A Guide to Foreign Films, Classic and New
The types of foreign-language films available to wide audiences have changed: foreign films can be popular thrillers, fantasies, and comedies. For years, Americans tended to associate foreign films with art house theatre and serious works by Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini: classics, yes, but not the type of movie that attracts the popcorn crowd. Now, Mel Gibson can release major films like The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto in Aramaic, Latin, and the Mayan dialect Yucatec and bring in millions of dollars.
With the advent of DVDs, the Internet, and Netflix, foreign films have become more widely available to viewers in their own homes. Foreign films were once lucky to be shown in art house theatres and were usually only available in the dubbed form on VHS tapes. Now viewers can choose to watch a film in its original language or with "subs and dubs" in various languages. Some viewers are still intimidated by foreign films, thinking that they won't "get into it" if they have to read subtitles, and this is unfortunate because they're missing out on some great stories that just happen to come from other countries.
Film is a powerful medium that can transcend language. The visual can evoke more emotion and natural responses than the written word. A film should be able to impart its messages to the audience regardless of what language it is in or what culture it represents. Because of the recent influx of international films, I'm offering a crash-course guide to foreign films, both old and new, organized by country, that viewers should find accessible and relevant.
Note: If you're new to foreign films, you may find some of them, particularly the old ones, slow-paced or hard to get into. They may require some patience and extra thought. Some don't follow the traditional rules of storytelling found in mainstream, American films. Give these films a chance, and if you have trouble finding a connection, try focusing on the way scenes are arranged, how characters are developed, and what the striking images might signify. Hope you enjoy!
Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) Vittorio De Sica, 1948
The plot is straightforward: a man in postwar Rome needs a bicycle for his work. When the bike is stolen, he and his young son spend the day in the city trying to track down the thief. Through their struggles the viewer sees the effects of war and mass unemployment on the Italian people and the desperation that results. As part of the Italian neorealist movement, the film uses nonactors, shoots on location, and strives for realism. These are real people, poor and working-class, struggling to support their families. It's a bleak film, but it's considered one of the best films of all time, and the father-son relationship is poignant and real.
La Strada (The Road) Federico Fellini, 1954
Cinema buffs often associate Fellini with clowns and circus life. Watch this film to see why. Gelsomina, a grown woman with the intellect of a child, is "sold" by her family to a gypsy strongman named Zampanò. They travel from town to town, Gelsomina learning how to bang the drum and entertain the crowds with her rubbery, Chaplinesque facial expressions. Zampanò is a cruel and gruff master, but the pair seem to develop feelings for each other. But when they cross paths with another entertainer called Il Matto (The Fool), Zampanò does something unconscionable, and Gelsomina's spirit is broken. Giulietta Masina (Fellini's wife) shines as Gelsomina, with a pure heart, childlike innocence, and expressive eyebrows. Anthony Quinn as Zampanò shows true transformation from heartlessness to brokenness and grief.
La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) Federico Fellini, 1960
The film opens with an aerial shot of a helicopter carrying a suspended statue of Jesus, his arms outstretched, over the city of Rome. Some bikini-clad women sunbathing on the roof cry out in disbelief: "Look! It's Jesus!" Fellini's best-known film was a reaction to the world in a moral and spiritual vacuum. Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) is a Roman journalist drifting aimlessly in a sea of decadence, sex, and alcohol, hobnobbing with the elite and celebrities, who are just as lost as he is. He wants to become a serious writer but he desperately clings to the frivolous pleasures of high society and beautiful women. It takes the attempted suicide of his girlfriend and a friend that he admires killing himself and his children to wake Marcello up to the emptiness of his life.
L'avventura (The Adventure) Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960
This film came out the same year as La Dolce Vita, and they could be considered film siblings. Don't be fooled by the title: L'avventura is not an adventure tale, at least not in the traditional sense. It should be subtitled What happened to Anna? because the audience never finds out. A group of wealthy young people go yachting in the Mediterranean, and one of them disappears without a trace on an island. Her boyfriend Sandro and best friend Claudia search for her to no avail, but they do develop an attraction to each other (go figure). At the film's debut at the Cannes Film Festival audiences reacted negatively to the film's unconventional storytelling and slow pace. But L'avventura deserves multiple viewings to pick up the subtle themes and symbols. Antonioni truly turned traditional cinema on its head with this film, and it shows how the composition of scenes can reveal as much about the story as the dialogue and action.
