Last fall, five days before Italy announced its official Oscar submission, filmmakers Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch were nervous. The Belgian couple, who co-directed the intimate Cannes winner “The Eight Mountains” in the Italian Alps and learned the language for the project, hoped that their commitment was enough to convince the committee tasked with selecting the submission that it fulfilled their requirements.
“We want to make the Italians proud of this film, so we pray that they will feel proud enough to send it,” Vandermeersch told IndieWire at the time. “If our nationality diminishes that pride or that sense of ownership, we can’t help that, but we do think that it’s less and less important in the world of today.”
The following week, the country snubbed “The Eight Mountains” in favor of another Cannes selection, Italian director Mario Matone’s crime drama “Nostalgia;” one month later, it didn’t make the official shortlist. Italy — which, with 14 trophies, holds the record for the most international Oscars won in the category’s nearly 70-year history — was out of the race.
Months later, as “The Eight Mountains” finally opens in New York with awards season behind it, van Groeningen said the experience led him to rethink the process. A previous nominee for his heartbreaking 2012 bluegrass saga “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” the filmmaker said he took the submission rules for granted until he made a movie that blended two nationalities in its production.
“I felt, in a way, that it was unfair,” he said. “We were in between. Because a big part of the creative team was Belgian, even though the rest of the team was Italian, we had no place.” They knew they couldn’t submit the movie as the Belgian entry; that country went with another Cannes prize-winner, Lukas Dhont’s “Close,” which did receive a nomination.
“If I could change [the Oscars], it’d be this idea to have the category be more open, so any movie could apply for it,” van Groeningen said. “Then it would be a process of natural selection.”
His comments come as the Academy prepares to meet this Friday to discuss potential rule changes heading into the 2023-24 Oscar season. Ahead of that session, there has been speculation that the requirements for the Best International Feature Film category could be in flux. Last year, the Academy hired former Sundance programmer Dilcia Barrera to oversee the international submission process and help countries navigate the requirements, but stakeholders across the industry tell IndieWire they would like to see the “one country, one film” rule give way to more expansive regulations.
As it happens, “The Eight Mountains” opens on the same week that IFC Films releases another movie snubbed by its home country during the submission process, Romanian auteur Cristian Mungiu’s “RMN.” Mungiu has been his country’s most prominent filmmaker ever since his abortion thriller “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” won the Palme d’Or in 2007 (it wasn’t shortlisted by the Academy, which created an outcry of its own). While Mungiu’s “R.M.N.” was well received at Cannes premiere, Romania chose to ignore the haunting immigration story about small-town xenophobia in favor of submitting “Immaculate” (also not shortlisted).
“To be honest, it was meaningful enough for me this year to be a bit sad,” Mungiu told IndieWire in an interview this week. “I don’t believe too much in awards, but there’s something coming with the promotion done for the awards. It’s important to have the attention, and releasing a film in the U.S. is so much connected with the awards season that I was sorry that the film was not chosen because I knew the attention for that film would have been bigger and earlier, and not now.”
Mungiu suggested a tweak to the Academy rules that has been whispered to IndieWire by others in the industry: Rather than solely relying on the varied processes through which individual countries choose their selections, the Academy should mandate that all contenders receive a U.S. theatrical release. “You need to have some distributor in the U.S. if you want to choose a film because if not, you’re just throwing a rock into a river and it won’t matter,” he said.
Of the Romanian Oscar committee, Mungiu said, “They don’t want the Academy to appreciate what [Romanian audiences] like. They want the Academy to appreciate what they think [the Academy] should like, which is very funny.” (“Immaculate” has yet to secure a U.S. distributor.)
The counterargument to this proposal: It risks putting lower-profile films at a disadvantage, since they may not be attractive to risk-averse U.S. buyers. Unexpected entries such as first-time Bhutan nominee “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is often cited as a key example.
“If you’re from a big country it’s a disadvantage because of the competition, but there’s more money behind it,” van Groeningen said. “I always thought this was how it is. Every country sends one movie and that’s how it is. Because of our process with this last film and the conversations I was having about it, I started thinking differently.”
Academy rules have evolved many times over the years, including a decision in 2006 that no longer required a submitted film to be in the language of its own home country. These changes were reflected in a few of last year’s submissions, including the Danish entry “Holy Spider,” a Persian-language thriller shot in Jordan. However, current regulations still leave the process open to the whims of countries that are often averse to directors who don’t hold citizenship there.
For “The Eight Mountains,” van Groeningen and Vandermeersch immersed themselves in the remote mountain culture at the center of the story, which was adapted from the novel by Paolo Cognetti about two young men — one from the city and the other from the countryside — whose relationship grows more complicated as they age.
The project followed van Groeningen’s experience making his first non-Belgian film, the English-language “Beautiful Boy,” and he said the two experiences helped him embrace the idea of working beyond his country’s borders.
“Before I had always worked in Belgium with almost the exact same crew,” he said. “I realized I could get out of my comfort zone. I grew step by step in feeling comfortable with a crew I don’t know and with working in a different language. Every step in my trajectory has opened up my world and made me feel more comfortable and curious in pursuing that.”
Additional reporting by Ryan Lattanzio.