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‘Roma’ Could Be Oscar’s First Foreign-Language Best Picture Winner. Where Does That Leave the Foreign Language Prize?

There’s a chance that ‘Roma’ will take the big award but not win the Oscars’ Foreign Language category

Netflix/Sony/Ringer illustration

When the Oscar nominations were announced last month, nearly all of the year’s biggest surprises had something in common—from Roma actresses Yalitza Aparicio’s and Marina de Tavira’s pair of nominations to Pawel Pawlikowski’s out-of-nowhere Best Director nod to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s recognition for the German film Never Look Away. Almost no one had predicted how many non-English-language movies would not only earn recognition in the Foreign Language category, but cross over into the “major” categories as well.

Thanks are due, at least in part, to the Academy’s decision to expand its voter pool, which is now more diverse not just in race and gender but also in terms of other nationalities. Earlier this year, The New York Times noted that the newest class of Oscar voters included members from 59 different countries. “In pushing toward a more diverse membership,” the Times reported, “the academy tapped film professionals from around the globe—a necessity because the American film business remains overwhelmingly white and male.”

Oscar’s notoriously homogeneous Best Director category still leaves something to be desired from non-male American directors and American directors of color; Spike Lee’s long-overdue nomination this year for BlacKkKlansman has also brought attention to the national travesty that Spike Lee had never been nominated for Best Director before. Still, this year marks the first time that only one white American-born filmmaker (Vice’s Adam McKay) is among the Best Director nominees. Also, heavy favorite Alfonso Cuarón’s nomination for Roma and Pawlikowski’s for Cold War mean that, for the first time in 42 years, two non-English-language movies have garnered nods for Best Director in the same year. (If Cuarón wins, he will become first director to win the award for directing a foreign-language movie.) Another of the nominees, the Greek director of The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos, is himself a crossover from the non-English-language film world; his first Oscar nomination came in 2011, when his movie Dogtooth was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.

All of which is to say that, yes, Oscar’s still pretty white and still pretty male, but at least he’s got a few new stamps on his passport.

Amid Roma’s swift ascent to front-runner status, it’s remarkable how little has been made of the fact that it would be the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture. The language divide has not affected its Oscar campaign as much as the streaming divide has: In Hollywood, you don’t hear Roma referred to as a Mexican film half as often as you hear it referred to as a denizen of the foreign land of Netflix. Still, wherever you stand on the movie-theater-vs.-home-viewing argument, Roma’s success bodes well for streaming’s ability to bridge cultural and even language barriers that too often keep “foreign-language films” sectioned off somewhere outside the American mainstream. But if there’s any country poised to break the Oscars’ language gap, it’s Mexico. Thanks to “The Three Amigos” —Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Cuarón—Mexican filmmakers have won Best Director in four of the past five years, though all for English-language films: The Shape of Water, The Revenant, Birdman, and Gravity.

At worst, Roma’s status as Best Picture front-runner could make this year’s Best Foreign Language Film category feel like a moot point—if Roma is the only nominee also up for Best Picture, isn’t it a shoo-in? But on the other hand, the perceived inevitability of Roma’s big night could hurt its chances in the Foreign Language category, at least for voters more inclined to spread the love around. Am I jumping to imaginative conclusions to prevent a typically competitive category from seemingly like an inevitability? Who can say! But non-English-language movies accounted for the nominations’ biggest surprises. There are a few reasons to believe they could also very well be involved in one of Oscar night’s most dramatic upsets.

The Roma-is-inevitable narrative draws focus away from the other Best Foreign Language Film nominees in a year when the category is as strong as it’s been in recent memory. In fact, even the nine-film Foreign Language Oscar shortlist was so stacked that narrowing it down to five meant some particularly harsh snubs. Colombia’s gripping Birds of Passage was a critical favorite, but the most unfortunate exclusion was Lee Chang-dong’s masterfully moody Burning, which would have been the first South Korean movie nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar.

A more pleasant surprise was Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters making the cutit wasn’t exactly a dark horse given that it won last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, but a worthy nomination nonetheless. A sweetly sad story about a family living, loving, and thieving on the fringes of society, Shoplifters strikes an impressive balance between punkish humor and genuine pathos. It shares some thematic traits with the Lebanese nominee Capernaum (translation: “chaos”), although Nadine Labaki’s movie about a 12-year-old runaway veers more toward melodrama and at times feels like an endurance test of misery. Speaking of endurance: The longest film in the category is German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s three-hour-plus Never Look Away, a postwar quasi biopic about a young artist who’s not not based on Gerhard Richter. Von Donnersmarck has won this category in an upset before, when his 2006 debut, The Lives of Others, beat Del Toro’s beloved Pan’s Labyrinth. But despite its surprise nomination in the cinematography category, Never Look Away has received mixed reviews from critics as well as some backlash within Germany for a wrenching and morally suspect scene that takes place inside a gas chamber. Bold, ambitious, and formally traditional, Never Look Away is the most old-fashioned nominee of the bunch; I liked it much more than I expected to, but compared to the expert touches of the other nominated filmmakers it feels drawn with a heavy hand.

