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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Austrian director Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon," a chilling exploration of the roots of Nazi terror, is the top contender to win the foreign language film Oscar, critics predicted on Tuesday.
Germany's black-and-white entry has won top awards, including the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Golden Globe in Hollywood, making it the frontrunner, award watchers and critics said.
Other foreign films that received Oscar nominations on Tuesday included France's gritty crime drama "Un Prophete" ("A Prophet") and Peru's mournful entry, "The Milk of Sorrow," which won the top prize at the Berlin film festival.
Rounding out nominations were Israel's "Ajami" and "El Secreto de Sus Ojos" ("The Secret in Their Eyes") by Argentine director Juan Jose Campanella, who is the only director to have a film previously nominated in the category.
"I am superstitious so I don't want to count my chickens before they hatch," Haneke told Reuters by phone from his home in Vienna through a translator. "It's very good for business if you win it -- and of course just the honor."
"White Ribbon" explores a sinister series of crimes in northern Germany on the eve of World War One, and Oscar pundits think its past awards have boosted its exposure among Oscar voters.
"It is the frontrunner and has gained a lot of recognition," film critic Emanuel Levy said. But he was quick to note that the category sometimes yielded surprises.
Israel's "Waltz with Bashir" was expected to win in the foreign language category last year but was beaten by Japan's "Departures."
And the slow-paced "The Milk of Sorrow" was not favored to win at the Berlin festival this year. Yet it scooped up the main award and has proven popular with fans.
"Sorrow" is Peru's first Oscar nomination in the best foreign language film category. It revolves around a girl named Fausta, who is the product of a rape inflicted on her mother during two decades of rebel violence in the country.
"It's such a big thing for us. It's like somehow our country is showing its memory to the world," 33-year-old Peruvian director Claudia Llosa told Reuters. "This film shows that somehow we can pull something beautiful out of darkness."
"Un Prophete" French director Jacques Audiard said in a statement he felt "bewildered" and "immense gratitude" by the nomination of his film about a young man who is sentenced to six years in prison and must use his ingenuity to survive a dangerous standoff between gangs.
Jewish filmmaker Yaron Shani, who co-directed and co-wrote "Ajami" with Palestinian Scandar Copti, said he hoped the Oscar nod would lure fans to theaters. Set on the streets of Jaffa's Ajami neighborhood, the crime drama explores divergent views among the city's Muslims, Christians and Jews.
All the directors said a nomination would give their films a boost in the tough U.S. market for foreign language movies.
"If the film wins the Oscar it will be amazing of course, but it is more important for getting the message out and trying to reach more people," Shani told Reuters.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte