My stance on foreign cinema

Posted by · 12:01 pm · July 4th, 2009

Beauty and the BeastOn Independence Day, no less…

There seems to a huge misconception on the site that I dislike foreign language films and know little about them. While it is no secret I love American cinema and praise it frequently, I do indeed believe great films are made around the globe, and try to see every one I can at the festivals I attend and the screenings I attend on a weekly basis. My love for foreign language cinema, admittedly, is not as deep as the one I have for American cinema (and remember, I am Canadian), but when I see a great one (which is often) I do indeed champion it.

Foreign language films can be extraordinary experiences, though the acting styles differ, the cultures are often radically different, yet the storytelling techniques, for the most part, are the same, which is what makes cinema a universal language.

If I recall, the first foreign language film I saw was “Beauty and the Beast,” which was a stunning work of art from French director Jean Cocteau that I saw as a child on a French TV station here in Canada. It was wildly imaginative, fantastical and stunning, a black and white beauty. I watched as many films on that station as I could, including “Breathless,” which I knew as a teenager was bold and brilliant, and “Jules and Jim” from Truffaut.

There was an art cinema in Toronto, about an hour from where I lived, that I attended on weekends once I could drive, and there I was introduced to the works of Bergman, early Polanski, Kurosawa, Fellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, Ray, Bertolucci, and the brilliant Wertmuller, whose work I adored. In this theatre I watched the early documentaries of Reifenstahl, the work of Renoir, and of course the Neo-Realistic Italian cinema of the 1940s that so influenced Elia Kazan.

I watched with wonder as a doctor tried to bring the basics of society to a boy in “The Wild Child,” was stunned at “Seven Beauties” and “Swept Away,” including the astounding performances of Giancarlo Gianninni.  Bertolucci’s superb “The Conformist,” his masterpiece “Last Tango in Paris” and “1900,” the bizarre visuals of Fellini, including his failure, “Casanova,” the breathtaking work of Werner Herzog.  I struggled sometimes with Bergman, but admired “Cries and Whispers,” “Face to Face,” “Scenes from a Marriage,” “Autumn Sonata” and “Fanny and Alexander.”  The staggering beauty of “Ran” and “Kagemusha.”  And “Das Boot,” to name a few.

Video, and later DVD of course, opened the floodgates for foreign language cinema and like most film nuts, I am obsessed with it. From “Au Revoir les Enfants” through to Walter Salles and “Central Station” and the mesmerizing “The Motorcycle Diaries,” I have watched these films and learned so much about the cultures and dreams of the people in these countries. If there is one thing in particular foreign language cinema offers it is an unflinching eye at the world around them.

The single greatest film about the First World War is the French work “A Very Long Engagement,” while the best film about Hitler remains the German work “Downfall.”  One of the greatest fantasy films ever made is the extraordinary “Pan’s Labyrinth” while the work of Lars Von Triers is both erratic and challenging, always interesting.

Finally, are Canadian films “foreign?”  Our country has won a single Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Denys Arcand’s superb “The Barbarian Invasions,” which was in French. Being largely an English-speaking country, the only Canadian films eligible for the award are those spoken in a language other than English. So “The Decline of the American Empire” and “Jesus Of Montreal,” both French, were nominated, while “Water” in Hindi was also nominated. Yet a lot of outstanding Canadian work cannot be considered a foreign film. Odd isn’t it?

If the Academy came to its collective senses and allowed the category to be called “Best Foreign Film,” we Canadians would have seen work such as “Away from Her” or “The Sweet Hereafter” nominated, but sadly that is not about to happen.

So again, while I may prefer American cinema, let me make it crystal clear that as a critic and an educator, it has been my duty to both study and understand and screen foreign language films, which I do with the greatest of pleasure. If there is a single reader who really believes I do not celebrate or love all films, you really have never read my work, nor do you understand me at all.

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25 responses so far

  • 1 7-04-2009 at 12:18 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    “If the Academy came to its collective senses and allowed the category to be called “Best Foreign Film,” we Canadians would have seen work such as “Away from Her” or “The Sweet Hereafter nominated.”

    I’m sorry, but no. Such a move would simply heighten the Academy’s English-language bias. On principle, I hate the existence of the category in the first place, but it’s sadly the only area where subtitle-phobic audiences can’t have their way. The nationality of a film like “Away from Her” — not to mention any number of British films which would, by your criteria, be eligible for a “Best Foreign Film” award — isn’t nearly as big a handicap to their Oscar chances as a foreign language.