You know what doesn’t? Pawlikowski’s lush, elliptical romance Cold War, which manages to span 15 years in a breezy 89 minutes. As he did with his unassuming masterpiece Ida, which won the Foreign Language Oscar in 2015, Pawlikowski has developed a visual style that’s as much about scenes as the spaces between them, less about what’s said than what’s left unspoken. He’s an expertly economical filmmaker. (Consider how succinctly Cold War’s vibrant heroine Zula explains the violent incident that prompted her to leave her town: One night her father “mistook her for her mother,” so she reminded him of the difference.) Anchored by two striking performances, Cold War is a formal triumph, put together so elegantly that you barely realize what it’s up to until about two-thirds of the way through. Aside from Roma, it’s the best one in the bunch. The good news is that it’s also the Foreign Language nominee most likely to upset.

In August 2017, Amazon Studios—fresh off its first Oscar wins, for Manchester by the Sea and the Iranian film The Salesman—acquired Cold War. After a disappointing Oscar season last year (not to mention the Academy overlooking Timothée Chalamet’s supporting role in this year’s Amazon Studios contender Beautiful Boy), Amazon is putting all its backing into Cold War, its only nominated film. In late January, Amazon ran a full-page for-your-consideration Cold War ad in The New York Times—a campaigning tactic much more routine for, say, the Best Picture or Best Actor races than the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. In late January, Deadline’s Oscar columnist, Pete Hammond, interviewed Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke about the so-called “battle of the black-and-white foreign Oscar nominees.” “[W]e don’t look at those campaigns for something like Cold War any differently than something like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or anything else,” Salke said, referring to Amazon’s recent Emmy winner. “We have something we think is special, we are going to get out and get the message out there in the most aggressive way we can. And yes, we are going to invest in that generously.” (Hammond noted that Amazon is not scrimping in the promotional swag: “Already this season, I got a beautifully boxed Cold War cocktail shaker kit and limited edition record among premium items Amazon sent.”)

It’s kind of funny how improbable it all would have seemed just a few years ago: Two cash-flushed streaming behemoths in an Oscar campaign arms race to promote … two deeply personal black-and-white foreign-language films about the persistence of memory, made by two of world cinema’s modern masters? (Is Cold War the Fyre Fraud to Roma’s Fyre? Never mind.) Still, when you consider the brazen mediocrity of some of the English-language movies that slipped into the Best Picture category this year (Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, ahem), Oscar’s subtle move toward multiculturalism feels like a net gain. If it took a groundswell of new voters, two prestige-hungry rival streaming companies, and a Pawel Pawlikowski–branded cocktail shaker to help foreign-language films cross over into Oscar mainstream, so be it.

Roma and Cold War didn’t have a chance to go head-to-head at the Golden Globes for not one but two strange reasons: Cold War was unexpectedly snubbed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and, as per bizarre Globe rules, a foreign-language film like Roma cannot be nominated for the show’s Best Picture equivalents. In that case, voters who wanted to see Roma win something figured its best shot was Best Foreign Language Film (although in something of an upset, Cuarón won the Golden Globe for Best Director too). For all the resources Amazon is putting into the Cold War campaign, Netflix has clearly outspent it promoting Roma. Still, Pawlikowski’s surprise Oscar nomination for Best Director and the much-deserved nod for Cold War cinematographer Lukasz Zal are our first indication that the Academy is keener on Cold War than most people expected.

“In a perfect world—or, at least, as perfect a world as would still allow for gaudy film-award pageantry—there’d be no need for a separate best foreign language film Oscar,” the critic Guy Lodge wrote in the Guardian in 2015. “The fact that, after 87 years, the Academy has yet to honor a film not predominantly in English as the year’s best says everything about their own limitations, and nothing about those of world cinema.” A Roma win wouldn’t fix everything wrong with the Oscars, of course, but it would be a small step in the direction of recognizing foreign-language films as, you know, films. Maybe it’s wishful thinking (or just selfishness because they’re two of my favorite movies of the year and I don’t want anyone to make me choose between them), but I’m rooting for Cold War to take the Foreign Language Oscar and for Roma to win Best Picture. It’s an outcome that could, however slightly, change public perception of what a major Oscar winner can be—and all the languages it can speak.