After going dark for the first time in more than half a century, the return of the Cannes Film Festival proves one major point: the event is still a significant launch pad when it comes to the International Feature Film Oscars. Indeed, of the 90-plus submissions recorded so far this year, nearly a quarter made their debut on the Croisette, be it in Competition, Un Certain Regard, Directors’ Fortnight or Critics’ Week. It’s perhaps to be expected—since the Academy first introduced the category in 1956, foreign-language auteur works have dominated more commercial fare—but the skew towards Cannes is telling. Other festivals have their place—notably Berlin and Venice, with Sundance emerging this year as an unexpected new contender—but, as a rough guide, Cannes has physically premiered six of the last 10 winners and presented last year’s victor, Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round (Denmark) under the umbrella of its virtual 2020 label.
There are several elements at play in the International Feature Film category, some of them mutually exclusive. For example, many countries go for a domestic hit, which explains why Hong Kong opted for Jimmy Wan’s sentimental sports biopic Zero to Hero, while others go for critical heat—France’s option, Julia Ducournau’s violent horror fantasy Titane, may have won the Palme d’Or this year, but its audience figures were a fraction of its 2019 predecessor Parasite(South Korea), Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar breakout. Some countries present “issue” films, some prefer entertainment, and some, optimistically, choose stories that are so culturally specific they fail to make the long list.
Interestingly, the field has become more varied lately. Not so long ago, the idea of Colombia submitting a movie would have seemed a long shot. Back in the ’50s, Europeans held sway, with France and Italy leading the pack, until the arthouse boom of the early ’60s introduced Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman and the Czech New Wave. Much like a football championship, certain national cinemas dominated the field, but a not-so-surprise win for Taiwan in 2000, with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, marked the start of much more interesting period, one perhaps made increasingly exciting with the arrival of digital filmmaking in traditionally poorer countries.
This year, Taiwan is leading a surprisingly weak charge from Asia, with Chung Mong-hong’s Venice title The Falls, the follow-up to his acclaimed 2019 film A Sun. As previous noted, Hong Kong’s choice Zero to Hero is unlikely to trouble the long list, while South Korea’s choice is Escape from Mogadishu, a fact-based drama from action director Ryoo Seung-wan set during the Somali civil war of the early ’90s. After seeming to fall out with Zhang Yimou over his 2020 film One Second—a title withdrawn from the Berlin International Film Festival and scarcely seen since—China is offering his latest film, the ’30s-set spy thriller Cliff Walkers, which, unusually, has barely troubled the international festival circuit that traditionally fetes Zhang’s new movies. The one to beat, however, is Japan’s heavy-hitter Drive My Car. Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi and adapted from short stories by Haruki Murakami, the film won Best Screenplay after competing at Cannes and was, for some, a much stronger title to take the Palme d’Or.
Similarly, Cannes titles are at the forefront of submissions from the Africas and the Americas. From the former we have a strong list of socially relevant works: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Lingui (Chad), a female-fronted abortion story; Nabil Ayouch’s Casablanca Beats (Morocco), about a rapper turned youth counsellor; and Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s The Gravedigger’s Wife, in which a medical emergency drives a poor family even further into poverty. From the Americas, things are a little more lyrical: though set in the dangerous world of cartels, Tatiana Huezo’s Prayers for the Stolen(Mexico) focuses on three female friends caught up in a warzone, while Natalie Àlvarez Mésen’s Clara Sola (Costa Rica) tells the magic realism-infused story of a middle-aged woman’s sexual awakening in the confines of a remote village. Perhaps the oddest of the bunch is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, his first film outside of his native Thailand; starring Tilda Swinton as a woman haunted by a strange sound she hears at daybreak. It’s a dream-like phantasmagoria that may make the cut given its U.S. distributor Neon’s intention to release it more as an art “experience” than a film.
Looking at recent form for the Middle East, there is a clear leader in the field, being Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, who won the category in 2011 with A Separation and with The Salesman in 2016. This year, Farhadi returns with his Cannes Competition hit A Hero, in which a man is allowed out of debtor’s jail to ask his creditor’s forgiveness. Like his two previous winners, it’s a very specifically Iranian story, but his fans in the Academy don’t seem to mind that. It’s possible, however, that bolder voters may seek out Haider Rashid’s Europa (Iraq), in which an Iraqi refugee flees vicious mercenaries turned migrant hunters; Eran Kolirin’s Let It Be Morning (Israel), the satirical story of a wedding guest trapped by the Israel-Palestine conflict; or even Ameer Fakher Eldin’s The Stranger (Palestine), about a doctor struggling with life in occupied territory.
Europe, of course, is where the battle will be bloodiest, and the fact that France’s decision to opt for Titane—over Celine Sciamma’s festival hit Petite Maman or Audrey Diwan’s Venice Golden Lion winner Happening—was unpopular even in France doesn’t bode well for grand-slam success. Even Italy’s choice—Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God isn’t quite the sure thing this year, being a subdued, personal account of his own brush with mortality rather than the brash spectacle of his 2013 winner The Great Beauty. Germany is sticking with Maria Schrader’s warmly received Berlinale title I’m Your Man, which ponders the future of human-robot relationships. Spain, meanwhile, after wavering over Pedro Almodóvar’s Venice opener Parallel Mothers, opted instead for Fernando León de Aranoa’s factory-set comedy The Good Boss. Reuniting the director with Javier Bardem, star of his 2002 hit Mondays in the Sun, the film recently scored a record 20 nominations (over 17 categories) for the country’s Goya awards.
Surprisingly, the Sundance Film Festival has increased its influence on the International category significantly in recent years, with three of this year’s submissions having aired on 2021’s ambitious but highly successful virtual platform. Blerta Basholli’s Hive (Kosovo), swept the board in the World Cinema Dramatic category, taking three awards for the story of a woman forced to provide for her family after her husband disappears in war-torn ’90s Kosovo. From Malta there was Luzzu, in which a struggling Maltese fisherman turns to the black market to survive. But perhaps the clearest contender from the Sundance pack is Jonah Poher Rasmussen’s Flee (Denmark), the animated but harsh true story of Amin, who fled war-torn Kabul in the ’80s and escaped to Copenhagen.
Could Flee make it a double for Denmark? The Nordic/Scandic/Icelandic region is proving especially fertile this year, with Valdimar Jóhannsson’s mysterious genre entry Lamb (Iceland), starring Noomi Rapace speaking in her native tongue, vying against Juho Kuosmanen’s gnomic road movie (albeit on a train) Compartment No. 6, both Cannes premieres this year. Sweden’s Tigers is much more straightforward than either, which could be a handicap this year, being the true story of Swedish soccer star Martin Bengtsson, whose dazzling career was hampered by mental illness. But if any film can benefit from the Vinterberg effect, it will most likely be Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World (Norway), which takes a lighter new path for the director of male-dominated, existential dramas such as Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. It’s been a long while since anything resembling a romcom competed in the International Feature Film, but this star-making turn for Renate Reinsve, as a young woman surveying the wreckage of her love life, might not be such an outside bet in these turbulent times.
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