How Do You Say "Oscar Scandal" in Italian?
Of course, as I noted at the time, the history of the Oscars in general -- and the Foreign Language Oscar in particular -- is written in such blunders, which is why it becomes increasingly difficult with each passing year to afford the awards any serious consideration. Many of the best movies produced around the world never even stand a chance of being recognized by the Academy, either because they don't receive commercial distribution in the U.S., or because they fail to play the political shell game that often determines which films are submitted by their respective countries for the Foreign Language Oscar in the first place. Still, because the Foreign Language Oscar is one of the few Academy awards that can actually have a tangible impact in terms of distribution and box-office (even a Foreign Language nomination is usually enough to guarantee a film's U.S. release), it deserves particularly close scrutiny, and, when necessary, to be called out as a sham.
As it happens, producer and Foreign Language nominating committee chairman Mark Johnson would seem to agree. During his tenure, he has helped to champion several significant rule changes regarding how foreign films are screened and nominated, including a 2006 reform that split the nominating process into two phases -- one in which the entire Foreign Language committee (comprised of several hundred Academy members from all branches) determines the aforementioned "shortlist" of nine Foreign Language finalists, and another in which a blue-ribbon panel featuring ten members from the original committee plus 10 more Academy members hand-picked by Johnson vote to determine the five nominees.
Following last year's affair Roumain, the Academy announced that the Foreign Language nominating process was to be further modified for 2008 so that the "Phase 1" nominating committee would now be responsible for determining only six of the nine shortlisted titles, while the 20-member "Phase 2" committee would select the three additional titles, after first learning the choices of the Phase 1 committee. This, it sounded all but certain, would prevent any such grievous omissions in the future.
And yet, and yet, and yet...here we are on the day of the announcement of the Academy's 2008 Foreign Language Film shortlist, and the news is far from joyous. While one can take consolation in the fact that French director Laurent Cantet's widely admired, Palme d'Or-winning The Class and Israeil director Ari Folman's extraordinary animated documentary Waltz with Bashir are safe for now (along with Austrian director Gotz Spielman's superb revenge drama Revanche), nowhere to be found is Italian director Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, a blisteringly intense, multi-faceted portrait of the Neapolitan mafia that is not only one of the year's most widely acclaimed films from any country, but has been credited with single-handedly returning Italian cinema to the world cinema spotlight.
Meanwhile, earning a spot on the shortlist was German director Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex, a docudrama about the titular 1970s terror cell dismissed by our own Ella Taylor (echoing the sentiments of many international critics) as "a cheesy action picture" that "doesn't have an interpretive thought in its event-packed head."
In many ways, the path taken by Gomorrah is uncannily similar to that of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Like the Romanian film, it too premiered in Cannes to a torrent of instant acclaim and, ultimately, a major prize (the Grand Jury Prize) -- making it the first Italian film to do so since Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room in 2001. By last fall, Garrone's film (based on author Roberto Saviano's international bestseller) was an official selection of the Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals and, by early December, had repeated 4 Months' triumph at the European Film Awards, where in addition to being named the best European film of 2008, it took prizes for direction, screenplay, cinematography and actor Tony Servillo. More recently, Gomorrah was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes (where it lost to Waltz with Bashir) and the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards (where Waltz isn't in the running), and received glowing notices upon its one-week, awards-qualifying run in a single Los Angeles theater back in December.
At the time, Ella Taylor wrote, "The five interwoven narratives in this visceral but disciplined and beautifully acted movie show to devastating effect how ordinary men and women -- and especially vulnerable boys desperate for masculine role models -- get caught up in the seductive violence and are ruthlessly destroyed by the network's hardened henchmen." And in the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan (who went on to include the film on his 2008 top 10 list) praised Gomorrah as "a vividly panoramic film about a pitiless world of criminality." I would only add that, to my mind, Garrone's film does nothing less than rebuild from the ground up one of the most exhausted of movie genres -- the mob movie -- and does so with such deglamorized authenticity that it hardly comes as a surprise to learn that Saviano (who also co-authored the screenplay) has been repeatedly threatened with execution by real members of the Naples mafia.
Writing a few decades ago in the pages of the L.A. Weekly, the critic Michael Ventura proposed that it was the great lie of The Godfather (and, by extension, most mob movies) that they made mafiosos appear to be elegant, dignified, even introspective people, when in fact all one needed to do was look at photos of real-life gangsters to see that most of them had the vacant, dead-eyed expression of people motivated by one sole factor: money. In that respect, Gomorrah may be the most honest mob movie ever made, because it is money that links all of the movie's characters and multiple storylines together in one infernal pact. Everyone in the film lives, as John Guare wrote of the posh Upper East Siders in Six Degrees of Separation, "hand to mouth on a higher plateau." Only, in the case of Gomorrah, that plateau is more often than not a noisy, overcrowded apartment building or a small, ramshackle house on the outskirts of town. Nobody has very much, but what they do have is never enough, and so begins a vicious cycle of debts accounted for in blood and corporate downsizing facilitated by semi-automatic firearms that reverberates from the bowels of Naples to the runways of Paris fashion and the rebuilding of the Twin Towers.
Gomorrah isn't the only notable omission from this year's Foreign Language shortlist; it's merely the most galling. Also MIA are Chilean director Pablo Larrain's singularly disturbing Tony Manero, about a sociopath obsessed with John Travolta's character from Saturday Night Fever, and Kazakh director Sergei Dvortsevoy's magnificent Tulpan, a simple tale of a young sailor who dreams of becoming a shepherd, filmed with no special effects on Kazakhstan's imposing Hunger Steppe. But those movies' Oscar fates were far from foregone conclusions, whereas Gomorrah seemed a veritable shoo-in, particularly given that Italy is second only to France in terms of total nominations and wins in the history of the Academy's Foreign Language category. Perhaps, in the end, Garrone's vision of mob life was simply too violently realistic and lacking in Hollywood romanticism for a group of voters who have time and again showered nominations on the glossiest of Hollywood gangster fare.
Reached for comment on Tuesday afternoon, Foreign Language committee chair Johnson said that he considers this year's roster of finalists "by and large a very strong list," singling out both Revanche and Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 3 Monkeys as "difficult, challenging movies [of the sort] that our committee hasn't necessarily embraced in the past." Johnson also points out, rightly so, that while a case can be made for Gomorrah, the real scandal of last year's shortlist wasn't just the omission of a single, high-profile film, but rather of several such films, including France's Persepolis and Germany's The Edge of Heaven. In order for 2008 to rival that particular clusterfuck, The Class or Waltz with Bashir -- or both of them -- would have had to join Gomorrah on the reject list. Whether or not those titles benefited from the Academy's revised rules is a matter on which Johnson understandably declined to comment.
I suspect that's all little comfort for Garrone, though perhaps the fact that he's recently been signed by a major Hollywood agency (ICM) will soften the blow. That, and the decision of none other than Martin Scorsese to lend his name as "presenter" for Gomorrah's U.S. release. Thus, from one Oscar bridesmaid to another.