Picture the scene…
I was helping my brother-in-law assemble some furniture from a well-known Swedish outlet (“helping” in its most loosest terms) when he started to brag about his new movie streaming service. It was the type of bragging that in no subtle way makes it clear that you will listen and not interrupt or deviate from this topic. So, I interrupted and asked “Are there any foreign films on there?” to which his face was agog. Imagine I had just insulted his mother and you will get an accurate impression of the level of his agog-ness.
“Why would I search for that?” he asked.
Now imagine he had insulted my mother and you will get an accurate impression of my level of agog-ness! So I started pretending I was interested in how his football team were doing until the furniture was built and I could make a speedy exit.
This got me thinking, why on Earth would he have been so repulsed by the idea of watching a subtitled film? He’s a very experienced electrician so I hope it isn’t because he can’t read (he wired up my electric shower so for my own safety I hope he can read!). Does he assume that they are boring or pretentious or something? I didn’t ask as he is twice my height and width and there would have been an even speedier exit if such a question was put to him, but it got me thinking about what scares people so much about subtitled films. I have been in plenty of cinemas where a foreign film was screened and there were very few amongst the audience or, on some occasions, just me!
Enough is enough. This silly phobia of anything with a subtitle has to end. I have taken it upon myself to compile a list of films that I think would be a good start to initiate a newbie to the delights of foreign cinema. So, in no particular order, here goes…
5) The Artist
I know, I know, but there is logic to my madness.
Okay, so it’s not technically a foreign film, however, it is a very recent and successful Oscar-winning film that has no English spoken for its duration. For the uninitiated, The Artist tells the story of a popular silent-movie actor struggling to cope with the next big thing; films with sound. Like the films our protagonist performs in, The Artist is mostly silent, bar the piano score that plays throughout, and the audience has to read caption cards when a character speaks. When you think about it, that’s exactly what the audience has to do when reading subtitles for a foreign film. This is probably the most commercial film in this list with the most appeal, so pull this bad-boy out if the person you are trying to convert finds the idea of watching a subtitled film particularly abhorrent, then ease said person in with one of the following beauties.
4) The Raid
No matter what the language, the high-octane action in this absolute gem of a movie will keep you on the edge of your seat whilst making you wince and squirm no matter how ‘ard you think you are!
Directed by a Welshman and filmed in Indonesia, The Raid is one of the best action movies I have ever seen, and not just in the subtitled films category either. This is an ideal step into the stunning landscape that is world cinema if your knuckle-dragging acquaintance likes his/her Chuck Norris and/or Steven Seagal flick that can often be found on hard rotation on ITV4 between the UEFA Cup Highlights and “Telly Shopping”.
The story is a simple one and whilst it never gets in the way of the action it is strong enough to hold your interest from one set-piece to the next. An elite police squad enters a high-rise block of flats to bring the criminals that live there to justice and capture the head honcho running the show. The police are mostly slaughtered on entering, leaving Rama, the hero of the piece, to fend for himself whilst the occupants hunt him down. The choreography of the fights in The Raid is sublime and gorgeous to watch despite the bone-crunching, blood-spurting, throat-slicing-with-a-broken-florescent-tube visuals. Suffice to say it earns its 18 certificate! I guarantee that whoever you introduce this to will have never seen anything like this before and if they like their action films they will not be able to resist enjoying this. I have tried this on a few friends who didn’t give foreign films the time of day and all of them have been converted, so this is a “Film Fluff Tried and Tested” masterpiece…
…and if they like The Raid then introduce them to its magnificent and equally brutal sequel; The Raid 2. You will never look at a hammer in the same way again…
3) A Royal Affair
When you look at the poster for this film there is a risk that you may slip into unconsciousness. Read the blurb and you may be comatose! An 18th century love triangle between a doctor, the queen of Denmark and her king is hardly going to get me racing to my Blu-ray player! Yet, despite my own lack of interest in this genre, I loved this film. It breaks your heart and grasps your attention with no reprieve until the end credits role. Mads Mikkelsen puts in a reliably strong performance and it launched Alicia Vikander into the stratosphere, turning her into probably the most sought-after actress in Hollywood. However, I wouldn’t say it has universal appeal. Much like The Raid, it would better suit those with a keen interest in this type of film, but if it worked for me then I think it’s a safe choice for your foreign film novice.
2) Pan’s Labyrinth
My word, how do I describe one of the most perfect films ever made?
Okay, here goes. Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1944 and tells the story of a young girl whose mother marries an evil captain in the Spanish Army. When they are taken to her new step-father’s house in the woods where his squad are fighting the Spanish Resistance, she encounters a fawn in a labyrinth amongst the grounds. He tells her that she is the lost princess from a magical realm and that she must complete three tasks to prove this to him so that she may return…
..and it’s perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Emotional storyline packed with horror, sadness and a little action for good measure, with a seamless mix of CGI and practical effects, stunning cinematography and directed by a true visionary of the craft, Pan’s Labyrinth does not put a foot wrong. The pacing is superb and I challenge anyone not to have a tear in their eye and a lump in their throat when our young heroine’s lullaby is hummed at the end of the film. In a unique way that I have only really encountered with a Studio Ghibli feature, the fact that it is subtitled and in a language you don’t understand adds further realism to the fantastical element of this outstanding cinematic triumph.
Unless you speak Spanish, in which case you can strike that from one of its qualities!
There is something for everyone in Pan’s Labyrinth, but it is a top end 15 certificate as there are some scenes that may shock and make you squirm. Even if you are delicate of stomach and easily scared, persevere with it as this is easily in my top three movies of all time and it will take something very special indeed to knock it from that pedestal.
If your acquaintance has failed to be won over by any of the aforementioned films, then this is my fail-safe. If this doesn’t convince said acquaintance that subtitled films are worth a watch then I advise that you disassociate yourself from this person, regardless of whether they are friend, family, spouse, etc*
I present to you, Untouchable, which I think has the most universal appeal amongst the foreign films I have brought to your attention. It is a heart-warming comedy drama that tells the true story of a rich quadriplegic who hires an unemployed man to be his carer, despite him having no interest in the job and only being there to tell his benefits office that he is attending interviews. What follows is the development of a strong friendship as both men see the world through their counterpart’s eyes. My wife and I still quote this film to this day, not in its original French of course but the sentiment is still there! If I was ever in doubt on what film to watch with friends or family, this would be the one I would reach for, and that’s even amongst the films that haven’t got subtitles. It’s a joy to watch and the most perfect of feel-good films that leaves any soppiness on the cutting room floor. Untouchable is getting a pointless remake so please ignore the Hollywood version and don’t be tempted by it even if it does star Bryan Cranston!
There you have it, my top five films to introduce a novice to world cinema. If you have any alternatives you would like to recommend then please feel free to comment or Tweet.
*Film Fluff accepts no responsibility for any damaged and/or broken relationships as a result of the information or advice given in this blog, so no lawsuits please!