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Foreign language films: category of suprises

The selection of the "Best Foreign Language Film" follows a unique set of rules. In most of the Oscar categories, the finalist are chosen by experts in that particular field. In the foreign-film race, however, each interested country picks its own nominee. The motion-picture academy then narrows these down to five finalist, and the winner -- as in all the contests -- is determined by an all-academy vote.

This year, the victor is likely to be a West German film that will open in the United States only a few days before the Oscar winners are revealed. It's "The tin Drum," an epic adaptation of Gunter Grass's celebrated novel about mid- 20th-century German-Polish history as viewed by a dwarf.

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It is a stunningly assembled film, with lavish images amid powerful performances -- particularly that of the young boy who plays the main character. Yet it also contains offensive scenes involving sex and scatology, which could lead to controversy when the picture has its American commercial premier. In any event, it is an imposing achievement from a technical and dramatic point of view and its merits have already made it a grandprize winner at last year's Cannes Film Festival, where it shared top honors with Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."

The most promising runners-up come from Italy and Poland. "To Forget Venice, " written and directed by Franco Brusati, has received mixed critical response in the United States for its tale of a lonely homosexual coming face-to-face with his own immaturity.

Still, it could pull a surprise victory if the "Tin Drum" proves too strong or too arcane for academy tastes. Andrzej Wajda's "The masids of Wilco" was well-received at last year's New York Film Festival, though its story about a man returning to the stomping ground of his youth may prove too subtle and too Dickensian in its detail to be noticed amid its more flashy rivals.

France's entry, "A simple Story" by Claude Sautet, is regrettably dull in its account of various middle-aged people facing various middle-aged problems. And "Mama Turns A Hundred," by the gifted Carlos Saura, is an amazingly uncharming comedy about a confused (and symbolic) bourgeois family in Spain.

In the past, the foreig-film category has been the scene of great suprises. For one recent example: Remember the year when an unknown movie called "Black and White in Color" beat out the "sure thing" called "Cousin, Cousine" and the other "sure thing" called "Seven Beauties"?

With such a precedent only a few years ago one hesitates to be too certain of anything in this particular race. But from this vantage point, it looks as if "The Tin Drum" will be a hard movie to beat.

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