Foreign language films, that is “non-English” to westerners, are generally ignored by American audiences. Many friends complain to me that “I don’t want to read subtitles”. It can be a little distracting to look away from the visual image, especially if it’s a well shot film. Unfortunately, the alternative is usually some pretty bad dubbing, by actors that sound like soap opera rejects.
However, there are so many great films not in English that I believe cinephiles are short-changing themselves if they ignore this largely untapped vault of cinema history. Not only have many of these films influenced many other filmmakers worldwide, but few American films have been able to make an equally artistic achievement, often diluting substance to be more appealing at the box office. Not receiving any assistance from governments or arts councils, western films are dependent on turning a profit. As a result, we end up with more formulaic films that executives estimate will please large audiences rather than unique artistic statements of a director’s personal vision. Foreign films seem less derivative and more unique on the whole, though made in much smaller numbers in the past, so the library of great films available on dvd may not be nearly as large. Here are my favorite 10 foreign language films.
10. Carmen (Carlos Suara, Spain, 1983)
Not the opera itself, but the flamenco dance version of Bizet’s classic opera. This, to me, is the best Spanish film I’ve seen, and my favorite dance film as well. Exciting throughout, it mirrors the story of Carmen in a dance troupe rehearsing to perform their flamenco version of Bizet’s opera. Choreography by star Antonio Gades, who worked with Suara on three dance films. In this, he’s looking for the perfect Carmen, and selects a young and inexperienced dancer, played by the gorgeous Laura del Sol, who begins to win his heart in spite of her lack of dancing skill. The scene featuring the rehearsal of a fight among rival factions in a tobacco factory, leading to a murder, is danced to pulsating perfection by about thirty female dancers, and is one of the most exciting dance sequences ever put on film.
9. Chungking Express/Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, 1994)
Intended as one long film with three parts, but cut into two due to its length, this is Wong Kar-Wai’s crime action classic, a dazzling and hypnotic display of cinematic innovation. Wong loves to use hand-held cameras filming in city crowds, often with movement such as from a city bus. The result is sometimes blurry and streaked, often impressionistic; street crimes filmed this way show the viewer just how hard being an accurate witness can be. The second half of Chungking features infectious pop singer Faye Wong (she’s been compared to Bjork) as a diner waitress in her first film role, and she is effervescent, magnetic, and unforgettable. Usually with Wong, the film is the story, not the screenplay, as visuals take precedence over plot. These films inspired Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction, which is stylistically tame by comparison.
8. Salaam Bombay! (Mira Nair, India, 1988)
This was Mira Nair’s first feature film after making five documentaries, and it was inspired by Bombay’s street kids, whose indomitable spirit led to this film. She cast only three professional actors in this, and selected 24 actual street kids from over 150 that she had in a special six-week workshop to develop a believable cast for this film. The story is about Krishna, a young boy who delivers tea to the brothels in that district of Bombay, his friends, and the romance he develops for a young Nepalese girl they simply call Sweet Sixteen, who is brought to the brothel against her will. Largely funded by the governments of England and India, Nair used the profits from this film to build three centers for orphaned street kids, which has now grown to 17 in all over 20 years. This is one of the few works of art that has caused social changes.
7. Kolya (Jan Sverak, Czech Republic, 1996)
Oscar-winning heart warmer about an aging cellist, played by the director’s father Zdenek,who also wrote the screenplay. Formerly a concert cellist for the symphony, under Communism he is relegated to playing only funerals now, with little income as a result. A lifetime bachelor, he nonetheless agrees to marry for money, to help a Russian woman emigrate. and ends up with a terrific stepson as an unexpected bonus. Director Sverak chose young Andrei Chalimon for the title role after over 100 unsuccessful auditions, flying to Moscow to select him in person after a friend’s suggestion.
6. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy, 1970)
This Italian classic is about the based on the Alberto Moravia novel about the dangers of conforming for selfish reasons, in this case with the Italian fascist government of Mussolini. Jean-Luis Trintingant’s best cinema role, as the everyman who just wants to succeed and be normal, but who ends up going to extremes at the behest of his government, feeling that if they ask a citizen to do something, then it must be morally acceptable. There are some famous shots here, such as using blowing leaves as a metaphor for death, often copied in later films. The cinematography by Vittorio Storraro is intimate and rich in dark colors, an effect he achieves by using only one color lab in Rome that he trusts. This film led to his being used by Coppola for the Godfather films, which this heavily influenced, and several Oscars for cinematography. Bertolucci later directed The Last Emperor, winner of nine Oscars, including picture and director.
5. City of God (Fernando Merielles with Katia Lund, Brazil, 2002)
Based on a true story of a photojournalist from the ghetto, this terrific crime drama has a documentary look and feel, and tells the all-too-true story of street gangs ruling with guns in Brazil’s worst slum, built for the homeless and given the ironic title. Not unnoticed, this received four Oscar nominations, including director and screenplay for Merielles, and the innovative cinematography of Cesar Charlone, which sometimes follows bullets to their destination. Visually quoted by Danny Boyle in Slumdog Millionaire, with a chicken running in front of kids down an alley which mimics the opening of City, whose film was obviously influenced by this one. Merielles hired photojournalist Katia Lund to assist in directing, as she had worked in this slum as a still photographer.
4. Jean de Florette/Manon de Sources (Claude Berri, France, 1986)
Released together but in two parts, and shown to audiences who could sit through both parts or return the next day for Manon. This French epic is that country’s most fully realized film, about small farmers in Provence and the importance of water and greed on all their lives. The first stars Gerard Depardieu, as an urbanite who inherits a small farm and decides to move his family there and attempt farming. Much of the success in that area is dependent on a reliable source of water, so this movie is about survival at its most basic. Manon continues the story with the next generation, with characters who were children in the first film. Yves Montand, at the end of his career, gives a wonderful performance as an elderly local landowner in his best film role.
3. Cinema Paradiso (Guiseppe Tornatore, Italy, 1988)
Oscar-winning heart-warming Italian romantic comedy about a kid growing up under the influence of a small town’s in Sicily’s cinema projectionist, who takes the child under his wing after his father fails to return from the war. We see how the movies shape his fantasies, influence his first romance, and give his life a purpose. Told largely in flashback as an adult just before returning to Sicily in the present day, as he grows up to be a movie director in Rome. Tornatore’s best works seem to beautobiographical in nature, and he shows us a Sicily unscathed by centuries of war, and of a simple people whose dreams are a large part of their daily lives.
2. The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)
Lengthy action epic about seven dishonored samurai helping a tiny village defend themselves against a gang of bandits. Even though this lengthy epic begins slowly, when the action comes we are shown not only valid military techniques for defeating a larger force, but Kurosawa films with a handheld camera in the middle of a rainstorm with thundering horses throwing mud, which seems to plunge the viewer into the middle of the battle. This b&w classic still looks modern, having influenced most action films since, and inspired the U.S. movies The Magnificent Seven and Battle Beyond the Stars.
1. Hero (Zhang Yimou, China, 2002)
Terrific action and a beautiful story, about three assassins and the King of Q’in. A local hero approaches the king with the weapons of three conspiring assassins that he’s killed to save the king. He then relates his story to the king, and you realize that this terrific screenplay has a few twists and turns. The action sequences are eye-popping, as Yimou employed a martial arts director for these. One of a swordsman in a library was used by Bose in a commercial for their cinema sound system. The top grossing film in Chinese history is the best yet for actor Jet Li and director Yimou, who directed the Olympic ceremonies in Beijing.
Lawrence José Sinclair