Blid Alsbirk and Miramax Films

By Rania Richardson

The South African “Tsotsi” is one of the favored foreign films to win this year’s Academy Award.

A bookie’s guide to the best foreign film

Downtown Manhattan is the hub for international cinema, so it’s no surprise to see all five of the Oscar-nominated foreign language films make their debut here. The Palestinian, South African, French, German, and Italian films are all admirable and worth seeing on the big screen, but which one will win the Academy Award this Sunday night? Correctly guessing the Best Foreign Film could be a crucial factor in scoring that office pool money on Monday.

“Paradise Now” follows two Palestinian extremists on a suicide-bombing mission. The men have mixed feelings about the mission, and the daughter of a local martyr taps into these doubts with arguments against violence and the futility of revenge. The film opened in October and has been running continuously at Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema. According to “The Envelope” a movie awards feature in the Los Angles Times online edition, “Paradise Now” is the front-runner, with 5/2 odds. The film won a Golden Globe in January, and has received glowing reviews by major critics. Counteracting the positive momentum is a faction of naysayer who claim that the film humanizes terrorists. Others have called on the Academy to change the provenance of the film from “Palestine” to “the Palestinian authority” for political reasons.

“Tsotsi,” which opened last week at the Angelika Film Center, is the next favorite to win, with 1/ 2 odds. The South African entry, artfully shot and featuring a high-energy soundtrack of homegrown “kwaito” music, follows a teenage gang member who lives in an impoverished shantytown and is taken to sadistic violence. His life is transformed when he kidnaps a baby and develops an unusual bond with a widow who has a young one of her own. The comfortable, gated home of the stolen baby’s parents is beautifully decorated with African art and signifies the sharp class disparities of the area. For some industry insiders, like Roger Ebert, this film is the first choice to win.

Based on a true story, the French “Joyeux Noel” (Merry Christmas) opens this Friday at the Angelika. The most family-friendly and buoyant of all the entries, the drama recreates the night when WWI soldiers on enemy camps called a cease-fire to celebrate Christmas Eve together. The trilingual cast (French, German, and Scottish) includes a compromised Anglican priest, a career soldier from France, and a German tenor who joins his girlfriend in a military Christmas recital she surreptitiously planned to reunite them. Underscoring the uplifting film are poignant messages on the effects of dehumanizing a wartime enemy and the power of the religious establishment to influence political matters. Despite 8/1 odds, this dark horse candidate could win for being the most accessible and heartwarming of the entries.

Playing now at Film Forum is the riveting, fictionalized historical drama, “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.” The German film focuses on the interrogation and trial of a 21-year-old who led a student resistance movement in Nazi Germany and was sent to the guillotine in 1943 as an example to other dissenters. Julia Jentsch’s leading performance is Oscar-worthy in its own right, as she deftly navigates the tricky web of questions posed by an aggressive interrogator, and proudly defends her ideals. As Scholl opposes the troops and questions authority, her plight feels hauntingly topical. The film’s narrow focus and intensity may explain the low 10/1 odds.

In “Don’t Tell,” Italian writer/director Cristina Comencini tells the tale of friendship and seduction in the life of a young woman troubled by painful family memories. Her emotional journey into self knowledge takes place in a sensuous upscale world. The film is set to open in two weeks at the Sunshine, so did not have a chance to pick up critical accolades before the Awards as the other films did. Unfortunately, given the male-dominated film industry, its distinct female point-of-view may be a reason it is in last place, with 20/1 odds to win.

Indeed, each of the nominated foreign films has a female lead or crucial supporting player, unlike the predominantly male characters and stories in the domestic Best Picture category. Besides being entries into different cultures and sensibilities, foreign films may be the best place now to see women’s stories on the big screen.

“Paradise Now” is playing at Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema, where “Don’t Tell” will open March 17. “Tsotsi” is playing at the Angelika, where “Joyeux Noel” opens on Friday, March 3. And “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days”