    Glad to see you rectifying up a widely (and perhaps unfairly) perceived blind spot, though.

  • 2 7-04-2009 at 12:37 pm

    Brando said...

    “My love for foreign language cinema, admittedly, is not as deep as the one I have for American cinema (and remember, I am Canadian), but when I see a great one (which is often) I do indeed champion it.” Wich is often? Why?
    Nowadays it’s for me more difficult to find a good american movie than a foreign. Much more.

  • 3 7-04-2009 at 12:41 pm

    red_wine said...

    I personally love European cinema. I believe that the best of American cinema are narrative features, they tell stories which are driven by incidents and characters. The best of European cinema is what I call the cinema of ideas. While I’m speaking very broadly, but I could say that American giants like Hitchcock and Ford were master story-tellers, but the movies of Antonioni and Godard make me think, they sometimes even make me feel terrible with their cynical outlook towards humanity but it is exhilarating, dazzling and insightful.

    But glad to hear you don’t hate foreign movies. I hope more people saw them though.

  • 4 7-04-2009 at 1:53 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    My favorite films are stories of life — like fantasy when it is well done, but give me something like “Away from Her” or “There Will Be Blood” or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or “Seven Beauties” or “Breathless” anyday…so many of the great American directoirs have been impacted by films from Europe, so much of North American cinema has been influenced by European cinema.

  • 5 7-04-2009 at 1:57 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    I don not necessarily disagree with you Guy, but I beleive it is shameful that a foreign country like Canada has so many fine films passed over for a foreign nod because the criteria is for a foreign language — agree that those with sub-titles have a disadvantage and need that category but it certainly would help Canadian work to be allowed into that category — our industry struggles within our own country as it is, a nomination would help get bums in the seats which in Canada believe me is the biggest struggle, getting Canadians to see home grown cinema — it is shameful when you think about it — that said they do not have that issue in Quebec, our French speaking province…only English speaking Canada…

  • 6 7-04-2009 at 2:02 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Personally I’d like to see more foreign films and there’s quite an amount here in cinemas. I personally adore German cinema of late. Downfall, and Lives of Others are superbly brilliant films. Particularly the first one.

    Dutch cinema hasn’t been that remarkable of late but I hope War in Winter will be submitted for the Foreign Language Oscar because it is a brilliant and heartfelt WW II film.

    In the end American cinema is still dominating the world and are the most accessible films and also the most entertaining. Always have been, however I would like to discover more neo-realistic films because Bicycle Thief had a huge impact on me last year in film school.

  • 7 7-04-2009 at 2:31 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “Breathless” is hooey! Bold, yes, brilliant… well, influentially.

  • 8 7-04-2009 at 2:44 pm

    Silencio said...

    Thank you for mentioning “Cries and Whispers” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Marvelous films.

  • 9 7-04-2009 at 3:01 pm

    James D. said...

    I find that I enjoy a much higher percentage of the foreign films I see than the American ones, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that only the best foreign films make it to the States.

    I do feel you miss out with subtitles. Even those glances in reading take away from the experience of watching the actors, as well as the best possible appreciation of their line delivery.

  • 10 7-04-2009 at 3:17 pm

    Isaac Richter said...

    Not if you’re used to it. I grew up in Mexico, and saw a lot of American films with Spanish subtitles, and I would usually read them while watching the movie, even though I’m fluent in English, which makes it easier for me when it comes to foreign cinema to read the subtitles while watching the movie (sometimes I even need the subtitles, because actors sometimes speak so quietly, or there is so much noise around, that you need the subtitles as backup). You get used to reading while watching performances, it’s just a matter of practice.

    As for foreign cinema, I’ve been catching up on it myself as of late, and have found some gems. I just saw Nights of Cabiria, and loved it (the only Fellini film I’ve loved so far, I’m not a fan of 8 1/2 or La Dolce Vita) and saw Truffaut’s little known film Small Change, and also loved it. I became obsessed with Bergman for a while, and my favorite of his is Fanny & Alexander (followed by Persona) and I also love Pedro Almodovar (of course, I speak the language). Other foreign films I’ve loved of late are Pan’s Labyrinth, The Lives of Others, Volver, Let the Right One In, The Class, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Orphanage.

  • 11 7-04-2009 at 10:00 pm

    Glenn said...

