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Jewish Journal

Nominated for Best Foreign Film Are…

by Tom Tugend

January 26, 2006 | 7:00 pm

On Tuesday, at the indecent hour of 5:30 a.m., when some sleepy official reads off the nominations for the 78th Academy Awards, it's likely no one will follow the announcements more anxiously than filmmakers in 58 foreign countries.

Each of these nations has submitted its supposedly best 2005 production to vie for one of the five nominations for the year's best foreign language film.

It's the one chance for hopefuls from Bangladesh to Tajikstan to catch Hollywood's attention and break into the coveted American market.

This year, the German, Hungarian, Israeli and Palestinian entries offer storylines that should be of special interest to Jewish viewers.

Judging by critical buzz and personal reviews, here are the films' nomination chances, ranked from best to worst.

"Paradise Now," which follows two suicide bombers from Nablus in their painstaking preparations to blow up a Tel Aviv bus, reinforced its front-runner status earlier this month when it picked up the Golden Globe Award for best foreign film. Although the sympathies of director Hany Abu-Assad lie clearly on the Palestinian side, he avoids a simplistic our good guys vs. their evil Israelis tirade.

Given excellent acting and a tight, tense plot, the film tries to give an insight into the motivations of the terrorists, their sense of humiliation under Israeli occupation and their fanaticism, as well as their doubts and misgivings. In what may be a bow to Western sensibilities and tastes, a beautiful Arab woman, who tries to dissuade the bombers from their mission, is given a central role.

For shrewd political or artistic reasons, the film concludes without exposing viewers to the ultimate horror and carnage of the bombers' goal.

"Sophie Scholl: The Final Days," Germany's official entry, is the most recent attempt by the country's young filmmakers to wrestle with the dark legacy of the Hitler era.

The movie is a cinematic tribute to the literally death-defying courage of a small group of German university students who posted anti-Nazi leaflets throughout Munich and elsewhere in Germany at the height of World War II.

Sophie Scholl, a 21-year-old Protestant, was the only woman in the underground resistance group, The White Rose, who, after being caught, went to her execution defending her belief with unbowed strength. The film's message shines through that even in the worst of times, each individual has a choice to defy the tyrant.

Hungary's entry, "Fateless," perhaps the most nuanced Holocaust film ever made, has won high critical acclaim but is probably too ambiguous to win Oscar recognition.

The story is based on the book and life of Hungarian Jewish writer Imre Kertesz, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature three years ago, and it is told through the eyes of 14-year-old Gyuri Koves.

Koves, hauntingly portrayed by Marcell Nagy, is randomly taken off a bus, randomly sent to Auschwitz and other camps and randomly survives and returns to Budapest.

While not shrinking from the horror, filth, disease and degradation of the concentration camps, "Fateless" is told through a boy's very personal perspective and often has an almost dreamlike quality.

To many viewers, the most shocking aspect may be Gyuri's voiceover musings as he wanders the streets of Budapest after liberation.

"There is nothing too unimaginable to endure," he thinks, and when asked to relate the atrocities he has endured, opts to speak of his happiness.

"The next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that, the happiness of the concentration camp. If, indeed, I am asked. And provided I myself don't forget."

What is that perverse happiness? Director Lajos Koltai, in a phone call from Budapest, tried to explain.

"The boy remembers the happiness of once in a while finding a small piece of meat or potato in his thin soup, or the friendship of older prisoners who saved his life. And mostly, he remembers the happiness of the short hour between the end of backbreaking work and supper, when he could watch the sunset and quietly talk to the others."

Author Kertesz, who also wrote the screenplay, gave a more subtle explanation in a New York Times interview.

"I took the word happiness out of its everyday context and make it seem scandalous," he said. "It was an act of rebellion against the role of victim which society had assigned to me. It was a way of assuring my responsibility, of defining my own fate."

"Fateless" is Koltai's first film as a director, but he has made his considerable reputation as a top cinematographer in such works as "Mephisto," "Sunshine" and "Being Julia."

He applied his old craft to great effect in "Fateless," observing that "Holocaust-themed pictures are generally in black and white, and I am told that camp survivors remember their camp experiences devoid of color.

"I used digital color timing in post-production to infuse warmth and color into early family scenes, then a gradual loss of color during the camp scenes and finally the return of some color after liberation."

Koltai has drawn some of his inspiration from the works of Flemish painters Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel, who infused beauty into their depictions of utter hell.

As for the title of the book and movie, Koltai observed, "Anything can happen to anybody at any time. Anybody can be taken off the bus."

Last and least is this year's Israeli entry, which reinstates the death wish tradition of the Israeli Academy of Films in submitting movies bound to be most offensive, at least to American Jews who make up a high proportion of Oscar judges.

In the ironically titled "What a Wonderful Place," the focus is on the mistreatment of Thai, Filipino and other foreign workers, which is a real enough Israeli problem.

But what we get from director Eyal Halfon in the film's 103 minutes is a lineup of Israelis who pimp and rape imported Russian prostitutes, beat their foreign farm workers, cheat on their spouses, humiliate their children and commit suicide.

Even the one half-decent Israeli is a disgraced cop who works for a mob boss and gambles compulsively, but at least he protects one of the Russian girls.

Oddly enough, the Israeli film industry submits "Wonderful Place" and similar downers, even while the overall level of Israeli movies ("Walk on Water" and "Yossi & Jagger" spring to mind) has steadily improved.

Ironically, the similarly improved Palestinian movies, while wasting no love on the occupation, manage to present most Israelis as recognizable human beings.

One can surely admire Israeli filmmakers for unsparingly criticizing their society's shortcomings and could only wish that mainstream Hollywood could emulate some of their unsparing honesty.

Similarly, the disinclination of Israelis to celebrate their military triumphs on film, even after the 1967 victory, is wholly admirable and puts their American colleagues to shame.

But somebody needs to tell the Israeli Academy that judges on the Oscar selection committees, particularly Jewish ones, although perhaps not ardent Zionists, will resent heavy-handed portrayals of all Israeli Jews as cheats, brutalizers and all-around lowlifes.

Little wonder that the last Israeli film to be Oscar nominated was back in 1984, and that none has ever walked off with the golden statuette.

Chile's entry, "Play," was directed by young Jewish filmmaker Alicia Scherson. It is described as presenting "the social fabric of the capital city, Santiago, through a collision of oddball characters."

"Paradise Now" is currently playing at the Fairfax or other Laemmle theaters. "Fateless" opens Jan. 27 at the Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and "Sophie Scholl" on Feb. 24 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills. Check www.laemmle.com for updates.

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