I used to watch a lot of foreign movies, back when I was in college and studying the whole art and history of film. In more recent years, I don’t get to the cinema as much as I used to, or even watch things at home as much as the old days. As a result, I’ve hardly seen any foreign films in recent years, at least if by foreign you really mean “foreign language,” ie not English.
(Incidentally, this is #7 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
So for this I’m really drawing on a lot of memory here, and a very limited range of material to draw from. But there are some good movies to talk about…
サマー タイム マシン ブルース (2005) – Directed by Katsuyuki Motohiro
English Title: Summer Time Machine Blues
Let’s start with the obvious. Summer Time Machine Blues is one of my favorite movies, ever, foreign language or not. It’s full of slapstick humor, but is intelligent and well-spoken, and treats the concept of time travel in the most thoughtful and satisfying way that I have ever seen. I’ve written about it before, including just a few days ago, so if you want more information you can check out previous columns here and here and here and here. I’m a bit of an evangelist about this movie and I think everyone should watch it, even though I acknowledge is certainly less “great” than many of the others I’ve listed, and many of the ones I’ve decided to overlook.
Roma città aperta (1945) – Directed by Roberto Rossellini
English Title: Rome, Open City
I know, there is something inherently absurd with going from my favorite Japanese slapstick time travel comedy to this film, the pioneer of Italian Neo-Realism, but that’s just the way we roll around here. Rome, Open City was my first exposure to a foreign film or indeed any film in an academic setting as I studied “Italian Cinema” in my first year of college, and it made an impression. The story is about a variety of characters who are impacted by the then recent struggle against Nazi occupation in late-war Italy, particularly the priest Don Pietro who is arrested and eventually executed for assisting the resistance. At the same time, the film works on the larger level of talking about Italian society as a whole, and the ways that various segments of the population responded to the situation. The film is poignant in its story and revealing in its style and construction about the cultural context in which it was made. It’s got a number of powerfully memorable moments, particularly when the pregnant mother Pina is shot dead as she races after the truck that is taking her fiance away, and the ending when the children return to the city after witnessing the priest’s execution.
La Gloire de mon père / Le château de ma mère (1990) – Directed by Yves Robert
English Title: My Father’s Glory / My Mother’s Castle
So, actually this is two movies, both released in 1990 and both directed by Yves Robert. One is the sequel to the other, and they both tell the story of Marcel, a young French boy prior to World War I and the time he spent on holidays in the hills outside of Marseilles. I don’t remember the stories of films terribly well, but I do recall the emotional experience of watching them: a sense of delight at the humor and contradictions inherent in a child’s perspective of adult life. The first film especially had that sense of joie de vivre associated with it, as Marcel watches his city-bred father prove himself in matters of hunting to his condescending uncle. The sequel tempers uplifting tone with a coda that reveals the sad fates of many of the characters in the future, but really such a balance is only fitting in any truly authentic tale of childhood.
ダンス? (1996) – Directed by Masayuki Suo
English Title: Shall We Dance?
I can’t remember when or how I watched Shall We Dance? but I found it one of the most uplifting and encouraging film viewing experiences I’ve ever had, which is funny for a film that is basically about a man who is pondering committing adultery as a way out of his emotional doldrums. The story is about Sugiyama, a successful accountant, whose life is full of tiresome repetition. When he one day on his commute home he spots a beautiful woman but melancholy woman looking out a window, he makes an abrupt change and resolves to find out who she is. It turns out she is an accomplished ballroom dancer, so looking for an opportunity to get to know her, he joins dance classes. This is a bigger step than it sound, though, since it seems that many in Japan consider western-style ballroom dancing to be shameful because it runs so against common cultural norms. Sugiyama’s infatuation with the woman turns into genuine friendship, and the story becomes one about a man who discovers a form of self-expression that brings greater fulfillment than he’d been able to find before. If the film hadn’t included the element of him eventually being able to share this part of himself with his wife and daughter, I probably wouldn’t like it as much as I do.
The movie was remade by American film makers, featuring Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon. I’ve only seen part of it and it seemed okay, but it’s hard to imagine how the entire movie works without the Japanese cultural elements.
Ordet (1955) – Directed by Carl Dreyer
English Title: The Word
I have to say that I don’t remember the details of this film terribly well, but it definitely left its mark when I saw it in my Film History class back in college. It’s a slow moving piece about a Danish family who come into conflict with their neighbors over conflicts regarding religion: both are Christians, but their expressions and emphases differ. This is just one way that film explores different approaches to faith and the plausibility of the miraculous. Notably, the middle son in the family has gone mad during his theological studies and believes he is literally Jesus Christ. It all comes to a head when tragedy strikes the family, and the mad son announces that faith will create a miracle.
Aside from its spiritual themes, which my 19 year old self found both intriguing and troubling, the film stands out to me for the lessons it taught me in minimalist storytelling. There are just enough details and elements–set design, sound design, dialogue, camera movement–to convince me of the reality of the world that it is presenting, and not an iota more.
Considered but Not Selected: Some of the films I didn’t select are amazing, so I don’t want to say they were “rejected”. They just didn’t come to mind in the same way as the ones listed. Out of them all, Bicycle Thieves, Au Hasard Balthasar, and The Grand Illusion came the closest. So would have Severn Samurai if I’d thought of it. Further back were the likes of L’Aventura, Fists in Pockets, Rocco & his Brothers, Pickpocket, My Life as a Dog, German: Year Zero, Paisan, Cinema Paradiso, Orange, The Rules of the Game… to name a few.
Full Disclosure: Well, the amount of non-English films I haven’t seen is of course staggering, but the most obvious omission in my viewing experience that I can think of is pretty much anything by Kurosawa aside from Seven Samurai.