La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) Roberto Benigni, 1997
Roberto Benigni directs and stars in this Oscar-winning film as Guido, a loveable waiter who charms the beautiful schoolteacher Dora with his humor and jovial cries, "Buon giorno, Principessa!" The first half of the film is your standard romantic comedy, made special by Benigni's gift for physical comedy and his character's knack for hijinks. Flash forward five years, and Guido and Dora are married and have an adorable son, Giosue. Their idyllic life is shattered, however, by the persecution of the Jews. When his family is taken to a concentration camp, Guido protects his son's innocence by making him believe it is all a game. It's a risky move, making a comedy about the Holocaust, but Benigni artfully balances the horrors and tragedy with a life-affirming message. It shows the best and worst of humanity, with the hope that love and goodness will win in the end.
Running for Freedom
Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) Francois Truffaut, 1959
The title of this film comes from a French idiom "faire les quatre cents coups," which means "to raise hell." It could also refer to the knocks that life brings, as 13-year-old Antoine Doinel can't catch a break. His teachers can't stand him, his parents have no time for him, and a downward spiral of events lead him to run away and commit petty crimes.
This film is part of the French New Wave, a movement that rejected the traditions of mainstream cinema and relied on unconventional camera techniques. Life doesn't always have a happy ending; the films of the French New Wave often had ambiguous characters and endings. In this case, the camera follows Antoine through his daily activities, capturing the seemingly ordinary and mundane minutiae of his life. The highlight of the film comes at the end, when he makes a break for freedom. A long tracking shot captures him running tirelessly to the beach. The zoom-in and freezing on his face is an unsettling and uncertain end to this quietly beautiful film.
L'Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child) Francois Truffaut, 1970
In 1798 in southern France, some hunters discovered a feral boy, about 11 or 12, who lived as a wild animal in the forest. Having never learned human speech, the child is first sent to a deaf-mute school. But Dr. Jean Itard (Truffaut) believes the boy can be socialized, and he takes the wild child into his home. There he conducts a series of experiments, testing the boy's memory and intelligence, and teaching him the basics of speech. Based on the true story of Victor, the wild child of Aveyron, Truffaut's film follows Dr. Itard's journal and is both a fascinating case study for sociologists and a compassionate, moving drama.
L'Argent de Poche (Small Change) Francois Truffaut, 1976
A series of vignettes, this film follows a handful of young French schoolchildren in a small village. The stories and characters are connected loosely, but all of them resonate with love and humor. Two young brothers give their friend a (bad) haircut. A naughty girl uses a megaphone to call out the window, "I'm hungry! My parents left me here alone!" A toddler follows a cat up on the windowsill and falls several stories, only to be completely unhurt. "Gregory goes boom!" he giggles, while his mother faints. The story also has its sorrows; teachers discover that the boy who wears shabby clothes and does poorly in school is being abused at home. Truffaut captures the natural innocence and charm of these children (none of them real actors) in a gentle, sweet film.
Au Revoir, Les Enfants (Good-bye, Children) Louis Malle, 1987
Malle's film, partly autobiographical, tells the story of two boys at a Catholic boarding school during WWII. Julien dislikes Jean, the shy, mysterious new boy. They form a gradual friendship, even when Julien discovers Jean's secret: he's a Jew being sheltered at the school by the priests. When the Nazis show up at the end, in a haunting climax, Julien realizes how even the smallest, unintentional actions can have tragic consequences. As sad as the film is, it shows childlike love and courage in the face of unspeakable horrors.
Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain (Amélie) Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001
Audrey Tautou plays a shy, waifish French waitress with a pixie haircut who devotes herself to making the people around her happy in small ways. Eventually, she realizes that she also needs to make herself happy and pursues a man with charming quirks of his own. Amélie was quite successful in the U.S., a pleasant and heartwarming romantic comedy that will make you want to fall in love too.
À la folie... pas du tout (He Loves Me...He Loves Me Not) Laetitia Colombani, 2002
Audrey Tautou returns in this seemingly innocuous, charming romantic comedy with some dark overtones. She's a young woman in love with a handsome, married doctor. He's going to leave his wife for her...and then there's a delicious twist in the middle of the film that proves that not everything is as it seems. It's a film that you will want to watch again from a different perspective.
