“Son of Saul,” the Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’s debut feature set at Auschwitz-Birkenau, is widely seen as the front-runner for the Academy Award for best foreign language film, according to Academy voters and film industry insiders whom the Carpetbagger’s bespectacled cousin in Europe polled at the Berlin Film Festival last week.
These experts, who declined to speak on the record, citing Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rules, said the Hungarian film had a solid chance of winning because of its original vision and powerful subject matter. Voting ends Tuesday. The winner will be announced at the Oscars on Sunday.
“Son of Saul” took second prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and also won a Golden Globe for best foreign film, among other accolades. It was released in American theaters in December by Sony Pictures Classics, which has a good record of shepherding films through the awards season. Additionally, the drama drew strong reviews and generated intense debates about the political and moral implications of the director’s aesthetics.
But some Oscar watchers are also saying that France’s entry, “Mustang,” a debut feature by the Franco-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, could sneak up from behind. A kind of “Virgin Suicides” set in rural Turkey, the film touches on the timely issue of women in the Muslim world. It tells the story of five sisters who do everything they can, even commit suicide, to escape the strictures of an oppressive conservative society.
The other films in contention are:
— “A War,” Denmark’s entry, directed by Tobias Lindholm, about a thoughtful Danish commander in Afghanistan who finds himself brought before a military tribunal, accused of ordering an attack that killed civilians.
A meditation on the toll of war, the film intersperses scenes from the front with scenes of the commander’s wife and children at home in Denmark. It stars Pilou Asbaek — best known for his role as a tormented spin doctor in the Danish television series “Borgen” and for hosting the Eurovision song contest — and received favorable reviews at the Venice Film Festival. It is scheduled for release in the United States in April.
— “Theeb,” a debut feature by the British-born Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar, is set in the Ottoman Empire in 1916. The film is a kind of retelling of “Lawrence of Arabia” from the perspective of the Arab nationalists wrestling independence from the Ottoman Turks. The director has called it an Arab western in the style of Sergio Leone. After strong reviews at the Toronto and Venice film festivals, it recently won a Bafta for outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer.
— “Embrace of the Serpent,” the Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s luminous black-and-white feature — is about indigenous populations in the Amazon. Reviewing the film in The New York Times, Stephen Holden, called it a “majestic, spellbinding film.”
Debates about diversity in film have dominated this year’s Oscar race, but the foreign language contest has also has its share of polemics. An Oscar nomination is one of the few things that helps foreign language films gain a foothold in the crowded American market and each year there is grumbling about films that were hits on the festival circuit and with critics but that never made the shortlist.
Last year, “Mommy,” by the Québecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan, was passed up. This year, the Taiwanese director Hou Hsaio-Hsien’s well-received film “The Assassin,” set in ninth-century China, didn’t make the cut. Neither did the Icelandic director Grimur Hakonarson’s “Rams,” about two sheep-farmer brothers or the Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s “The Club,” about a home for disgraced Catholic priests.
Even Academy members eligible to vote in preliminary rounds said they found the process confusing and opaque. The shortlist was the product of three steps. First, a committee chose six films from the 81 in contention this year. This committee is required to take in theatrical screenings, a factor that some critics say favors retirees with time on their hands. Then, an executive committee, with different members, chose three more films, bringing the list to nine. A third committee that is also required to watch theatrical screenings winnowed that list to five final nominees.
All academy members can vote on the final five nominees, including by watching DVD screeners. The academy does not disclose who serves on the committees.