How Do You Say "Oscar Scandal" in Hebrew?
Still, many (including Johnson) argued that the eventual five nominees were nothing to scoff at, since they managed to include French director Laurent Cantet's The Class (winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival), Austrian director Götz Spielmann's superb revenge drama Revanche (an audience favorite at least year's Telluride and Toronto festivals) and Israeli director Ari Folman's animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, a film that rivaled Gomorrah in terms of its torrential acclaim from critics and audiences alike from Cannes up through its commercial release in U.S. cinemas last December. Given that Folman's film was also in the running for, but failed to secure, a nomination in the Academy's Best Animated Feature category, it had generally been considered the favorite to win in the Foreign Language category. But alas, when the envelope was opened, the Oscar instead went to Japanese director Yojiro Takita's relentlessly medicore tearjerker Departures, about an unemployed cellist who takes a job as an "encoffinment" specialist, preparing dead bodies for cremation. (As if that weren't enough, Waltz with Bashir was also omitted from the Oscar telecast's montage of animated features from 2008, having evidently been deemed a less significant achievement than Space Chimps and Star Wars: The Clone Wars.)
Admittedly, the win for Departures wasn't a total surprise. While it may be one of the lesser-known of the nomainetd films (by virtue of the fact that it played relatively minor film festivals and has yet to be commercially released in the U.S.), voters in the Foreign Language category are obliged to see all five nominated films, thereby placing the contenders on a somewhat level playing field. And when I found myself at a dinner last week with several knowledgable parties (including a longtime foreign-language film publicist and the head of a European country's national film commission), it was generally agreed that if there was a surprise winner, it was going to be the Japanese film. Beyond that, there is the simple fact that, along with Germany's The Baader Meinhof Complex, Departures was easily the most conventional, Hollywood-style movie of the five Foreign Language nominees -- the one with "universal" (read: one-dimensional) characters, a direly familiar fish-out-of-water scenario and an incessantly sentimental musical score applied like a thick shellac.
Meanwhile, I'm sure various conspiracy theories will emerge in the next few days as to exactly how and why Waltz with Bashir got screwed. Speaking to an audience at last year's New York Film Festival, Folman himself pointed out that his film, which examines the controversial role played by Israeli soldiers in the massacre of Palestinians during the 1982 occupation of Southern Lebanon, had been criticized by some extreme leftists in Israel for not being self-critical enough. But I doubt that Academy members objected to the movie on similarly political grounds.
Rather, it seems more likely that Folman's film was simply too innovative for the Academy's notoriously calcified tastes. Certainly, by Academy standards, it was one of the more radical works ever to be nominated in the Foreign Language category -- a fragmented memory film in which truth and illusion collide on a tide of uncertain recollection. There are multiple narrators, dreams masquerading as reality (and vice-versa), and so many genres exploded moment by moment that it becomes imossible to squeeze the film into an easily definable box. And while Waltz builds to a conclusion that many (including this critic) counted among the most emotionally devastating in movies last year, it is a moment that is earned by the film rather than cheaply calculated, and which raises more questions than it answers. That's something that many viewers of Folman's film have found thrilling to behold, but which may well have inspired paroxysms of rage in Academy voters who stand by the belief that a movie should have a clear beginning, middle and end and send people out of the theater feeling better about "humanity."
Even the somewhat more conventional The Class may have suffered for similar reasons, since despite the familiar trappings of its inspirational-schoolteacher scenario, it was that rare such film about a teacher who tries, but in many cases fails, to make a difference, and who is as complex and flawed a character as any of his troubled students. Like Waltz, Cantet's film also liberally mixed documentary and narrative techniques, using a real teacher and real students in a fictionalized scenario based on real events -- too much, perhaps, for Academy voters to wrap their heads around (much in the way that, for decades, documentary films featuring extensive use of dramatic re-enactments were considered anathema to the Academy's documentary nominating committee). Or it could simply be that the Academy felt the nomination was honor enough for films starring non-professional talent made well outside of their own countries' "studio systems." Such films do little to stroke the egos of actors (the Academy's largest voting branch) who seem to relish sitting in the Kodak auditorium while being reminded how fabulous they are. It's hard to imagine a Hollywood remake of Waltz with Bashir or The Class that would have roles in it for many of last night's nominees, but an American Departures starring Sean Penn as the cellist/undertaker and Kate Winslet as his clueless wife...well, that may already be in the works.