Oscar’s Pen Pal: The Foreign Language Category

The Oscar Statuette. Photo from thehollywoodreporter.com

The Oscar Statuette. Photo from thehollywoodreporter.com

The Academy Awards telecast is the biggest celebration of film in the United States, watched by millions of viewers every year. They celebrate the highest achievements in film of the year, but also shed light on little-seen productions that deserve wider recognition.

This year’s Best Picture race saw an interesting correlation between critical acclaim and box office returns. American Sniper grossed the total of every other nominee combined, raking in more than $300 million in domestic receipts. The Best Picture winner, Birdman, made about $26 million in thirteen weeks of release before being nominated for Best Picture. The film was screened in over 1,000 theaters for just one week: the week after the Oscars (American Sniper opened on over 3,500 screens).

Poster for Birdman. Photo from rogerebert.com

Poster for Birdman. Photo from rogerebert.com

Some of the movies with the smallest initial reach are the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. The inclusion of this category gives exposure to foreign films that an American audience would have trouble accessing otherwise. In this year’s race, there were nominees from Poland, Russia, Estonia, Argentina, and Mauritania.

Poland’s submission, Ida, was the winner of this year’s race, and Ida also happens to be the single film in the category that I saw. It follows the story of Anna, a Jewish girl brought up in a Polish convent in the 1960s who explores life outside of the convent with her only living relative, her aunt. It’s a story of innocence and discovery that is balanced with the historical and political pressure of growing up in a post-Nazi era.

Poster for Ida. Photo from  screeningnotes.com

Poster for Ida. Photo from screeningnotes.com

Ida’s themes are also reflected in some of its production aspects. The film makes use of unconventional framing techniques to displace the focus of the scene and distance the viewer from the characters. This decision to move the camera and display more negative space reflects the thought that there is always background information that may go unseen, but definitely plays a role in the situation.

Another unique aspect of the production is that the director, Pawel Pawlikowski, had a very hard time finding an actress for the lead role. He decided to have his assistants observe people and look for someone that fit the part, and Agata Trzebuchowska, a student with no acting experience, was spotted in a café and won the part. The inexperience of the young actress, paired with very effective directing, lends to the early naivety of the lead character that is essential for her character development.

Despite some arguably restrictive regulations (countries are allowed to submit one entry to the academy. This means that one movie becomes the representative of each country), the foreign language category provides an outlet in which films like Ida can find their way to an international audience. It remains a small, but accessible portion of the academy exposure; Ida has grossed almost four million in domestic box office, but it is now available through streaming services.

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