunday's awards, the foreign-language committee requires members to pledge that they've seen all five nominees — in a theater — before they can vote. That makes for less predictable winners. Two years ago, the favorites were thought to be "Waltz With Bashir," an animated Israeli film about war that had box-office success, and "The Class," France's education-world drama that won the top prize at Cannes. But voters chose "Departures," a black comedy, set in a Japanese funeral home, that few people had heard of. Last year Michael Haneke's acclaimed World War I movie "The White Ribbon" and Jacques Audiard's prison-gangster hit "A Prophet" lost to Argentina's more obscure "The Secret in Their Eyes."
"I used to be able to predict the winner pretty confidently," Barker said. "But in the last few years I've been wrong." Some have noted that those who vote for the category winner tend to favor the lighter, less bleak offerings from among the nominees.
This year, when all of the choices lean toward the dour side, the film to bet on is either "Biutiful," because of its high-profile star, Javier Bardem (who is also nominated in the lead actor category), or "Incendies," whose Middle East narrative dovetails with current events. Still, "Better World" director Susanne Bier and "Outside the Law" helmer Rachid Bouchareb are liked by the academy — both have had films nominated previously. ("Dogtooth" is, for all the buzz, considered a long shot.)
Adding to the unpredictability — and, for some, the fun — is the fact that those who vote on the foreign-language Oscar are perhaps less versed in global cinema than other groups that give out awards.
"The academy is not a critics group, and many that vote don't see art-house films all year," said Fredell Pogodin, a veteran Oscar consultant who works on campaigns for foreign-language films, including "Biutiful" this year.
Indeed, the films that took the two biggest prizes at last year's Cannes Film Festival — Thailand's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" and France's "Of Gods and Men" — failed even to make the Oscars' nine-picture shortlist.
Those involved with this year's campaign say that they see 2011 as a watershed year, with the prize likely moving in even more unpredictable and experimental directions.
"The fact that the academy picked 'Dogtooth' for the final five sent a message to countries around the world that 'You don't necessarily know what we like,'" said Kino Lorber's Brandao. "There's a domino effect — the Oscars pick less conservative films, and then the countries do too. It's going to be very interesting to watch in the years to come."