Published January 24, 2012
LONDON – Their settings span the globe, but this year's foreign-language Academy Award nominees are united in giving local stories a universal resonance.
The five finalists range from World War II Poland to modern-day Israel and Quebec, from an Iranian divorce court to the bruising world of Belgian cattle-rearing.
Front-runner among the contenders announced Tuesday in Los Angeles is "A Separation," the story of a marital breakdown and its far-reaching consequences from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi.
The widely praised film — hailed by some as a vital cultural bridge at a time of souring relations between Iran and the West — has already won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film, and also gained Farhadi an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.
Farhadi said in a statement that it was a very personal project — a sentiment echoed by other nominated filmmakers.
"For a long time I had this picture carved inside my head," he said. "I don't know how it got there, but once it was there I just knew I had to make this film and here we are today with not one but two nominations."
"A Separation" is up against four other films, including "Footnote," a mordant tale of rivalry between father-son Talmudic scholars by Israel's Joseph Cedar.
Cedar said there was "something poetic" in the fact that Israeli and Iranian films were both nominated. The two countries are bitter enemies, and Israel has been a leading voice in international calls to halt Iran's nuclear program.
Cedar, who was Oscar nominated in 2008 for "Beaufort," said it was "very flattering" to be nominated in what he called "a great year for foreign film at the Oscar."
Lior Ashkenazi, who plays the son, said he was shocked to hear the film had been nominated given its subject — "two Talmudic scholars, the most drab thing that could be."
"Who could imagine it?" he told Israel Radio. "It's not exactly an action movie."
Israel has emerged as a surprising powerhouse in the foreign film category, garnering four Oscar nominations since 2007. Two of those nominations have gone to Cedar.
Belgian director Michael R. Roskam gained a nomination for his feature debut "Bullhead," a crime drama set in the world of cattle rearing and hormone dealing.
Producer Bart Van Langendonck welcomed the recognition for a film that "was written so it could be appreciated all over the world, even if the theme of the cattle mafia is extremely Belgian."
The nominees also include the gritty, realistic "In Darkness" by Poland's Agnieszka Holland, based on the true story of Leopold Socha, a Polish petty criminal who hid Jews from the Nazis in the sewage canals of Lviv during World War II.
Holland uses the character to explore the ambiguous attitudes of Poles toward Jews during the Nazi occupation of their country. Some Poles were deeply anti-Semitic and helped the Nazis track down Jews for extermination, but others risked to own lives to help Jews.
The director dedicated the film to the more than 6,000 Poles, including Socha, named by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as "Righteous Among the Nations," an honor reserved for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews.
It's a third Oscar nomination for 63-year-old Holland, one of the country's best-known directors, after "Europa Europa" and "Angry Harvest," both of which also dealt with the Holocaust.
Holland said she felt the nomination defied a "stereotype" that everything has already been said about the Holocaust.
"People react emotionally both in Poland and in the United States. And afterward, the film goes from the heart to the mind and awakens thoughts," she told news channel TVN24. "People feel the film is enriching."
The fifth contender is "Monsieur Lazhar," Canadian director Philippe Falardeau's story of an Algerian immigrant substitute teacher who helps a group of children get over a death.
It's the second straight year a filmmaker from Quebec has made the shortlist. Denis Villeneuve was nominated last year for his war drama "Incendies."
Falardeau said he was overwhelmed by the recognition for the French-language film, adapted from a play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere.
The director likened himself to "a hockey player trying to describe the feeling after he wins the Stanley Cup — he looks stupid because it is indescribable and unbelievable."
"So there you are: indescribable and unbelievable," he said.
"I think I rejoice myself in the fact that an intimate film like 'Monsieur Lazhar' can exist alongside major Hollywood productions in the biggest gala in the world," Falardeau said. "I think it says a lot about the fact that we have to make the movie that we have inside of us and not try to imitate any kind of recipe."
But he admitted the looming ceremony left him with a dilemma — "I don't have a tux."
This year's Oscars contest already has an international flavor. The race is led by Martin Scorsese's Parisian fantasia "Hugo," with 11 nominations, and "The Artist," a French-made silent tale of old Hollywood, with 10.
Winners of the 84th annual Oscars will be announced at a Feb. 26 ceremony at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.
Associated Press writers Raf Casert in Antwerp, Belgium, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.