Like any awards show, the Oscars are really just a long, drawn out ritual of Hollywood self-congratulation punctuated by a few entertaining skits, surprise wins, and rousing speeches. But like Christmas, the real charm of the Academy Awards is in Oscar season: that five-month stretch of middle-brow world premieres accompanied by an endless litany of chatter from cinematic soothsayers speculating about the prospects of films they may or may not have seen yet. And as of mid-November, we’re right in the thick of it.
For fans of world cinema, though, there is one little pre-Oscars treat that has been holding us over in the grueling stretch between December and the Academy Awards ceremony in February since 2006: the Foreign Language shortlist. Published around year’s end, the short list consists of nine titles voted as semi-finalists in the running for Best Foreign Language Film, which are then passed on to a thirty-member committee to reach the final five nominees.
Unlike every other Oscar category, the films under consideration for Best Foreign Language Film are actually preselected by the countries they represent, and the award is technically granted to the country and not the film’s director or producer. It’s a quirk that has left Oscar powerhouses like Italian auteur Federico Fellini without a single statuette to his name (save an honorary Lifetime Achievement Award), even though his films have picked up four Oscars in the category. But luckily, over the last few years, the Academy has been gracious enough to engrave the director’s name on the statue alongside the winning country.
As for the shortlist, since its inception, it has been a mixed bag for Latin American cinema, but with a number of strong contenders this year –including rare submissions from smaller industries like Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Paraguay – there’s a good chance Nuestra América will have some solid representation on the coveted list, and maybe even go the distance in February. Many of the films being considered have already swept awards ceremonies at important festivals like Berlin, Cannes, and Toronto, so their pedigree is certainly not in question. Now it’s just up to the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with all their human biases and shortcomings, to decide how far Latin America will go this time around.
Here’s a list of the films under consideration.
Nominations for the 88th Academy Awards are announced on January 14, 2016. Oscar awards are handed out on February 28, 2016.
Filmed almost entirely in the Kaqchikel dialect spoken in Guatemala’s coffee-growing highlands, Ixcanul dramatizes the story of María, a young Mayan woman who is promised to the coffee plantation foreman, despite her desire for a lowly coffee cutter named Pepe. Dreaming of absconding with Pepe to a romanticized vision of the United States, María eventually has the encounter with modernity she so yearned for, but not for the reasons she had hoped. In addition to the impressive naturalistic performances from the film’s non-professional cast, Ixcanul’s visuals are extremely powerful, with radiant bronze skin tones, textured interiors, and the requisite breathtaking landscapes.
Dauna. Lo que lleva el río
The first Venezuelan film shot almost entirely in the Warao language, Dauna. Lo que lleva el río (Gone with the River) is the story of an indigenous woman named Dauna who is marked by difference within her community. Torn between her love for Tarsicio and her desire to pursue studies outside of her village, Dauna’s decision to challenge the expectations of her traditional culture lead to suffering and, ultimately, reconciliation. The elegant cinematography captures the beauty of the region’s virgin landscapes and the new-agey soundtrack mixes traditional wind instruments with chattering, electronic percussion, setting a steady, medium pace that appropriately pushes along the drama.
Caja 25 (Box 25) surveys the major events in the troubled relationship between Panama and the United States, focusing on 114 recently discovered letters written by Panama Canal diggers, which describe brutal working conditions, rampant discrimination, and enduring hope. Making elegant use of archival documents, photographs and films, as well as contemporary interviews, Box 25 brings these lost voices back to life, reminding us of our diverse history and of the sacrifices made to make a dream a reality.
Que horas ela volta?
Regina Casé is impressive in the role of a live-in maid, Val, who works for a wealthy family in São Paulo. The arrival of Val’s daughter, whom she has not seen for years, creates a revolution in the household. She calls the boss Bárbara, instead of Dona Bárbara, while both the husband and son fall in love with her. “You’re born knowing what you can and cannot do,” Val reprimands her daughter. She confronts her by putting into question her servitude. The film raises class issues and examines generational gaps. Director Anna Muylaert, who has worked as a film critic and reporter, drafted a thoughtful script and put care into directing the actors, with a big payoff. Que horas ela volta? (The Second Mother) was Brazil’s submission for the 88th Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Victoria is a young, middle-class woman whose family is going through a serious financial crisis, forcing her to enroll in night classes so that she can finish high school and to take an inconvenient job that leads her to the La Reforma penitentiary. In the prison, Victoria meets Jason, an inmate. As she explores his world behind bars, she begins to question her own limitations and her sense of freedom. Inspired by his father’s documentary on Costa Rican prisons, Tico director Esteban Ramírez takes the same social themes and translates them to the big screen, showing that one doesn’t need to be in prison in order to be a prisoner.
