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Everything You Need To Know About The Foreign Films Competing In Sunday's Oscars

The Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, California, home of the annual Academy Awards.
Greg Hernandez
The Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, California, home of the annual Academy Awards.

The 87th Academy Awards will be handed out Sunday, and this year the category of Best Foreign Language Film received 83 submissions. The nearly seven dozen films were narrowed down to five nominees from Argentina, Mauritania, and three countries from the former Soviet sphere - Estonia, Poland, and Russia.

Ida - Poland

The tenth Polish film to be nominated for an Academy Award tells the story of a young woman preparing to become a nun. During a visit to one of her last living relatives, she finds out she's Jewish, which shakes her identity to the core.

Rebecca Cruise, the assistant dean of the University of Oklahoma's College of International Studies and an expert on comparative politics in Eastern Europe, says the black-and-white cinematography allows the audience to fully appreciate the film's context and setting in 1960s Poland, only a few years removed from the end of World War II and decades before emerging from behind the Iron Curtain.

"Her struggles for identity are perhaps the reflections of Poland's struggles for identity as they deal with their past of persecuting the Jews and the Nazi takeover there, and then becoming communist, and Stalinism," Cruise says. "One of the characters I find so interesting in this is the aunt, who she comes to know, who's kind of a wild character in some ways. She was persecuted by the Nazis, obviously, but then becomes part of Stalin's purges as a judge. And by the 1960s she's feeling very aggressive, and despair."

The title character is played by strikingly beautiful 22-year-old Agata Trzebuchowska, in her film debut. Director Pawe? Pawlikowski struggled to cast her.

"[He] couldn't find any actress to play her, [so he] put out a call to friends, and one of his friends noticed this young woman in a cafe and said, 'That's her.'," Cruise says. "So they went and asked her to audition. She had absolutely no experience, and yet somehow she really embodies this character and does a beautiful, beautiful job."

Leviathan - Russia 

Leviathan is arguably the front-runner for the award after winning Russia's first Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film since 1969. The film showcases a family facing the loss of their home and land in northwest Russia's Kola peninsula when their town's corrupt mayor lays claim to it.

Writer and director Andrey Zvyagintsev was inspired by a 2004 event in Granby, Colo. when disgruntled resident Marvin Heemeyer built himself an armored bulldozer and went on a rampage, destroying several buildings before taking his own life. Cruise says that incident, plus the title of the film itself, evoke English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes' most famous work regarding social contract theory.

"[Hobbes says] we all live, without government, in this sort of anarchy where life is short, brutish, nasty, and pretty much miserable. He advocates for a strong government of the people, a monarchy, but representing the people that can keep things in order," Cruise says. "Clearly, in this film, the government is corrupt, the people are going against each other, and life is pretty nasty and short and brutish."

The film has also made headlines because of its unvarnished view of Russia, with copious vodka drinking by corrupt individuals operating outside the law.

"There's been some joke that it's remarkable that Putin has allowed this movie to be nominated to represent Russia, and the joke is that if they win, then Putin will be able to say, 'This is free speech.'," Cruise says. "And if they lose, who knows if we'll see another film like this?"

This dirty and unwashed view of Russia led to its snub at many of the country's major festivals and award shows, but its popularity in other countries meant many Russian citizens illegally downloaded the film in order to see it.

"A lot of filmmakers come out against online piracy because of the money they lose, in this case it really seems to have worked in favor of the director and the producer and the film itself," Cruise says. "It exposed the issues here, and has boosted the film in some ways in terms of it getting attention for the Golden Globes and the Oscars."

Tangerines - Estonia

Estonia's first-ever Academy Award nomination tells the story of Estonians living in the Republic of Georgia as war was breaking out in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Several residents are helping a neighbor harvest the fruits of his tangerine farm when they take in two opposing wounded soldiers. As they heal, they grow more connected to each other in a humanizing film that Cruise says evokes not only the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, but also the present situation in Ukraine.

"[It shows] the ability for humans to come together in times of war, when nasty things are going on around them, that they can find the humanity in each other," Cruiser says. "Just a beautifully written story, and a lot of education to give us as well."

Timbuktu - Mauritania

Another film Cruise says evokes current global turmoil is Mauritania's entry, set in neighboring Mali. Jihadists arrive in Timbuktu and immediately ban everyday activities like music and sports. The film shows the impact this has on the community as they express their pride and love for each other as their dignity is stolen from them.

Cruise says the film takes Islamic fundamentalism away from the headlines and into the homes and lives in a way that the audience instantly relates to.

"There's one scene that's becoming famous where there's a soccer game. The father and son are so eager to play sports that they engage in a game without a ball," Cruise says. "When one of the officials from town comes and sees this happening, they have to very quickly pretend like they're not fake-playing soccer, but they're doing calisthenics instead. It just shows the heartbreaking love that they have for soccer, and not being able to play it, but how terrified they are that even if they get caught miming something like that there could be consequences."

Wild Tales - Argentina

South America's nominee is actually a collection of six unrelated short films with different story lines, all involving revenge.

It highlights the situations that bring out the worst in people, the betrayal that begets rage and violence, and ultimately can lead to murder and war. It showcases the fine line between civilization and barbarism in even the most mundane day-to-day existence.

" These characters in these six films don't hold themselves back," Cruise says. " At some point or another all of us have been in a situation where we have wanted to seek revenge, and the better side of us came through."

It's an entertaining film, and also one of the most popular in terms of the number of people who have seen it. It's been one of the highest-grossing films in Argentina, and opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

KGOU and World Views rely on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with internationally focused reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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