by Miranda Hazrati @mirandahazrati
Once the preserve of the art-house crowd, in recent years foreign films have begun to reach a much wider audience, reflecting the increasingly multi-cultural society we live in. As viewers discover the cinematic delights that lie beyond the subtitles, foreign language films have crossed over from niche to mainstream popularity with films like ‘Amélie’ taking on Hollywood blockbusters at the boxoffice.
1. Cinema Paradiso
Ironically this beautifully crafted film by young, unknown Italian director Guiseppe Tournatore was initially a flop in his home country. ‘Cinema Paradiso’ is a nostalgic tale about famous film-maker Salvatore di Vita who returns to his home village in Sicily and recalls how his friendship with a film projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) sparked his love of film. The film went on to win the Grand Prix at Cannes and Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1989, becoming one of the most celebrated foreign-language movies of all time, grossing $12 million in the US. The film captured the magic of old cinemas and the imagination of audiences worldwide who were drawn by the film’s simple charm, sentimentality and sheer beauty.
2. The Lives Of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
This brooding, Orwellesque spy thriller set in 1984 East Berlin won German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and BAFTA for his debut feature in 2007. ‘The Lives of Others’ centres on the lives of successful Berlin playwright Georg Dreyman and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland as they are spied upon by Stasi agent Gerd Wiesel (Ulrich Mühe). As he becomes increasingly involved in the lives of those he is surveilling, Wiesler tries in vain to protect them, until his interventions come to the attention of his superiors. Donnersmarck’s superbly chilling debut took him three years to complete and won him much critical acclaim, especially for the film’s authenticity and characterization. Filmed on a budget of under $2 million, ‘The Lives of Others’ grossed $77 million worldwide.
3. Life Is Beautiful (La vita è bella)
An award-winning Italian tragi-comedy directed by and starring Roberto Benigni, ‘Life Is Beautiful’ collected three Oscars in 1998 for Best Actor (Benigni), Best Foreign Film and Best Score. It was in fact only the second time a performance completely in Italian had been awarded Best Actor, the previous winner being Sophia Loren in 1960 for ‘Two Women’. The film centres on the story of a Jewish-Italian bookstore owner who uses his humour, wit and fertile imagination to help shield his son from the horrors of being in a concentration camp (Benigni’s own father was interned for three years in Bergen-Belsen). The film has grossed over $225 million internationally.
4. Women On A Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios)
Legendary Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar’s international breakthrough was with ‘Women On The Verge of A Nervous Breakdown’, a zany comedy released in 1988 starring Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas. Maura plays Pepa, a TV voice-over actress who sets off on a quest to discover why her lover Ivan has left her for no apparent reason, meeting a collection of eccentric characters along the way. Almodóvar has gone on to be one of the most successful European film directors ever with an impressive list of hit movies since including ‘All About My Mother’, ‘Bad Education’, ‘Talk to Her’ and ‘Volver’. Filmed on a low budget of just $700,000, the madcap movie broke all box-office records in Spain and went on to gross almost $17 million internationally, as well as collecting a BAFTA for best non-English language film and a raft of Spanish Goya awards. A stage version of the film recently enjoyed a successful run in London’s Playhouse Theatre starring Tamsin Grieg.
5. Girl With A Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor)
Based on the best-selling books by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, the first in the Millennium trilogy of films ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ was eagerly anticipated by fans of the book. Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s brutally violent 2009 thriller did not disappoint with its excellently-cast protagonist Noomi Rapace as the anti-heroine goth hacker Lisbeth Salander and Michael Nyqvist as intrepid journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Oplev won a BAFTA for the film and Rapace also scored many accolades and nominations for her breakout performance. Capitalising on the success of the books, but also thanks to Rapace’s mesmerizingly knock-out performance, the Swedish film grossed over $105 million worldwide. Though a Hollywood remake was later released starring Daniel Craig, the Swedish films are generally the preferred choice of Larsson fans.