    I always find reactions to “foreign cinema” so strange. Just because it has subtitles, doesn’t mean it is better. I love foreign cinema too, but it’s depressing to see so many dodgy foreign movies get distribution and make money when they’re nothing more than trifle.

    And there are indeed so many films that aren’t from America (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc) that are in English, but get short shrift because they don’t have subtitles. Australia, in 2009, is producing some the finest films in its history and yet barely anyone is mentioning them in the same light as others. “Samson and Delilah”, “Three Blind Mice”, “Balibo”, “Lucky Country”, “Mary and Max”, “Disgrace” and several others are all world class exceptional films, but if they screen at festivals you’d be more likely to see people going to a movie with subtitles. More exotic or something and a theatrical release is bordering on nonexistant. Sad.

  • 12 7-04-2009 at 10:29 pm

    Matthew said...

    I’m a Canadian, and I personally am horrified at our English-speaking film industry. Once in a blue moon, we’ll get an excellent English speaking film – “Away From Her” is an example, certainly – but the rest of the time we get utter nonsense such as “Young People Fucking,” “Passchendaele,” and “My Life Without Me.” The latter film, I’ve heard people like, but it’s terrible in my opinion. I enjoyed “One Week” (a somewhat beautiful love letter to Canada, or more specifically the TransCanada Highway

    Certainly, there’s talent out there. Denys Arcand, Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, and Sarah Polley spring to mind. But there’s so much dreck that finding a genuinely good English-speaking Canadian film is a bit like finding a needle in a stupid poorly acted/written haystack. Which to me is sad. I’m very much a proud Canadian and think there are some interesting stories to tell here. Who knows, maybe it’s just the crap distribution in Canada for English-speaking films. The only time I get any of it is when I go to the Edmonton Film Festival. Or maybe I’ve just had an ill, blinding feeling ever since seeing the awful awful awful Paul Gross abomination that is “Passchendaele”. (I was so sad that it was so terrible. I love Gross in the phenomenal Canadian “Slings and Arrows”.)

  • 13 7-05-2009 at 12:48 am

    Kevin said...

    So many interesting reactions here. I think of myself as a foreign (more specifically European but I’ll give anything a go!) film devotee, I would estimate around 75% of the films I see are not in English. Just this year, I’ve caught up with:

    C.R.A.Z.Y., The Method, Killing Cabos, The Edge of Heaven, A Bittersweet Life, Joyeux Noel, The Edukators, etc. (all excellent in their own way)

    I’ll second Glenn’s comments – as a fellow Aussie, it’s a shame critically acclaimed Australian films (such as Samson and Delilah) barely register a blip on the foreign film radar. As a predominantly English-speaking country, we haven’t had many foreign film submissions save those in our indigenous language (Ten Canoes most recently I believe) but hopefully Samson will get pushed this year for a nomination.

  • 14 7-05-2009 at 12:52 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Is “Samson and Delilah” sufficiently foreign-language to qualify for the Oscar? I’ve been wondering for a while. Can Kevin or Glenn enlighten me?

  • 15 7-05-2009 at 5:33 am

    Glenn said...

    Australia has only ever submitted three films for the best foreign language category. “La Spagnola” was our first in 2001, then “Ten Canoes” in 2006 and “Home Song Stories” in 2007. “Canoes”, shamefully, neglected.

    “Samson and Delilah” has a lot of indigenous dialogue in the first act, but the rest of the movie plays a lot of like a silent movie with almost dialogue at all, but what dialogue there is is in English. I’d say it is about 50/50, but I couldn’t say for sure. Will try and get some info out of the production team, ask them if they plan on submitting it.

  • 16 7-05-2009 at 9:55 am

    Eunice said...

    I’ve only recently started moving away from Hollywood and watching my own share of foreign cinema. I’m starting with Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” since I couldn’t find “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and I’ll probably pick random titles after that. But foreign cinema is a treat to me for some reason. A little superficial, but watching foreign, subtitle-laden movies makes me feel a little more of a movie buff than just dabbling in American cinema.

  • 17 7-06-2009 at 2:08 am

    Kevin said...

    My mistake, I forgot about Home Song Stories in 2007 (thanks Glenn).

    Eunice, I just watched Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, it’s a guilty melodramatic pleasure (if a little hard to believe at times) but maybe I just don’t get Almodovar. Come to think of it, it’s the only Almodovar film I’ve watched.

