Foreign Films

I absolutely adore foreign films, especially Italian, Spanish, Iranian, German, and Brazilian.  They are so artsy and so well-acted. I mean there have been moments where I got so incredibly sucked into the storyline that it actually felt like it was all REAL.  It amazes me how uniquely talented Europeans and Middle-Easterners are when it comes to film-making; they’re absolutely brilliant! And they are just so much better than the typical Hollywood movie, in my opinion. Hollywood, I feel, is beginning to lose its value in the quality of the films that they release every year. And it gets worse and worse with each passing year. The only good thing, however, is their use of CGI (when it comes to action/thrillers) or animation; but their stories are so, for lack of a better word, lame. There is absolutely no originality, for every single one of them are clichéd. What irks me the most is that now they keep re-making a lot of films that were considered gems or classics two or three decades ago, and although the technology is definitely much better now, the re-makes never impress me.

And the same goes for Indian Bollywood films. Ugh, don’t even get me started on those! Their films, for the most part, are WORSE than Hollywood, ‘cause most of them are just blatant rip-offs of Hollywood films. Sadly, people still watch them, ‘cause for them, it’s all just mindless fun. I personally don’t mind mindless films (especially comedy) once in a blue moon, but I prefer watching films that serve a purpose and is acted well, as well as inspire or make me think about things through fresh or new perspectives. I guess that’s why I prefer art movies, over anything else. And most foreign films, I’ve seen, have indeed been the most beautiful works of art! I hope to someday, in the very near future, create an art film about Pakhtuns. And these wonderful foreign films have served as some great inspiration for a script that I am currently working on. I anxiously look forward to the day when it will come to fruition.

Anyway, below I’ve shared some of my most favourite foreign films. I’ve also shared a brief synopsis of each, just in case my readers are interested in checking them out. But don’t worry, I will not reveal any spoilers, ‘cause I know how annoying that can be! 😉

Oh, and they are in no specific order, I just mention them as I remember them, for they all possess equal value for me in terms of quality, acting, and storyline.

Baran (Iranian, 2001)

Baran, which means “rain,” is a brilliant film. It begins with a note about the reality of the 1.4 million refugees from Afghanistan living in Iran, a number that has probably increased substantially since September 11th. Some are of the current generation that were born in Iran and have never set foot in Afghanistan; others have recently fled from Taliban oppression and long to return home. Afghans are forbidden to hold jobs by Iranian law and must work illegally, usually in unskilled heavy labour jobs.

Shot in the style of the Italian Neo-Realists (realistic stories told against real backgrounds with sometimes non-professional casts), Baran has a tone of drabness, only occasionally interrupted with bursts of colour. At a construction site in Northern Tehran, Memar employs a large number of Afghans to work alongside Turks and Iranians. This film shows a microcosm of the blue-collar working class in today’s Tehran. Many languages are spoken and the film sheds some light on the variety of ethnic groups present in Iran. In spite of  some harsh treatment of the poor workers, Memar has moments of generosity and humour, and his outwardly harsh exterior seems to mask a genuine sympathy for the workers.

However, the story primarily revolves around a 17-year-old Iranian tea boy, Latif, who feels his job is threatened by a new worker Rahmat, who comes to work at the construction site when his father is injured on the job. Rahmat has difficulty performing construction tasks and is moved to the kitchen to prepare and serve the tea, essentially switching jobs with Latif. Latif, short tempered to begin with, now takes out after Rahmat, intent on getting revenge, leading to a series of slapstick encounters that are almost Chaplinesque in tone. (And I have to say that the humour in this film is just roll-on-the-floor-laughing hilarious!)

Anyway, after Latif discovers Rahmat’s secret (he is actually a she named “Baran”), the film is then devoted to his transformation from a selfish wise guy to a caring and surprisingly generous young man. The film becomes a series of encounters in which Latif, infatuated with Rahmat, secretly tries to help her in any way possible in order to protect her from the hands of inspectors looking for illegal immigrants.

I won’t give any more details about the film, but to me, despite the dehumanizing working conditions, the film is a beautiful love story. The true focus is the emotional awakening of a young man, who has discovered his own worth through the act of kindness to another, perhaps symbolizing the discovery of the plight of Afghans by the Western world. It’s also about self-realization, and how human beings are capable of putting others before them, and of sacrificing everything to help someone in need.

Diarios De Motocicleta (Spanish, 2004)

Another, more common, title for this film is “The Motorcycle Diaries,” and it is a superbly filmed biography about the late handsome revolutionary leader and now pop-culture icon, Ché Guevara. The film follows the life of young Ché and his best friend, Alberto, as they take a break from medical school to transverse the unknown continent beyond Argentina’s borders. However, the viewer later realizes that theirs was no mere trip, but more of a voyage where the further the pair went, the deeper became the transformation of Ernesto’s political awakening, which eventually led him to become the great revolutionary Ché.