Les Choristes (The Chorus) Christophe Barratier, 2004
In 1948, a music professor begins teaching at a repressive boarding school for orphan or difficult boys. He believes that forming a choir will provide a creative outlet for the children, and indeed, his and the boys' lives are transformed by the power of music. The Chorus is a sweet, quietly moving film told in the gentle style of a fable, and it features a stunning boys' choir for its soundtrack.
Read more about The 400 Blows
- The 400 Blows: Antoine Doinel's Place in the French New Wave
In 1959, Franois Truffauts The 400 Blows won him the award for best director at the Cannes Film Festival. The 400 Blows remains a prime example of the stylistic innovations of the French New Wave....
Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal) Ingmar Bergman, 1957
The Book of Revelation states, "And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour." Bergman took that verse to heart when he followed the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) through a plague-ridden Sweden. The film opens with Antonius Block, disillusioned from his tour of the Crusades, confronted with Death (in physical form, Bengt Ekerot). What better way to stall for time than to challenge Death to a game of chess? As Block wanders through his ravaged homeland, Death reappears periodically to continue the game. The setting is bleak, but there are rays of sunshine, such as a pleasant picnic scene with a young actor and his wife and child. The knight and the loving family share a meal of milk and strawberries like it is Holy Communion, and they are at least briefly protected from the ever-looming threat of sickness and death.
Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries) Ingmar Bergman, 1960
Wild Strawberries begins with a darkly atmospheric nightmare: an old man wanders through deserted streets, disoriented and frightened. I was transfixed the first time I saw this scene. Isak Bord is an elderly physician who must drive from Stockholm to Lund to receive an honorary degree. His daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), having marital problems with Isak's son, rides along. In a series of dreams, as in Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Borg revisits his younger days and realizes that he has become a bitter, cold, and unfeeling man. In contrast to the emotional aloofness of Isak, his ancient mother, and his son, are the people he meets on the road, including a bubbly young hitchhiker who reminds Isak of his first sweetheart (both are played by Bibi Andersson). Isak Borg's journey lets him reevaluate his life and spurs him to reconnect with his family.
Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) Tomas Alfredson, 2008
Based on the best-selling Swedish novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, this film is about a bullied schoolboy Oscar who befriends the new girl next door, Eli, who turns out to be an age-old vampire. Besides being a vampire tale, Let the Right One In reveals the darker aspects of humanity: drugs, prostitution, child abuse, and crime. Expect a wide release in American theatres this year. Given people's rabid fascination with vampire stories these days, it has already generated a lot of buzz.
A chilling nightmare
El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth) Guillermo del Toro, 2006
Considered a dark fairy tale for adults, Pan's Labyrinth had critical and commercial success around the world. Set in fascist Spain in 1944, it focuses on Ofelia, a young girl who has just met her new stepfather, a ruthless and cruel captain of the Spanish army. Her only refuge from the increasingly menacing reality is a fantasy world of fauns, giant toads, and baby-eating monsters (yes, the fantasy world seems just as fraught with peril as the real world). According to the faun, Ofelia has three tasks she must complete before she can be reunited with her real father and take her place as princess. Pan's Labyrinth is rich with imagery and symbolism, and it prompts debates over how much of Ofelia's world is imagined and how much is true.
El Orfanato (The Orphanage) Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007
Promoted as coming from the same creators of Pan's Labyrinth, The Orphanage is a suspenseful story of a family whose peace is threatened by the young son's imaginary friend. Laura grew up in an orphanage on the seaside. Years later, she and her husband buy the house to set up their own home for disabled children. When their adopted son Simon's friendship with the invisible "Tomas" prompts some strange behavior, Laura starts to worry that the orphanage holds more secrets than she ever knew. What sets this film apart from your standard psychological thriller is the true emotion and depth of the characters. The Orphanage holds some good scares, but it is ultimately a testament to a mother's undying love for her son.
Do you prefer subtitles or dubs? Weigh in on the subject.
- To Sub or to Dub: The Challenge of "Translating" Films for Foreign Audiences
In January 2007, I went with a group of friends to see Guillermo del Toros Pans Labyrinth, a dark fantasy set in Spain during the Franco regime. The film had generated a lot of buzz since its premiere...