After almost one hundred years since the first Academy Awards ceremony, Bong Joon-ho‘s Parasite became the first foreign language film to win the awards ceremony’s highest honor, Best Picture. The award came after a period of neglect for South Korean cinema from the Academy, with 2018’s Burning becoming the first South Korean film to be nominated for Best International Feature Film despite the nation’s vibrant cinema history. Just when Parasite‘s Cannes victory of the Palme d’Or (also a first for South Korean cinema) seemed to be the ceiling for the film’s accomplishments, its Best Picture win is in some ways even more momentous given the Academy’s aversion to awarding Best Picture to a foreign language film. In this special edition of our Retrospective Roundtable, we explore each foreign language film nominated for Best Picture with a final entry on the film that’s the reason for this celebratory piece: Parasite.
The Grand Illusion (1937)
By Ben McDonald
Made and released on the cusp of World War II, Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion was the first film not in English to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, and deservedly so. Renoir’s stunning masterpiece is one of the most powerful and convincing arguments against war ever put to the screen, but not because of any horrific depictions of cruelty or violence. More Paths of Glory than Come and See, The Grand Illusion calmly refutes the necessity of warfare with polite insistency, highlighting the amicability between its characters of various nationalities and showing the commonalities that bind all of mankind together. Following the story of French POWs in a German war camp during World War I, the film actually resembles more closely the “prison escape” genre than a war movie. Through flowing camerawork and instantly likable performances, Renoir delicately constructs his film’s melancholic message of human solidarity in a cold world where artificial divisions of politics and nationality threaten to forever divide us. Sadly, it seems that such a reminder of our own commonalities is still desperately needed in today’s world. Ultimately, no words can better do the film justice than those of the director, who made the following statement in 1958:
“[The Grand Illusion is] a story about human relationships. I am confident that such a question is so important today that if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say ‘goodbye’ to our beautiful world.”
By Eugene Kang
Not all of the films nominated for Best Picture have influence beyond their awards ceremonies, but Z is definitely an exception. Most Americans would not have been interested in a thinly-veiled criticism of the military junta takeover of Greece, but the presentation of the material is everything. It is not a stretch to say that Z is a direct predecessor of many modern action movies. Raoul Coutard had already broken barriers with his work on Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, and he would bring the same clear yet visceral handheld camera work to Z, a film with a considerably larger budget. Françoise Bonnot, the film’s editor, would be instrumental to making Z the exciting, modern thriller that it is with her excellent sense of pacing that made even regular conversations exciting to watch (she won the Academy Award for Editing for this film). Costa-Gavras had a formidable team working for him with just these two artists, and he was able to create a film that unabashedly criticized authoritarian regimes in an entertaining package that could be embraced even by the members of Hollywood that had just less than two decades before been gripped by the Red Scare. Hollywood was only just beginning to catch up with the French New Wave and the fact that Z was able to display some of the most exciting and innovative aspects of the New Wave in a digestible manner made this an obvious winner for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Emigrants (1972)
By Eugene Kang
Jan Troell’s The Emigrants was a modest cultural phenomenon for its time. Only the second film to be nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, The Emigrants resonated enough with audiences that its sequel The New Land was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and there was even a TV series spin-off with Kurt Russell. Perhaps what appealed to audiences was that this was an American story told from the perspective of foreigners. The film follows the Nilsson family as they attempt to scrape a meager living in the unforgiving Swedish countryside. Plagued by both famine and personal loss, Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow) and Kristina (Liv Ullmann) make the long, hard trip to America with little to go on except fleeting hope. The Emigrants is long and unrelenting in showing the travails that beset its characters. The characters go through so much that audiences might wonder if all their troubles were really worth it. Perhaps the film resonated with the people who made up the Academy since many of them were probably children of emigrants like Karl Oskar and Kristina, and they probably heard stories from their parents and grandparents about their struggles to adjust to life in America. There have been many immigrant stories in American cinema, but The Emigrants had the prestige of Swedish cinema (mostly the influence of Ingmar Bergman) behind it to make as big of a cultural impact as it did.
Cries and Whispers (1972)
By Nick Adrian
Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s 1972 drama Cries and Whispers is a brilliant culmination of ideas and themes he had dealt with before: religion, existential dread, suffering, and female trauma just to name a few. Though not his first film in color, it is often remembered for its intensive use of crimson throughout. In fact, an image Bergman had in his head of four women in a red room inspired the film. These four women constitute three sisters Agnes, Karin, and Maria (Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and Liv Ullmann, respectively) and their servant, Anna (Kari Sylwan). Agnes is dying of uterine cancer yet Anna is the only person willing to offer any remorse while Karin and Maria’s personal troubles cloud their sympathy.
In usual Bergman fashion, Cries and Whispers is a haunting watch that leaves more open than explained. This isn’t what usually caters to the Academy, but it seemed to have appealed to them this time around as it garnered five nominations. One of these was for Best Picture, making it only the fourth foreign language film ever to be nominated in the category. Though the only win it received was Best Cinematography for Sven Nykvist, perhaps it is for the best. At this point, Bergman’s films had been nominated for many awards and never won. After The Virgin Spring was nominated for Best Foreign Language Picture in 1961, Bergman famously wrote a letter to the Academy stating that he found the institution to be tasteless and their nominations meaningless, suggesting the Academy not waste their time with his films. Nonetheless, they continued to nominate his films, but would rarely grace him with a win.
The Postman (1994)
By Ian Floodgate
There might be more memorable Italian films that some cinephiles think should have garnered a Best Picture nomination, but The Postman does have a certain charm and simplicity about it. The film follows a simple man who decides to take on the job of a postman in a small Italian town for a famous poet. The postman named Mario (Massimo Troisi) becomes interested in poetry and develops a friendship with poet Pablo Neruda (played by Phillipe Noiret of Cinema Paradiso).
The Postman is a simple character-driven story that sees an ordinary man develop a love for poetry and politics. Troisi also adapted the script and was nominated for both his performance and screenwriting, but he sadly died shortly before the film’s US theatrical release. The Postman received three further Oscar nominations including Best Director for Michael Radford and winning Best Original Dramatic Score. The Postman was the first international film nominated for Best Picture in two decades and began a resurgence of foreign-language films receiving nominations for the top honour.
Life Is Beautiful (1997)
By Henry Baime
Life is Beautiful is one of the highest grossing films not in the English language, a nominee for the Academy Award for Best Picture and winner of other Academy Awards including Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film, and even came to be named one of Pope John Paul II’s five favorite films. But perhaps its most astounding achievement is its ability to make a comedy set during the Holocaust not seem like something done in poor taste and to, in fact, make it immensely moving.
Roberto Benigni wrote, directed, and starred in the 1997 film about an Italian Jewish owner of a bookshop who is sent to a Nazi concentration camp with his son and attempts to convince his son it is part of a game to keep his son from the horrors of their situation to the best of his ability. Though the filmmakers clearly have the best of intentions every step of the way, Life is Beautiful seems destined to slip into what could’ve been something truly offensive, and it has been accused of doing that by many over the years. However, I think it deftly handles a delicate subject material with such care that it always stays on the right side of acceptable and never diminishes the seriousness of its context. Life is Beautiful is a tearjerker and a feel-good film and it can certainly delve into emotional manipulation, but it is so well executed that it seems impossible to not walk away from it inspired and devastated in equal measure.