In the 60 years that the Best Foreign Language Film has existed as a competitive category at the Academy Awards, Argentina is the only Latin American country to have ever won. La historia oficial (The Official Story) took home an Oscar in 1986 and El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) in 2010. But that could change on Sunday if Sebastian Lelio’s Una mujer fantástica (A Fantastic Woman) gives Chile its first-ever victory in the category. His drama about a transgender woman’s ordeal to assert her dignity following her lover’s death is up against Russia’s Loveless, Sweden’s The Square, Hungary’s On Body and Soul, and Lebanon’s The Insult.
Unlike other years where there is an obvious favorite in this category, predicting a winner this time is not as clear-cut. All five of the nominees won major prizes at international festivals, and precursor awards such as the Golden Globe and the Critics’ Choice Award went to Germany’s In the Fade, a movie that didn’t even earn an Oscar nomination. None of the candidates received nominations in any other categories, which means they are all essentially on equal footing.
Despite this uncertainty, GoldDerby, a site that aggregates forecasts from some of the most trusted pundits in the entertainment industry, is largely prognosticating a win for Chile. 19 out of its 26 experts, which come from publications like Variety, Deadline, and Indiewire, anticipate Lelio’s piece will take it. The rest of the mentions are divided between The Square and The Insult. Scott Feinberg, The Hollywood Reporter’s awards columnist, believes the Lebanese courtroom drama is the likely victor, with A Fantastic Woman as the possible spoiler. Here at Remezcla, we decided to go direct to the source, and take our own poll.
We contacted a dozen Academy members, from different branches, who agreed to anonymously talk to us about their top contender and their general thoughts on the race in order to get a snapshot of how Chile’s chances are looking. Three quarters of the voters we talked to named A Fantastic Woman as their personal favorite out of the five and the one they were most likely to vote for, a few others felt very strongly about Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, and one voter noted that The Insult would be their selection. On Body and Soul was a popular choice for second best.
Although it would be disingenuous to take this sample of people as fact, what these Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) members’ comments reveal is that even if Chile appears to be the frontrunner, this is still a wide-open race. “I’ve heard people talking about all of them and think with the voting opened up to a more global membership, it’s really hard to say – I have no idea what will win,” explained an Academy voter.
“I was struck by how a Chilean film can be so universally relevant, tackling red-hot issues for conversations around the world, from transgender to women’s equality and abuse issues, a movie with its finger on the zeitgeist.”
The Academy changed the nomination process this year by allowing more international members to participate in the final stage. Here’s how the entire process goes. First, each country selects one local feature to submit for consideration. That long roster, which this year was comprised of a record 92 productions, is then watched by the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Committee. In December, the committee whittles the number of contenders down to nine. This is known as the shortlist. Previously, once the 9-film shortlist had been determined, a select group of members in Los Angeles, New York, and London decided which five become finalists. Now, international voters not living in these cities can watch the competitors remotely and weigh in to choose the nominees. Finally, like in all categories, voting to select the winning entry is open to the Academy’s entire membership.
We also inquired about which of the nominees they considered the frontrunner (regardless of their own preference) based on their interactions with other members and their impressions from the awards season chatter. “It’s all over the place – A Fantastic Woman, Loveless, and The Insult are all getting numerous mentions as perceived winners,” noted one of them. “It’s going to be between The Insult and A Fantastic Woman,” confirmed another.
In any case, A Fantastic Woman is generally liked among voters, even those who will likely cast their vote elsewhere. Voters consistently praised Sebastian Lelio’s “gift with directing women and giving them full lives, for good and for bad, and with humor and warmth.” A handful of them mentioned their love for his previous effort Gloria, which was eventually not nominated despite being submitted for consideration by Chile.
“Putting aside how beautifully shot it was and the amazing performance by Daniela Vega, I was struck by how a Chilean film can be so universally relevant, tackling red-hot issues for conversations around the world, from transgender to women’s equality and abuse issues, a movie with its finger on the zeitgeist,” said one voter, who is clearly a passionate supporter of the Chilean stunner.
The recent announcement that Daniela Vega will make history at this year’s ceremony as the first transgender performer to present at the Oscars might have given A Fantastic Woman a last-minute boost, since this was made public the week of voting. Both Vega’s remarkable turn and her ubiquitous presence in the press this awards season have undoubtedly helped the magical realist drama remain in the conversation.
When asked whether or not the fact that a transgender actress was cast in the role of a transgender woman had any impact in the way their perceived the movie, most Academy members expressed admiration for this decision and felt it was a key factor in the film’s success. “When there are transgender actors available and hungry to work, I don’t know why you wouldn’t cast someone who could truthfully represent. It’s really important, especially in this day and age, to let people have their voice, especially when the opportunities are rare,” a voter told us. They continued, “It’s incredible that the director was sensitive enough to see the importance of this, that he wrote it with only her in mind, and that the actress could do it with such grace, subtlety and beauty.”
One member explained they weren’t even aware that Daniela Vega is transgender until long after watching the movie. According to this particular voter, it didn’t make a difference because they thought the Chilean drama was great even before becoming aware of the significant casting choice. A Fantastic Woman is still this person’s top pick.
A recurrent theme in these discussions was that the vast majority of voters we talked to were surprised to learn that Argentina is the only Latin American nation to have taken the statuette home. Some believed Mexico had already won because of the prominence that Del Toro, Cuarón, and Iñárritu have had at the awards show in recent years. One even posited a theory as to why other countries hadn’t achieved Oscar glory, “Argentines consider themselves more European, so they make films that appeal to bourgeois, middle class and upper class sensibilities.”
All things considered, this could be the year that Argentina is joined by another Latin American country among the winners. One voter was particularly hopeful, if not certain: “I think A Fantastic Woman has a really great chance.” We’ll go with that version.
A Fantastic Woman is currently playing in theaters across the country.