Mention the words, foreign film, to the average person and they turn up their nose. Sitting thorough one was like having thumb screws applied.
Times are changing, but it still has to be a popular film for many to get past the foreign part of the description. First, with home video formats and then with streaming services, foreign films are more available to the average American household. Mainstream American films have a wider lens now, and many productions are funded with foreign dollars for non-American markets.
Why are foreign language films generally a turn-off? Subject matter and subtitles. Not all foreign produced films are foreign language films, but we tend to focus on those made in a language other than English.
I grew up in a university town where foreign films were available through the student union. There were foreign films showing every week of the year. This was way before the internet and home video, so one had to look to find non-American films.
I was always intrigued by how bold some foreign directors were in using existential ideas, non-linear story construction and inventive imagery to tell their stories. Talented filmmakers could take a traditional genre like the Western or castles and sword-fighting, or crime thriller type films and infuse it with surrealism and deeply psychological themes that completely change the experience. The films of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini commonly ask the the viewer to put aside their sense of reality and engage in part fantasy, part existential journey to confront some internal psychological dilemma.
One of the interesting qualities of some foreign films is how filmmakers violate traditional American film structure and storytelling. More daring films might use story construction that mixes the real and the surreal, time-shifting as the story can jumps forward and back, photography that emphasizes a mood or a psychological element that draws your attention to a tonality of the story, or subject matter that is daring for audiences. I loved leaving the theater with a sense of awe. What had I just seen?
Here are some of the foreign language films I saw in college. It was part of my education of life. Most of these are on many top 50 foreign language film lists.
8 1/2 (1963), maybe Fellini’s best film, he was certainly at the top of his game. With Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale. The film tells the story of a film director who had a creative blockage and the pressures to produce something to exceed expectations. Fellini was trippy with films that present one thing, but may be about something quite different.
Wild Strawberries (1957) is one of Ingmar Bergman’s best films. An old professor travels to accept an award but on the journey he re-experiences parts of his past and we discovers new meaning in them. The first Bergman film I saw and a glimpse inside of his unique brand of storytelling.
Belle de Jour (1967), directed by y Luis Buñuel, and starring Catherine Deneuve as a doctor’s wife who becomes a high-priced prostitute. She enjoys the glamour and excitement, but gets involved with a crime figure as one of her regular customers. She decides to leave the brothel but her customer follows her home and shoots her husband, leaving his paralyzed. She became a prostitute because she couldn’t related to him, now, she would be happy for those old days. Deneuve is radiant.
Bicycle Thieves (1948), directed by Vittorio de Sica, in post WWII Italy, a father searches for his stolen bicycle, on which his family’s economic life is based. The man, at wit’s end, resorts to taking a bike and is caught.
Breathless (1960), directed by Jean-Luc Godard, and starring Jean-Paul Belmando and Jean Seberg. One of the best of the French New Wave films, stylish in its glamorizing mix of crime and love. I found this film to be an early influence of Bonnie and Clyde, that would come later.
Closely Watched Trains (1966), a Czechoslovakian film about a young railway guard, during WWII, who’s problems loving a young female conductor intersect with a plot to destroy a German munitions train. The young man’s patriotism conflicts with the pride in his job, and it costs him his life.
The Grand Illusion (1937), directed by Jean Renoir, a film set in World War I, about French officers captured by the Germans, plotting an escape. Their plot is complicated by the class warfare between the officers. Classism was a huge issue in Europe and even impacted soldiers on the same side from working together for a mutual benefit.
La Dolce Vita (1960), Fellini’s classic tale of a writer on his journey to discover meaning while experiencing the pleasures of Rome. Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg and Anouk Aimée star. This is the film with Ekberg in the fountain, need I say more?
The 400 Blows (1959), the first film by writer/director François Truffaut, and part of the French New Wave of cinema. It starred Jean-Pierre Léaud as a young boy trying to find himself. Léaud would play this role four more times in his career chronicling his character’s life.
Z (1969), directed by Costa-Gavras, is a film based on events in Greece during the 1960s during the military dictatorship at the time. The story is of the assassination of a Greek official, that is covered up by the government until the autopsy reveals otherwise. One of just a few films to be nominated for both the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film.
Rashomon (1950), directed by Akira Kurosawa, and starring Toshiro Mifune, it is a story of a rape and murder witnessed by four people who all tell a very different story. This concept of subjective realism has been copied in television and film ever since. How can each person have seen something so differently? A highly decorated film around the world.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), directed by Luis Buñuel, the film is set in France and involves an affluent group of people attempting to dine together, but the story moves around and their plans are interrupted. Dream sequences and other plot devices continue to interfere with their plans. The film was a huge hit and won many awards around the world including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
Rome, Open City (1945), directed by Roberto Rossellini, the story, told in a style of realism, is about the Germans trying to apprehend an Italian resistance fighter. The film is about their efforts to arrest him. Rossellini used Ana Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi in starring roles, but non-actors elsewhere for the realism, including the devastation to the city under Nazi occupation. The film began as a true documentary during the last stages of the war.
The Battle of Algiers (1966), the film concerns the Algerian War against the French. The film uses a documentary-style of photography, giving it a gritty, realistic feel. The film, made from the perspective of the guerrilla fighters, was not shown in France until 1971 because of its subject matter.
The Seventh Seal (1957), another film by Bergman, this time a knight returning home from the Crusades is challenged to a game of chess by Death. The knight and Death continue the game as he travels to his home, with the knight staying alive as the game continues. A terrific performance by Max von Sydow.
The Conformist (1970), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, and brilliantly photographed by Vittorio Storaro, this is an intense political thriller, and a struggle by the main character to deal with events in his life as told through various flashbacks. Lauded for its rich look and deep use of color and lighting, something Bertolucci would do in his films. Storaro would shoot many American films (Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor).
L’avventura (1960), directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, a young woman disappears on vacation and her boyfriend and her best friend search for her. At the time, the film was applauded for its cinematic appeal, the film’s composition and characters; but criticized for the weak story elements. Overall, the film was recognized for it’s emotional content and style, and less for it’s logic.
Day For Night (1973), directed by Francois Truffaut, this is a film about movie making, and the perception of nighttime when it is really day. A world of make-believe. There are multiple stories within the film, the major participants all having affairs or other issues. A delight, and a wonderful trip behind the camera.
The Seven Samurai (1954), directed by Akira Kurosawa, is a story about a group of farmers who hire seven samurai to protect them from bandits. Sound familiar? The film became the top grossing Japanese film of the time and influenced the American film The Magnificent Seven.
Metropolis (1927), directed by Fritz Lang, a German expressionistic film and a science fiction film, pushed the cinematic style of the time. The rich, literally tower over the peasant workers, class warfare erupts, with the workers rising up. The look of this film is phenomenal, the design and photographic effects. The subject matter, class struggle, the industrialism of the era, all heady stuff. The only silent film on my list.
A Special Day (1977), directed by Ettore Scola, starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, set in 1938, Hitler is coming to visit Mussolini and everyone turns out for the parade except these two. They live in opposite apartments and develop a friendship that lasts for a few hours until their lives change. He is a homosexual, about to be deported. She lives in a confining marriage and no escape.
I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967), a Swedish film with very frank scenes of nudity, the film was rated X and the subject of legal action for obscenity. It is a film within a film, and some very fragmented relationship. Tame by today’s standards, but even in the mid 1970s was pretty hot material.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1973), written and directed by Werner Herzog. Spanish conquistadors in the amazon, try an impossible task of pulling cannons and objects through the jungle and over mountains. Tragedy strikes when a search party of rafts are overcome by the roaring river. Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is a brutal leader.