A charming romantic French comedy directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (‘Delicatessen’), Amélie stars Audrey Tatou in the title role as a shy Parisian waitress who decides to improve the lives of those around her, whilst struggling with her own isolation and looking for romance. A Franco-German co-production, Amélie grossed $174 million internationally, and became the most successful foreign film ever released in the US. The outdoor scenes were all shot on location in Paris’ Montmartre district and the iconic soundtrack was by quirky, minimalist French composer Jann Tiersen. The film’s trademark bold colors in the film (green, yellow, red) were inspired by the paintings of Brazilian artist Juarez Machado. Café des Deux Moulins where Amélie works in the film really does exist on Montmartre’s Rue Lepic and has since become a bit of a tourist attraction! Jeunet originally wrote the script with Emily Watson in mind for the title role. When she later backed out of the film, Jeunet approached Tatou after being captivated by her face on a movie poster for ‘Venus Beauty’ – the rest is history!
7. Downfall (Der Untergang)
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, ‘Downfall’ depicts the final fateful ten days of Hitler’s reign over Nazi Germany in 1945 as the Red Army closes in. Set mostly in Hitler’s underground bunker beneath Berlin, the powerful 2004 drama tells the story through the eyes of Traudl Junge who was one of the Führer’s secretaries from 1942. Bruno Ganz’s compelling, chillingly authentic portrayal of Hitler (in particular his voice) was widely acclaimed, though some critics thought that the humanisation, and almost sympathetic view of the dictator was somewhat inappropriate. The success of the film also sparked a wave of ‘Downfall’ parodies on the internet with subtitles added to clips from the original film.
8. Bad Education (la mala educación)
Almodóvar’s ‘Bad Education’ was the first Spanish film to open Cannes Film Festival in 2004, widely well-received by critics and regarded by many as one of his finest works. The deeply noir melodrama centres on two childhood friends and lovers who were abused by a Catholic priest at a religious school in 1960’s Franco-led Spain. The pair are reunited when Ignacio (now a transexual named Zahara and played by the excellent Gael García Bernal) turns up at the offices of Enrique, now a famous film director, with a script for a film based on their abusive experiences at school. The line between fantasy and reality, past and present becomes increasingly hazy as the plots skips between pre- and post-Franco Spain, exorcising demons past and present. Confusing and perplexing at times maybe, but ultimately ‘Bad Education’ is yet another piece of cinematic brilliance from the Spanish maestro.
9. I’m Not Scared (Io non ho paura)
‘I’m Not Scared’ was based on the internationally best-selling novella of the same name by Niccolò Ammaniti, which itself was inspired by the true story of a boy from Milan who was kidnapped in 1978. Set in a fictional town in Southern Italy and directed by Italian Gabriele Salvatores in 2003, the film tells the story of ten year Michele, who discovers a small boy lying trapped in a pit whilst out exploring the countryside. He later learns the boy, Fillippo has been kidnapped and that many of the adults around him, including his own father, are implicated. Salvatores interviewed nearly 600 boys for the part of Michele, ultimately settling for novice Giuseppe Cristiano, the son of a Fiat car worker. As the story is recounted from the boy’s point of view, much of the action was shot at child’s height and a primary colour scheme was employed. Though Salvatores didn’t win an Oscar for the film unlike his 1991 ‘Mediterraneo’, ‘I’m not Scared’ manages to portray both true childhood and lost innocence with scenes of real pastoral beauty, gradually tarnished as the murky world of adulthood gains hold.
10. Betty Blue (37°2 le matin)
Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix in 1986, French film ‘Betty Blue’ starred Jean-Hughes Anglade as a failed writer who embarks on a doomed passionate affair with the volatile, wild and mentally unstable Betty played by Béatrice Dalle in her feature debut. The iconic film, which oozes arthouse-cool, was at the centre of the ‘cinéma du look’ movement of the ‘80s with its bold, colourful and stylish visuals and languid, disaffected punkish tone. ‘Betty Blue’ rapidly gained cult status aided by the striking, yet simple electric blue poster which featured a pouting Dalle. The distinctive, moody soundtrack by Gabriel Jared added to the film’s appeal.