LONDON (AP) — A taut domestic drama from Iran is competing against a Belgian thriller, a true Polish tale from the Holocaust and dramas from Canada and Israel in the Academy Awards race for best foreign-language film.
Nominees announced Tuesday in Los Angeles include "A Separation," the story of a marital breakdown and its far-reaching consequences from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi.
The widely praised film — being hailed by some as a vital cultural bridge at a time of souring relations between Iran and the West — has already won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film, and also gained Farhadi an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.
It's up against four other films, including "Footnote," a mordant tale of rivalry between father-son Talmudic scholars by Israel's Joseph Cedar.
Cedar said there was "something poetic" in the fact that Israeli and Iranian films were both nominated. The two countries are bitter enemies, and Israel has been a leading voice in international calls to halt Iran's nuclear program.
Cedar, who was Oscar nominated in 2008 for "Beaufort," said it was "very flattering" to be nominated in what he called "a great year for foreign film at the Oscar."
Lior Ashkenazi, who plays the son, said he was shocked to hear the film had been nominated given its subject — "two Talmudic scholars, the most drab thing that could be."
"Who could imagine it?" he told Israel Radio. "It's not exactly an action movie."
Israel has emerged as a surprising powerhouse in the foreign film category, garnering four Oscar nominations since 2007. Two of those nominations have gone to Cedar.
Belgian director Michael R. Roskam gained a nomination for his feature debut "Bullhead," a crime drama set amid the world of cattle rearing and hormone dealing.
Producer Bart Van Langendonck welcomed the recognition for a film that "was written so it could be appreciated all over the world, even if the theme of the cattle mafia is extremely Belgian."
The nominees also include the gritty, realistic "In Darkness" by Poland's Agnieszka Holland, based on the true story of Leopold Socha, a Polish petty criminal who hid Jews from the Nazis in the sewage canals of Lviv during World War II.
It's a third Oscar nomination for 63-year-old Holland, one of the country's best-known directors, after "Europa Europa" and "Angry Harvest," both of which also dealt with the Holocaust.
The fifth contender is "Monsieur Lazhar," Canadian director Philippe Falardeau's story of an Algerian immigrant substitute teacher who helps a group of children get over a death.
It's the second straight year a filmmaker from Quebec has made the shortlist. Denis Villeneuve was nominated last year for his war drama "Incendies."
Falardeau said he was overwhelmed by the recognition for the French-language film, adapted from a play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere.
The director likened himself to "a hockey player trying to describe the feeling after he wins the Stanley Cup — he looks stupid because it is indescribable and unbelievable."
"So there you are: indescribable and unbelievable," he said.
"I think I rejoice myself in the fact that an intimate film like 'Monsieur Lazhar' can exist alongside major Hollywood productions in the biggest gala in the world," Falardeau said. "I think it says a lot about the fact that we have to make the movie that we have inside of us and not try to imitate any kind of recipe."
But he admitted the looming ceremony left him with a dilemma — "I don't have a tux."
This year's Oscars contest already has an international flavor. The race is led by Martin Scorsese's Parisian fantasia "Hugo," with 11 nominations, and "The Artist," a French-made silent tale of old Hollywood, with 10.
Winners of the 84th annual Oscars will be announced at a Feb. 26 ceremony at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.
Associated Press writers Raf Casert in Antwerp, Belgium, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.