ACCORDING to Metacritic.com, a website that tracks critical reaction to current films, one of the five best-reviewed movies of 2005 -- right up there with "Capote" and "Brokeback Mountain" -- is "Cache," a provocative drama by the respected Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. The film earned raves from Time, Newsweek, Roger Ebert, USA Today, our paper and Entertainment Weekly, which called it a "fabulously unsettling, doesn't-leave-your-head thriller." With the weight of such critical consensus behind it, "Cache" would surely be a front-runner for one of the five slots in the Academy Awards' best foreign-language film competition, right?
In what represents another dispiriting loss for the foreign film category, the motion picture academy refused to accept the film when it was submitted by Austria. The reason? "Cache's" dialogue is in French. The academy's rules specify that a film must be in the principal language of the submitting country. Making matters worse, the rules also say that the creative talent from the submitting country must exercise "artistic control of the film." Since Haneke, as the artist in control of the film, is Austrian, France had no reason to pick the film either. This made "Cache," at least in terms of the foreign film award, a film without a country.
"I have great respect for the academy, but it's really difficult to explain to a filmmaker who's just made one of the year's best films that he isn't even eligible," says Michael Barker, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics, whose company has been the industry's leading distributor of foreign films for two decades. "It just doesn't seem right for bureaucratic rules to supersede the artistry of film."
Haneke's film isn't alone. This year the academy has disqualified eight films, four of them over principal-language issues. The original Greek entry, "Brides," was disqualified for having too much English. Italy's initial submission, "Private," got the boot for being in Arabic and Hebrew. "Be With Me," from Singapore director Eric Khoo, was disqualified after stopwatch-wielding academy officials decided its dominant language was English.
In 2004, the foreign film category was missing more top films. One of the year's best pictures, "The Motorcycle Diaries," was left out because its creative team came from so many different countries that no one nation would submit it. "Maria Full of Grace," another much-praised film, was rejected as Colombia's submission by the academy, which ruled that the film had too much English and not enough Spanish.
The end result is that the academy, which exists to reward excellence in cinema, ends up giving its prestigious imprint not to the year's best foreign film but to what would more accurately be described as the year's best foreign film that survives a bruising confrontation with the academy's arcane, often impenetrable rulebook.
The academy's problem is rooted in its antiquated one-country, one-film-entry mandate. The loss is not just the academy's but ours, because Haneke's film, which grapples with many of the messy cultural issues of our day, deserves the broader airing in America that an Oscar nomination or win would provide.
A film brimming with Hitchcock-style voyeurism and psychological terror, "Cache" also offers a barbed portrait of class-based social grievances that seems ripped from today's headlines. Haneke's tale depicts a smug Parisian couple -- played by Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil -- tormented by a mysterious stalker who leaves surveillance tapes and creepy drawings of a child's bloody mouth on their doorstep. The drawings make us fear for the safety of their 12-year-old son, but they also evoke a shameful secret from Auteuil's past involving his mistreatment of a young Algerian immigrant boy. Once a worker on Auteuil's parents' farm, the Algerian is today one of society's rejects, a shabby figure who initially appears all too likely a suspect.
Auteuil's pursuit of his tormentor turns "Cache" into an unsettling cat-and-mouse thriller in which, as the New Yorker's Anthony Lane described it, "the mouse and cat insist on swapping roles." The film couldn't be more timely as a political statement, coming in the wake not only of Sept. 11, but also arriving in France just as riots engulfed the immigrant-filled Parisian suburbs last fall.
"To me it's a great film because it speaks to the ambiguous nature of our modern-day lives," Barker says. "In France, it has a specificity about their colonial history with Algeria. But it could also be about America and Iraq. I think Haneke really captures the unnerving anxiety of modern life, regardless of whether you're surviving a terrorist attack or a mugging on the street."