Scandinavian Films Make Case for Oscar

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The New York Sun

Five Nordic contenders for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar are playing at Scandinavia House this week, including the latest offerings from some of the region’s hottest filmmaking talents. So far, only one of these five films has secured American distribution, which makes the event a rare opportunity for non-Academy members to sample the Scandinavian fare.

The series kicks off today with Iceland’s “Jar City,” a murder mystery by Baltasar Kormákur, director of the wickedly funny “101 Reykjavík” and “The Sea.” Petter Næss, who followed up his bittersweet 2001 Oscar nominee “Elling” with an unsuccessful bid at Hollywood (the straight-to-video Josh Hartnett vehicle “Mozart and the Whale”), returns to his native Norway for the romantic comedy “Gone With the Woman.” Aleksi Salmenperä’s Finnish entry, “A Man’s Job,” is a serious take on a premise reminiscent of “The Full Monty.” Roy Andersson, the Swedish director of the mesmerizing and nightmarish 2000 film “Songs From the Second Floor,” offers another absurdist epic, “You, the Living.” Finally, Peter Schønau Fog’s Danish domestic drama “The Art of Crying” returns after its New York premiere 10 months ago at Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films showcase.

Perhaps best known for their Brechtian theatricality, Nordic films have enjoyed a fairly decent track record at the Academy Awards. Since the inception of the Best Foreign Language Film category in 1956, Scandinavian countries have collected 27 nominations and bagged five statuettes — namely for Sweden’s “The Virgin Spring,” “Through a Glass Darkly,” and “Fanny & Alexander,” and for Denmark’s “Babette’s Feast” and “Pelle the Conquerer.”

With Hollywood dominating the globe more and more, most film industries around the world are on life support. An Oscar win is not only a source of national pride, but a way to attract distributors and possibly find an audience in America and worldwide. Film commissions in many countries have hired strategists, organized private screenings, and bought ads in trade publications to drum up buzz and match de facto front-runners with head starts, such as “Persepolis” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” The series at Scandinavia House could be considered one such attempt.

The category of Best Foreign Language Film is arguably the fairest one, because only those Academy voters who have seen all five nominated films are eligible to vote. But there have been many glaring omissions through the years, most memorably Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi” and Pedro Almodóvar’s “Talk to Her,” which where snubbed by their respective countries in favor of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Mondays in the Sun.” When you also take into account that international co-productions are increasingly prevalent, it seems somewhat incongruous for the Academy to continue its one-film-per-country rule. Still, it is a way to restrain the Francocentric tendency of the American art-house culture.

Among the 63 entries competing for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, only 16 have secured American distribution thus far. Naysayers will keep trying to convince you that it’s because Americans don’t read subtitles.


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