Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Foreign films

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

The accepted wisdom on foreign (non-English language) films is that they hit their peak of popular acceptance in the 60s and 70s, when you just weren’t plugged in unless you were up on Fellini and Bergman and Antonioni. Those giants waned in the 70s, and the next generation never attained the same visibility. Foreign films remained a strictly marginal commodity through the 80s and most of the 90s. But in the past few years the mainstream has become more accommodating of subtitles. Life is Beautiful was a big moneymaker, and won an Oscar for best actor. Then Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon passed the psychologically important $100 million mark at the US box office, and also did well at the Oscars. This year Amelie, although not quite at the same level, has been a very steady crowd-pleaser.

This is heartening, but the resurgence shouldn’t be overstated. I still often talk to regular moviegoers who view subtitles as a general no-go area, and who ask me if it isn’t hard (meaning I guess hard on the brain) to watch so many films on that basis. The movies I mentioned are the merest tip of the iceberg – not compensating for the dozens that limp along in barely visible commercial releases, even less for the hundreds that never get released at all. And of course, when a foreign film makes it big, it tends to be because it doesn’t actually seem that foreign. Maybe it’s not coincidental that directors who’s worked in America made the three films I mentioned.

Brotherhood of the Wolf

Recently I’ve been to numerous foreign films that attracted the usual meagre audiences, and a couple in which the cinema was almost if not actually full. Brotherhood of the Wolf has been playing downtown at the Paramount – perhaps the ultimate stamp of commercial approval. When I went on a Saturday afternoon, the audience looked like it had come to see Lord of the Rings.

My sense is they had a good time. The movie is set in the 1800s, in a French town terrorized by an unseen predator. An intrepid young scientist rides into town, accompanied by his Native American sidekick. For the first ninety minutes, the film is fast-moving but relatively sane. The last hour spirals off into what seems almost like free association, yielding astounding conspiracies, characters who aren’t what they seem to be, dead people who turn out to be alive, and major mayhem. Writing this review two weeks after seeing it, I have to concentrate really hard to recall the film’s nominal plot, but I certainly remember the pace.

This is conveyed through dashing camerawork; action sequences that have a Matrix-life hi-tech, metallic choreography (incorporating martial arts, kickboxing, etc.); intensive mythmaking; an overall sensibility that’s absorbed in the intrigue of a specific time and place while also being crisply modern. The film is a similar project to last year’s Crimson Rivers – like that contemporary thriller, it progresses from coherence to complete nuttiness. Actually, although Hollywood movies are so often criticized for their dumb plotting, Crimson Rivers and Brotherhood of the Wolf both have an abandon that’s distinctly different from American movies. Maybe American movies are generally too cautious to create the kind of whirling, involved narratives that typify computer games, comic books and teenage cults. Director Christophe Gans may truly have beaten them at their own game here.

Italian for Beginners

Italian for Beginners is a very different case study. This is the latest film to be shot in the “Dogme” style that represents a return to a simpler, less contrived cinema – Dogme films have natural lighting, hand-held cameras, a generally minimal, intimate style. Most Dogme films applied this technique to material that benefits from the added “realism.” Italian for Beginners applies the style to a contrived piece of romantic wish-fulfillment. For me, this inherently didn’t make much sense. But I’m in the minority again, because for its target audience (people who saw Amelie) it looks like another big crowd-pleaser.

The film revolves around six individuals – three male, three female – so the object is to see whether they’ll resolve themselves into three couples (take a wild guess…) They all attend an Italian class once a week, which for most of them represents a rare escape from their humdrum lives. For a comedy, I was impressed by the film’s dedication to presenting the full extent of that humdrumness. There’s a lot of death in the film – three secondary characters pass away, and another is in mourning as it starts – and no one in it is at all affluent, or even comfortable. And some of the quirky character traits – like one woman’s constant clumsiness – are presented with an unusual edge of desperation. Even rarer for a comedy – one of the six is a pastor, and spiritual faith is one of the film’s secondary themes.

This is all pretty interesting, but is far outweighed by the movie’s fluff content. For example, a dumpy, unremarkable middle-aged man develops a crush on a scintillating young Italian waitress. Happily for him, but inexplicably to the rest of us, she almost simultaneously develops a crush on him. Despite the consequent total lack of suspense, the movie dawdles for an hour and a half about getting them even to take a walk together. This is hardly realistic and falls short of satisfying escapism – one can only sit back and allow time to pass.

Fluff and kickboxing

The film’s notional centre, the Italian class, counts for less than you’d expect, although it does facilitate a scenic detour to Venice toward the end of the film. But it’s funny how the Danes latch onto the Italian lessons as a window into a better life. Especially in the age of the Euro, maybe we tend to see Europe as an increasingly undifferentiated mass. And there’s one of the flaws, of course, in my broad statements about “foreign” films – it’s a category so broad as to render all generalizations meaningless. Still, it’s not as if I’m the only one who ever used it. Virtually every video store, even the most refined ones, diligently separates out the “foreign” section.

Which is crazy, because a rack that includes Bergman, Kurosawa, Godard and Eisenstein (to name just four of the staples) contains such diverse promise and challenge that no label could ever summarize them. Except that they demand an open mind and intellect – an investment they repay ten times over. If the demands made by foreign films, and their rewards, are no more or less than those of the average American film, why separate them out at all? Yet we always will, because for more people than it should, the stigma of the subtitle will always render the most innocuous of films just a little too demanding. Fluff and kickboxing notwithstanding.

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