  • 18 7-06-2009 at 4:08 am

    AdamL said...

    “If the Academy came to its collective senses and allowed the category to be called “Best Foreign Film,” we Canadians would have seen work such as “Away from Her” or “The Sweet Hereafter” nominated, but sadly that is not about to happen.”

    Er, no you wouldn’t. Away from Her deserved its screenplay and acting nom (plus another for Gordon Pinsent would have been merited) but there’s no way the film deserved a slot in a ‘foreign film’ top 5. Get real.

    And why would they change it from foreign language film to foreign film anyway? The whole idea is that they figure non American films made in the English language like Slumdog and Atonement get enough audience anyway, whilst foreign language film needs the attention a nomination or win can provide. Making it foreign film would just make it even harder for foreign language films to get an audience.

    You have some really strange ideas.

  • 19 7-06-2009 at 10:19 am

    John H. Foote said...

    So you are OK with Quebec cinema being nominated while English language Canadian films are not? And I think you are selling Ms. Polley’s film quite short; the film was universally beloved, so much so that while accepting his Best Actor Award for the NYFCC Daniel Day-Lewis mentioned Pinsent’s performance as one of the best he had seen that year — “Away from Her” deserved a Best Picture nomination, te hell with foreign film film, it was easily among the five best films I saw in 07. I notice you do not mention “The Sweet Hereafter” which finished second in balloting for best film and best director from both the LA and NY Film Critics Awards — so its’s director gets a nod as does his script, but not the film…come on…should have been there.

  • 20 7-06-2009 at 10:22 am

    John H. Foote said...

    And Adam, as for my “strange ideas”…the Hollywood Foreign Press calls their category “Foreign Film” (exactly what I propose) and gave it in 07 to “Letters from Iwo Jima”…works for me. Seems foreigbn language films have no trouble getting nominated in that category…I think you (and others) are selling short the nominating committees.

  • 21 7-06-2009 at 10:41 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Sorry to correct you, John, but the Golden Globes do actually now specify Best Foreign Language Film — English-language films aren’t eligible. (However, American films that aren’t in English, such as “Letters” or “Apocalypto,” are.)

    For a period ending in the late 80s, the award was called “Best Foreign Film,” open to any non-American film, regardless of language — in other words, exactly what you’re suggesting. Unfortunately, the system meant that high-profile English-language films like “Gandhi” and “Chariots of Fire” could triumph in the category, which I’m sure you’d agree is hardly fair. That’s the kind of thing I fear might happen if the Oscar were similarly adjusted.

    I understand your concerns about English-language Canadian cinema, but if such a system were adopted, major British films like “The Queen” or “Atonement” would also be eligible for a “Best Foreign Film” Oscar. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t possibly square with that.

    And at least “Away from Her” and “The Sweet Hereafter” got recognition in some major Oscar categories — it’s a lot more than any number of equally deserving foreign-language films get.

    Sorry for the lengthy response, but I just wanted to clarify my earlier argument.

  • 22 7-06-2009 at 1:09 pm

    AdamL said...

    Can you imagine a system that gives juggernauts like The English Patient or Shakespeare in Love extra awards just because it isn’t an American film (let’s ignore the fact that they might not qualify due to co-financing)? You wouldn’t possibly want those films to triumph in your proposed Foreign Film category at the expense of films like Kolya, The Barbarian Invasions (do you see what I did there?) or Tsotsi would you?

  • 23 7-07-2009 at 5:13 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Right you are Guy — my mistake —

  • 24 7-07-2009 at 9:23 am

    Eunice said...

    @Kevin: Thanks for the feedback. I’m still hunting for a copy, which is like looking for a needle in a haystack from where I’m from, since they only ever sell mainstream and selected indie movies here, and the video stores are dominated by American cinema.

    I think that the current categories in place in the Oscars are sufficient, what the Academy probably has to refine is their taste. Maybe they should nominate 10 films for the foreign language film instead, 5 for a foreign-language film and 5 for an English-language foreign film, and call it ‘best foreign film’ but give 2 awards: 1 for a foreign-language film and 1 for an English-language film that’s not from the US. the nominees for the English then they could scrap the 10 nominee-Best Picture rule and just choose the best 5, like they used to.

  • 25 7-07-2009 at 9:25 am

    Eunice said...

    But that probably wouldn’t solve the Academy’s time constraint problem.