The Final Cut

Grumpy Old Men

Mark Harris expounds on the omission of ''Persepolis'' and ''4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days''

This year's Best Foreign Language Film nominations

Almost every year, the Academy Award nominations arrive packaged with an outrage! A scandal! A travesty of justice! This year is different. For once, the splenetic language is actually justified, and the Academy — or at least one key member — seems just as upset as its harshest critics.

Over the decades, no category has given the Oscars more trouble than Best Foreign Language Film. Among this year's contenders, two spectacular movies seemed to stand above the pack: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a taut, brilliantly observed drama about a woman trying to arrange an illegal abortion in Ceausescu's Romania in the 1980s, and Persepolis, a heartbreaking and funny black-and-white animated film about a tough, independent woman's struggle to find her place both in and outside of her native Iran. 4 Months won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and best-foreign-language-film awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics; Persepolis took the Cannes Jury Prize and a bucket of critics' trophies for best animated film.

But neither movie is among the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, because neither film was eligible. They fell out of contention after failing even to make the list of nine movies that the Foreign Language voters deemed the best of the year. ''It's shocking that our committee didn't include those movies,'' says producer Mark Johnson, the reform-minded chairman of the Foreign Language branch. ''I was extremely disappointed. There are several films I liked that didn't make the cut, and that's fine, but these two are different. I believe that the Academy membership as a whole would have nominated them, and the fact that our committee didn't recognize their merit — maybe I shouldn't say this, but frankly, it's embarrassing.''

It's that ''committee'' — actually a loose group of several hundred Academy voters who volunteer to watch a percentage of the 60 or so foreign-language films that vie for nominations every year — that's the heart of the problem. That massive time commitment excludes just about anyone who has something to do other than see movies all day. Thus, many voters are retirees who haven't been active in the business since Robert Mitchum was the sexiest man alive. Every year, some of the world's most innovative films are being judged by some of the Academy's most aesthetically conservative voters. No wonder something's always wrong with this picture.

For last year's awards, the Academy rewrote its procedures to address this mess; instead of picking five nominees, the committee would now select nine films; then, thirty more active and diverse Academy members would narrow that presumably more inclusive field. Initially, the new process appeared to work. Last year's nominees included Pan's Labyrinth (which won three Oscars), The Lives of Others, and the superb Algerian drama Days of Glory. But 2007 may just have been a year in which the subject matter of some terrific movies happened to come under the heading of Things Old Movie People Like — stories about the horrors of war and Communism. This year's two egregious omissions involved Iran and abortion — Things Old Movie People Don't Like.

So are we back to square one? The challenge facing Johnson and the Board of Governors is steep: Oscar voters with varied tastes and busy days aren't suddenly going to add dozens of Academy screenings to their schedules every winter. So maybe the solution is to build in a yearly taste correction for a flawed system. When Johnson and I talked, I suggested the creation of a discretionary panel that could examine each year's list and add two or three titles that it felt had been unjustly omitted before sending the contenders on to the final voting panel. ''That's definitely a thought,'' he replied. ''We've talked in the past about including major festival winners'' — which would have qualified both 4 Months and Persepolis. ''We have to make some radical changes, and I hope the Board of Governors supports that.'' While they're talking, the board should also reexamine the anachronistic rule that allows each country to submit just one film. That restriction allows countries to suppress politically sensitive movies — and hurts countries with too many good ones. This year, France's submission of Persepolis meant that the equally worthy The Diving Bell and the Butterfly couldn't be considered.

This is worth all the disgust, because in terms of enhancing a film's ability to find an audience, Best Foreign Language Film may be the most important award the Academy gives. 4 Months, a truly tough sell, needed the words ''Oscar Nominee'' atop its ads, and deserved them. This snub seriously hurts its chances of being seen widely enough to do what the world's best films have always done since Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion was nominated for Best Picture in 1938 — to broaden America's, and Hollywood's, understanding of what great filmmaking can be.

Originally posted Jan 29, 2008 Published in issue #976 Feb 01, 2008 Order article reprints
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