It happens to all of us – you’re talking to someone about movies, when someone drops the f bomb: Foreign Films. You run through your mental check list of foreign films you’ve seen but come up dry. The person you’re talking to suddenly seems to think they are so much more cultured because they saw a movie in a small “indie” theater with the dialogue spoken in another language. You feel helpless at their cultural superiority and start to shame yourself for seeing that Will Ferrell comedy last weekend. Well, have no fear.
Here are a few films to get you started on your journey to fighting the hipsters. And you know nothing is more hipster than fighting hipsters.
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and starring an utterly adorable Audrey Tautou, “Amelie” tells the story of a woman who seeks to make others lives happy while finding romance on her own. The film is equal parts charming, whimsical, romantic, and a touch of the erotic. Scenes frequently cut to Amelie’s view of things which may involve talking animal lamps or other whimsical visions. But the charm of the story and the film’s accessibility make it an easy step into foreign language film territory.
An animated black and white film based on the comic book of the same name, "Persepolis" is the true life story of Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian immigrant to France who deals with the rise and fall of governments, maturation into adulthood, and understanding her identity as a Persian woman. The film is about coming of age in a world that restricts much. Yet Marjane’s story is uplifting and beautiful as she describes and experiences her family history and history in general. Though the film is animated, it is certainly not cartoony. “Persepolis” is a beautiful story with amazing characters.
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Vittorio DeSica’s masterpiece about a Father and a son in postwar Italy is as moving as it is bleak. The story starts with Antonio selling his bed sheets to earn enough money to buy a bicycle to get work, which helps him land a job as a sign poster in Rome. But shortly into day 1 on the job, the title of the film comes to life and Antonio spends his time searching for his stolen bike with his son. The film is brilliant in terms of its honesty and is strangely heartwarming in spite of its sadness. This is particularly evident when the film focuses on the relationship between Father and son, such as a particularly memorable meal they have together and is especially communicated through the eyes of Antonio, played wonderfully by then amateur Lamberto Maggiorani. Of note - all actors in the film were cast as amateurs to help convey the realism of the film's story.
La Strada (1954)
Master filmmaker Federico Fellini has 2 sides as a filmmaker: Neo-Realist and Haunting Surrealist. “La Strada” is in the former category. It tells the story of Gelsomina (played by Fellini’s wife and frequent on screen actress Giulietta Masina), a hired clown for a traveling circus man named Zampano (Anthony Quinn). Zampano is famous for his chain-breaking trick to the audience, but Gelsomina knows him as a hardened, abusive man. The story is equal parts heart breaking as it is mesmerizing thanks in most part to Masina’s Chaplin-eque performance and Fellini’s touches on the story. Woody Allen would later reference the final moments of “La Strada” in his great film “Sweet and Lowdown” and filmmakers the world over frequently reference this as on of their favorite Fellini films. One important note: Don’t adjust your audio. Fellini had a slightly annoying habit of shooting scenes but then recording dialogue later and editing it back into the audio for the film, which isn’t always seamless (Anthony Quinn speaks in English though his lines are heard in Italian).
If you like this film, I strongly suggest "Nights of Cabiria" (also starring Masina). If you want to see Fellini’s surreal side, most consider “8½” to be Fellini’s greatest achievement and is regularly on critic and filmmakers lists as a top 10 of all time. If you want to watch surrealist madness that borders on the nonsensical, “Juliet of the Spirits” would scratch that itch.
Le Samourai (1967)
Alain Delon stars as the stealthy, quiet hitman in this noir/gangster classic. Directed by Jean-Pierre Meliville (who was noted as being obsessed with American films), the film is slow, almost meditative in its pace. The effect made is that when the action happens, it feels intense and climactic as opposed to an assault on the senses. Dialogue happens infrequently and everyone appears to live by an unspoken underworld code. Stylish and slow but ultimately satisfying, “Le Samourai” is one of Melville’s highest esteemed out of a considerable canon. John Woo would call this one of his favorite films of all time. And if you like this film by Melville, I strongly suggest you see “Army of Shadows” which is about the French resistance in World War 2.
That’s all for now! I’ll be back with more films from around the world. Obviously, this post is a mere taste to expand your film library and enjoyment of how other cultures influence and utilize cinema. What are some foreign films you'd suggest?