Scene from 'Waltz With Bashir'
A record number of 67 countries are vying for the Oscar in the best foreign-language film category, with generally obscure directors from Afghanistan to Venezuela dreaming of sudden recognition in Hollywood and beyond.
Among five entries of special Jewish interest, three deal with Middle East conflicts, one with terrorism in Germany, and one with the friendship between a Jewish and a Muslim family in Morocco.
In contrast to previous years, there have been no acrimonious controversies so far. Apparently all sides have tired of arguing whether the Palestinian entry should be officially designated as coming from Palestine, the Palestinian Authority or the Palestinian territory, and plain "Palestine" has won out.
Nor has any film been disqualified for too much English dialogue, as happened to Israel's "The Band's Visit" last year,
The substitute entry for Israel was "Beaufort," the story of an Israeli army unit during the first Lebanese War, and that conflict between neighbors is revisited by two movies this year.
'Under the Bombs' trailer
Lebanon's "Under the Bombs" depicts Israel's 2006 invasion to wipe out Hezbollah terrorists and the devastation it brought to the southern part of the country.
The film's only professional actors play an upper-class Muslim woman, living abroad, and the Christian taxi driver she hires in Beirut to search for her son and sister in a destroyed southern village.
On their odyssey, the oddly paired driver and passenger encounter refugees, puzzled and bitter by the loss of homes and relatives, but Franco-Lebanese director Philippe Aractingi largely steers away from sweeping denunciations.
Some villagers accuse Hezbollah fighters of "stirring up a hornets' nest" and dislike them almost as much as they do the Israelis.
"This is not a political or propaganda film," said Aractingi in a phone call from his home in Paris. "It's a human rights film about people caught in a war they don't want or comprehend.
"When I was a schoolboy in Beirut, we were taught that Lebanon was a neutral country, like Switzerland. So people don't understand why they're being bombed."
Israel's entry, "Waltz With Bashir," is also about war in Lebanon, this one in 1982, but in every other respect the approach and technique are radically different.
Director Ari Folman combines state-of-the-art animation, an anti-war theme and psychological analysis in the autobiographical story of a traumatized Israeli soldier trying to recover suppressed memories of combat.
Aractingi and Folman have never met, but the Lebanese director said he "loved" "Waltz With Bashir." He hopes to meet his Israeli counterpart, if both films are among the finalists, although a public meeting might be "politically risky" for Aractingi.
"Salt of This Sea," the Palestinian entry, is more hard-edged and propagandistic than such skillful predecessors as "Divine Intervention," "Olive Harvest" and "Rona's Wedding."
Soraya (Suhar Hammad) is a young Brooklyn-born woman of Palestinian descent, who learns that when her grandfather abandoned his stately Jaffa home in 1948, he left behind a bank account of 315 pounds in the British-Palestine Bank.
Obsessed with the idea of reclaiming her grandfather's savings, Soraya comes to Israel, meets handsome young Emad (Saleh Bakri, Israel's current heartthrob), and when the bank manager tells Soraya that the account no longer exists, the pair get the money (plus interest) by holding up the bank.
Later, disguised as Israelis and with Israeli license plates on their car, the pair visits the grandfather's home in Jaffa and giddily samples the attractions of Tel Aviv.
There are no scenes of outright Israeli brutality, but the film conveys the Palestinians' sense of humiliation during airport interrogations, searches at roadblocks and denials of exit visas to study abroad.
The Moroccan entry, "Goodbye Mothers," by director Mohamed Ismail, is an oddly affecting though somewhat amateurish film that focuses on the close friendship between a Jewish and a Muslim family.
The location is Casablanca, and the time is the early 1960s, when large numbers of Moroccan Jews clandestinely made their way to Israel in defiance of a ban by the Moroccan government.
Both families are portrayed with equal sympathy, and the only shady character is an Israeli emissary sent to spur the exodus to the Jewish state. The film is marred by some wild mugging and overacting, reminiscent of silent movies, and frequently awkward English subtitles.
Germany's entry, "The Baader-Meinhof Complex," also looks back to the 1960s and '70s, when the West German "Red Army Faction" went on a murderous rampage against some its leading countrymen allegedly subservient to American and Israeli "imperialism."
Amid incessant gun battles, the only comic relief in the high-tension docudrama comes when Yasser Arafat's men in Jordan try to train and impose a minimum of discipline on the unruly, and frequently nude, German terrorists of both genders.
Director Uli Edel, who lived through the film's era as a young man, recreates the setting and mood of the time with impressive fidelity.
Some German critics have complained that the film "humanizes" the gang and its psychopathic leader, Andreas Baader. But in an interview, Edel pointed to his long closing scene, which dwells on the senseless, brutal murder of a German businessman.
For the first time, Jordan has entered a film, but "Captain Abu Raed" steers away from war and politics by offering a mellow tale about an aging airport janitor who is mistaken for a glamorous international pilot by neighborhood urchins.
Nine finalists among the 67 competing films will be announced the week of Jan. 12. They will be winnowed down to five on Jan. 22, with the winner clutching the Oscar at the Academy Award ceremonies on Feb. 22.
The Golden Globes award nominations by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which often foreshadow the Oscar picks, include "Waltz with Bashir" and "The Baader-Meinhof Complex." The two movies are also frequently mentioned as favorites by various groups of film critics.
Also among likely foreign film contenders are Italy's "Gomorrah," Sweden's "Everlasting Moments," France's "The Class," Argentina's "The Lion's Den," Turkey's "Three Monkeys" and Singapore's "My Magic."
"Salt of This Sea" and "Under the Bombs" are considered long shots.
In the Documentary Features category, with a record 94 entries, "Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh," about the World War II Israeli heroine who parachuted behind enemy lines, has qualified among the 15 finalists.
'Waltz With Bashir' U.K. trailer