Director Moshé Mizrahi’s "Madame Rosa" wins the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1978

Moshe Mizrachi
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The 50th Academy Awards ceremony that was held on 3 April 1978, saw a most fascinating faceoff between two Israeli directors; both of whom were competing for the night’s top honours in the Foreign Language Film category: representing Israel was Menahem Golan with his film, Operation Thunderbolt about the 1970s Entebbe plane hijacking terror attack, whilst representing France was Moshé Mizrahi with his film, Madame Rosa; his big screen adaptation of Romain Gary’s bestselling novel (written under the nom de plume, Emile Ajar). This was an especially loaded and complicated showdown seeing as how Golan had produced several of Mizrahi’s previous films. At the end of the night, Mizrahi was the one to emerge triumphant, becoming the first ever Israeli director to take home an Oscar – and would remain the only one with this credit for many more years to follow.
“Winning wasn’t all that consequential to me,” Mizrahi admitted when he appeared in a 2015 episode of Israeli educational TV programme, Chai Be’Seret (‘living in a movie’), hosted by Gilad Emilio Shenkar. “I’d been through the Oscars before those previous times I was nominated, so I was no longer a ‘virgin,’ so to speak. It just wasn’t the same thrill as those previous ceremonies. I got to sit there, at the ceremony in peace, knowing that there are other things [beyond this], and that I don’t get to decide who takes home the Oscar. This is why I don’t remember winning as this of huge moment of elation.”
Mizrahi’s acceptance speech was very succinct and unemotional: “I thank you. I thank all the people who have worked on film. And above all else, I’d like to thank Madame Rosa, herself – Simone Signoret.” Indeed, Madame Rosa does owe much of its success to Signoret who, at the time, was one of France’s biggest stars, and who delivered a phenomenal performance as Madame Rosa – a retired, elderly, and ailing Jewish prostitute and Holocaust survivor plagued by her past, who lives in the poverty stricken Parisian suburb of Belville where she makes a living raising other prostitutes’ children. Signoret is particularly striking in this one scene where she asks Momo, the Muslim boy whom she had raised to not let her be taken to hospital. “If you hear any mention of hospitals, you take a pillow and you smother me. Just kill me,” Madame Rosa pleads with him. “All things come to end, Jews too. I don’t want to live any longer than what’s necessary. I don’t want to go hospital – they’ll torture me there. I spent 25 years giving my body to johns. I’ve no intention of offering my body to science.”
Mizrahi revealed that Signoret in fact hated the book, La vie devant soi (which Madame Rosa is based on) and had turned down all previous offers to appear in any cinematic adaptations of it. When Mizrahi offered her the lead in his film, she agreed to take a meeting with him. “Simone greeted me with the following words: ‘I saw one of your films; the one called I Love you Rosa, and I did love it ever so much which is why I agreed to meet with you. But in no way am I pleased to meet the future director of La vie devant soi.’ Mizrahi apologised for having imposed on her but Signoret replied, ‘don’t talk rubbish. Come on, let’s go to a restaurant.’”.
“We discussed a thousand and one things over our meal; none of which necessarily were about the film La vie devant soi, and we clicked, and in the end, she came around,” Mizrahi explained. Notably, Mizrahi also gave his wife, actor-director Michal Bat-Adam a major part in the film.
Mizrahi, who passed away in 2018 chose to display his golden Oscar statuette on a bookshelf in his Tel Aviv flat. “The only thing you can actually use an Oscar statuette for is to balance books on a shelf,” he said in his episode of Chai Be’Seret. In a 2009 interview with daily broadsheet, Haaretz’s film critic, Uri Klein, Mizrahi added, “I think the fact that I won an Oscar did me a disservice in Israel. It was that I’d won with a film that wasn’t Israeli that somehow labelled me ‘not one of us.’ Granted, outside of Israel, winning did help me quite a bit, but of course that too faded over the years.”

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