If you ignore foreign films, you’re missing out on an integral part of the world of cinema. If you’ve never seen a foreign film, here are four to get you started.
A different language is a different vision of life
When I told people about my favorite films this year, I got a lot of curious questions about Blue is the Warmest Color. Naturally, most of them were about the film’s subject matter, but many others were about the film’s origin in France. Some of my friends were amazed that I would watch a three hour film that was entirely in French. I heard from several people that they refused to see any film that required them to read subtitles. A few only wanted to see American movies; they wouldn’t watch foreign films at all.
I can’t help but feel like this is a huge mistake. Yesterday I watched The Past, a wonderful French-Iranian film, at a local art house theater, and it saddens me to think of the many people who just won’t see it. Their biases are making them miss a wonderful film. I think it’s a tragedy.
We can’t make the mistake of assuming that only English speakers have important stories to tell, and there’s much we’re missing about the history of film if we don’t include foreign cinema. What about the influence of the French New Wave on the New Hollywood directors of the 1960s and 1970s? Maybe you love the work of Woody Allen. But do you know his deep affection for the work of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman? Without Bergman’s influence Allen’s work might be wildly different. An appreciation of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars is incomplete without the understanding that it’s an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Where would Quentin Tarantino filmography be without John Woo’s The Killer?
As foreign viewers we’re in a prime position with these films. We get to cherry pick. Generally, American distributors aren’t picking up foreign duds and packaging them for US viewers. They’re backing critically respected and commercially successful films. It’s an opportunity that we should be taking full advantage of.
If you’re interested in seeing some great foreign films let me give you a place to start. Here are five of my personal favorites.
Rashomon (Japan, 1950) directed by Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa is an all-time master, and this is the film that brought him to the attention of American audiences. Even if you’ve never seen or heard of this film, you’ve definitely seen its influence. Rashomon tells the story of a samurai’s murder recounted by four different people: a bandit, the samurai’s wife, the murdered samurai himself (through a medium), and a woodcutter who witnessed the events. The four descriptions of the crime are mutually contradictory and potentially skewed by each teller’s desire to present himself or herself in a positive light. It’s a film that questions the very idea of objective truth.
Though unimpressive to Japanese audiences, Rashomon was well-received in the west winning awards from at the Venice film festival, Academy Awards, and from the National Board of review. The “Rashomon effect” has become a representative term for differing interpretations of events with no clear definitive truth. This type of story has since been redone in shows as diverse as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and the films Hero and Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai. Kurosawa would go on to have a phenomenally successful career with films like Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Ran (all worth seeing), but this early masterpiece may be his best work.
City of God (2002, Brazil) directed by Fernando Meirelles
A Brazilian crime drama loosely based on true events, City of God follows the rise of gangs in the Cidade de Deus (City of God), a shantytown outside of Rio de Janeiro. The film features a cast of mostly unprofessional actors gathered from local slums. One story follows Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues), a young man from the Cidade de Deus who dreams of being a photographer. Eventually he begins working at a newspaper where his access to the Cidade de Deus gives him a unique opportunity among the staff’s photographers to chronicle the rising violence of the gang war. Another story follows Lil Zé (Leandro Firmino) who rises from the slums to become gang leader and murderous sociopath.
Meirelles’s film is an examination of the effects of poverty on people who are willing to try almost anything to escape it. Whether it’s through hard work or crime, these characters are fighting for a better future. Though it did not garner a best foreign film nomination at the Academy Awards it did get nominated for four other awards: Best director, cinematography, adapted screenplay, and editing. If you enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire, you should give this film a look.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Mexico/Spain) directed by Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy film is a visual wonder. Set shortly after the Spanish civil war, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a little girl obsessed with fairytales. Her mother marries an army captain tasked with rooting out anti-Franco rebels in rural Spain. Ofelia meets a faun in an ancient labyrinth in the woods who believes her to be a mythical princess and tells her that she must complete three tasks before the next full moon to prove her purity. The film mixes Ofelia’s attempts to complete the tasks from this mythical world with her brutal stepfather’s hunting and killing of country rebels. Whether the fairytale world and the faun are real or the products of Ofelia’s imagination looking for an escape route from her brutal stepfather is left for each viewer to decide for themselves.
The effects in this film are breathtaking. Del Toro is also the director of the Hellboy films and last summer’s Pacific Rim, two films that prominently feature CGI effects. Here, however, del Toro relies mostly on animatronics and incredible makeup work to bring his fairytale world to life. The results are simply incredible. The faun, fairies, and monsters are all incredibly brought into vibrant life on the screen. The films justly collected Academy Awards for art direction, cinematography and makeup. However, another film captured 2006’s best foreign film Oscar.
The Lives of Others (2006, Germany) directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
This is the film that bested Pan’s Labyrinth in the 2006 best foreign film category, and, while the foreign film selections have often been peculiar and nonsensical, I have to agree that the academy got this one right. Set in East Germany during the Cold War, Ulrich Mühe stars as Gerd Wiesler, a secret police officer who is assigned to spy on a playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) who is suspected of harboring anti-communist views. After a respected friend commits suicide due to being blacklisted, Dreyman publishes an anti-communist piece about the prevalence of suicides in East Germany. All the while Wiesler is listening to and recording the apartment’s happenings from the attic above. The film is something like a cross between The Conversation and Schindler’s List as Wiesler becomes moved towards protecting Dreyman. That isn’t too high praise – this film is incredible.
The Lives of Others has become ever more prescient in light of America’s NSA spying controversy. It examines the effects of spying on both the observed and the observer. Of all the films on this list, this is the one that I would most highly recommend to someone who is interested in watching their first foreign film as it doesn’t have as many hurdles to overcome. It isn’t in black and white like Rashomon, violence isn’t a major part of the plot like City of God, and it doesn’t require as much suspension of disbelief as Pan’s Labyrinth. Also, it’s a truly remarkable film.
These are only a few of my favorites. There are many, many more including The Seventh Seal, Amélie, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Y Tu Mamá También, 8 ½, Bicycle Thieves, Wings of Desire, The Motorcycle Diaries, and Let the Right One In just to name a few. Look at some plot descriptions online, read some reviews, and find a film that interests you. Then, dive in. There’s a whole world of wonderful films just waiting to be experienced if you’re just willing to accept subtitles. Don’t miss out.