Category Close-Up: A Tough Call in the Foreign-Language Race

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A scene from “Leviathan.”Credit Anna Matveeva/Sony Pictures Classics

For the first time in several years, the competition for the Oscar for best foreign-language film seems to be a toss-up. The last three winners (Iran’s “A Separation,” Austria’s “Amour” and Italy’s “The Great Beauty”) had victories that seemed pre-ordained, and even before that, it was easy to identify a front-runner. But this year looks like a real horse race between two movies from neighboring countries that are somber in tone but otherwise seem to have little in common.

The Russian “Leviathan,” winner of a Golden Globe last month and a prize for best screenplay at Cannes last spring, is a two-hour epic, filmed with a color palette that takes maximum advantage of the barren landscape and sweeping sky of its Arctic setting. Andrey Zvyagintsev, the film’s director and co-writer, has drawn on a variety of sources, ranging from the Bible to an incident in Colorado a decade ago, to tell the story of a hard-drinking auto mechanic whose life is destroyed when he resists the local mayor’s effort to seize his home and workshop. It’s a parable of life in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, full of explosive emotional outbursts fueled by vodka, and thus disturbingly contemporary.

In contrast, Poland’s “Ida,” written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, is 80 minutes long, beautifully filmed in black and white, ascetic in style and narrow in focus, with most scenes shot in small rooms and full of repressed emotion. Set in the early 1960s, the movie’s title character is an 18-year-old novitiate who learns that she is actually Jewish, meets an aunt she didn’t know she had and gradually discovers the traumatic family history that had been hidden from her. It is thus a post-Holocaust film, rather than one that directly addresses the Holocaust.

Either film could win, and whichever does, there will be no grounds for complaint. In the end, the result is likely to be determined by the mood of Academy voters, which is always subject to change. Which kind of artistry do they prefer on the day they cast their ballots — the short, small, black-and-white Polish film or the sweeping, colorful, epic Russian film?

In its way, the Academy can be as opaque as the Kremlin or the Vatican, which means that predicting how members voted is a fool’s errand. But there are a number of factors that might give “Leviathan” a bit of an edge over “Ida.”

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 Agata Trzebuchowska in “Ida.”Credit Music Box Films

To make “Ida,” Mr. Pawlikowski had to overcome a number of obstacles, stemming mostly from his aesthetic choices. As a result, he had difficulties even assembling the budget. And then, after “Ida” was released, he had to contend with a backlash from some Polish nationalists who objected to the way that he apportioned responsibility for the killing of Jews during World War II.

But Mr. Zvyagintsev has trod an even more complicated path. Today’s Poland…

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