El abrazo de la serpiente
There’s no reason to think things will end well for the natives of the pristine Amazon in this Colombian drama from Ciro Guerra (La Sombra del Caminante). The movie comprises two stories of two journeys along one river, in search of a healing plant, and centers on an age-old theme: nothing gold can stay. Colonialism finds its way into even the most remote places on this planet, and leaves catastrophe in its wake. The film was even shot in black and white, leaving no room for shades of gray, moral or otherwise. The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards.
Director Pablo Larraín’s previous films examined life in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship, and here he takes aim at another oppressive force: the Catholic Church. The Club has four members, all priests, who live together in a Church-sponsored home to “purge” themselves of their sins, which include child molestation and kidnapping. With a retired nun to look after them, the men seem willing to live out their days in contrite seclusion. But their penitence is interrupted with the arrival of a crisis counselor, Father Garcia. The Club took home the Jury Grand Prix at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, and was selected to represent Chile for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars, but did not receive a nomination.
Mexico chose 600 millas as its submission for the 88th Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category.
The U.S.-Mexico border has provided the setting (and conflict) for many a drama, but in Gabriel Ripstein’s 600 Miles, it’s just one of many lines that are crossed. Arnulfo (Kristyan Ferrer) is a young Mexican gunrunner, which lands him on ATF Agent Hank Harris’ (Tim Roth) radar. But instead of getting his man, Hank is taken hostage by Arnulfo, who wants to hand him over to his cartel bosses to curry favor. The two men get chummy on the trip south, which makes Arnulfo’s subsequent actions all the more tragic. 600 Miles won the Best First Feature award at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival.
Argentina chose El clan as its submission for the 88th Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category.
Throughout the 1980s, the so-called Puccio Clan, a family of twisted, upper crust porteños, adopted the tactics of Argentina’s Dirty War and made a well-organized family business out of kidnapping and extortion, only to mercilessly finish off their victims after completing the transaction. The mastermind behind this depraved family activity was an unassuming public accountant and small businessman named Arquímedes Puccio, along with his son, a professional rugby player named Alejandro. Their victims? Family friends and soccer acquaintances. Yeesh. The film is directed by Pablo Trapero, one of Argentina’s most internationally lauded directors, and features box office sensation and beloved comedian Guillermo Francella in the role of Arquímedes. It’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller, with plenty of dimly lit spaces, stacks of money, guns, menacing glares, and slamming trunks.
Dólares de arena
The Dominican Republic chose Dólares de arena as its submission for the 88th Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category.
The Dominican feature Dólares de arena (Sand Dollars), by husband-wife directing duo Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, features none other than Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie and a brilliant actress in her own right) as an elderly French tourist who falls in love with a young Dominican woman and makes plans to move her back to France. Not your typical story of tropical romance told through the eyes of a white foreigner, this film is equally interested in exploring the predicament of the young Dominican woman, played by Yanet Mojica, and the shady power dynamics that may be at work.
El tiempo nublado
Paraguay chose El tiempo nublado as its submission for the 88th Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category.
In El tiempo nublado Arami Ullón documents her homecoming to Paraguay after years of living in Switzerland. After battling epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease, her mother’s health is declining and no one is available to care for her. Ullón is faced with a universal dilemma: continue to pursue her own ambitions or sacrifice it all to care for her mother? One is struck by the textured, cinematic quality of the images, which are so carefully photographed that it could easily be confused with a narrative feature. An emotive string score accompanies the poetic reflection on family, forgiveness, and filmmaking that lends the film a melancholic, elegiac tone.
Dark and cold, NN (No Name) follows the tortuous work of a group of forensic investigators who exhume human remains of the disappeared during the bloody years of repression in Peru in the 80s and 90s. The film focuses on the emotional repercussions that both the investigators and the families go through in finding and identifying the bodies. Director Héctor Gálvez fictionalizes the facts with a lot of emotion, shows them in chiaroscuro, and says it with whispers broken by tears. The film was written by Gálvez, who collaborated with the Commission of Human Rights of Peru and The Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.
Una noche sin luna
Uruguay chose Una noche sin luna as its submission for the 88th Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category.
Una noche sin luna is director Germán Tejeira’s debut feature. Named by Variety as one of the 10 rising stars of Latin American talent (talk about pressure), Tejeira has followed up a string of successful shorts with this unpretentious film about three lonely souls spending a New Year’s night in a small country town. It’s punctuated by Uruguay’s unmistakable brand of deadpan comedy, in which a puff of smoke on a performer’s face or a dinner guest with greasy hands somehow strikes us as utterly hilarious. Nevertheless, the film transmits that a sense of melancholy and longing that Uruguayans seem to do so well.