Overall, this is a terrific film for anyone who loves road trip movies. The exquisite South American scenery is alone worth seeing, besides the brilliant film, on its own. And the film does a good job of setting up Ché’s and his friend’s naivete. They’re sheltered middle class young men, essentially, both given many advantages and both on the fast track to becoming successful career men (doctors). But what he sees of the social disparity existing between South American countries changes Ernesto (Ché) forever.

One of my MOST favourite quotes came out of this film (and I am currently in the process of writing a poem that is inspired by it). It goes like this:

“How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?” Ché Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries.

La Vita É Bella (Italian, 1997)

Also known as “Life Is Beautiful,” La Vita É Bella is a very humorous, yet beautifully emotional film as it is an astounding tribute to the beauty of the human spirit; the ability to maintain a hopeful and optimistic outlook; the unique bond between a father and son (or husband and wife); and the triumph of love — all in coping both with everyday life situations and later, with the horrific environment of a Nazi concentration camp.

This Italian film tells the tale of a bubbling, carefree Jewish book shopkeeper, Guido, who embarks upon a romance and marriage in 1930’s Italy, soon raising a son with his wife, Dora. However, the family’s happy little world turns upside down when the Nazis force father and son to a concentration camp. Guido seeks out ways to communicate with his wife, who is of course separated from them in the women’s barracks. Also, in order to make life bearable for his little boy, Guido pretends that the horrifying Holocaust events are all an elaborate game, with a tank offered as the grand prize.

The father turning this unspeakable situation into a game creates a unique perspective, to say the least. Personally, I found this touching tale very emotional, although, of course, in quite a different way from Schindler’s List — a tremendously moving film with its graphic depiction of horrifying truths the world must never forget.

Hence, this is a story of a man who manages to save his son from a horrific fate by preventing the latter from losing hope. He helps his son to relate his experiences in the concentration camp to what a child is more used to, a competitive game. Guido shows us that even the most inhumane realities do not have to bring our spirits down; and through this positive mentality, we can even conquer horror stories that are as inhumane and brutal as the holocaust.

Malèna (Italian, 2000)

Before I write a summary for this film, I first have to say that Monica Belluci (the main character) is the most beautiful, beautiful woman I’ve EVER seen on screen! I just love how bold of an actress she is, and how confident she is with her body and sexuality. I absolutely LOVE this woman. She is a gem. And after seeing her in this film, my love and admiration for her beauty and talent increased a tenfold.

As for the film itself, gosh, what can I say? I wouldn’t say that it’s brilliant, but it is definitely a film worth watching, for it covers a theme that, unfortunately, is still common today.  It is, at first glance, about a 12-year-old boy (Renato) growing up during WWII Italy – he becomes infatuated with Malena, who is the most beautiful woman in the small town they live in, and they all know that she is waiting for her soldier husband to return to her. Yet Malena’s looks create spite and jealousy amongst the women while lust and excitement amongst the men, in the village. To make matters worse, they all talk about her behind her back and give her a really hard time.

I know some people might take this film the wrong way and think that it is “shallow” and that it glorifies Malena’s beauty and sexuality, but that’s only because they have not understood the essence of this film; not at all, actually. Rather this film is about the ability of the human race to abandon one of its own in her (Malena’s) most desperate hour of need. The narrator’s (Renato) obsession with Malena is a brilliant manipulation of dramatic irony. However, what my reader needs to realize is that that the film isn’t about a boy who gets “excited” every time he sees this beautiful woman, rather it is about the fact that he, one of the youngest in the village, is the only one who feels compassion for her. I suppose this is a film that men and women could have differing viewpoints on, considering the fact that sex and violence are themes that run throughout the film; yet, the subtler, more sensitive themes of this emotional drama might be easily but regrettably overlooked.

Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Italian, 1988)

I love this film. I absolutely love, love, LOVE this film! The first time I watched this masterpiece was about two years ago; it was playing on my satellite dish, and because I’d heard so much about it, I decided to watch it, only to be blown away. Literally. Since then, I’ve seen this film a dozen times, and each time I am carried away to a small village in Italy, where the dreams of a small boy come true. It reaches within me places that other movies have never reached, and I have often wondered why. Perhaps it is because of its sheer simplicity. It contains no expensive special effects, it has no gratuitous sex or violence, it has no “multi-millon dollar per performance” actors that I know of; it is arguable whether it even has a story line, and yet it soars far above the nonsense that many film-makers are producing these days. Its characters are portrayed by each and every actor in award winning style and the music is not only beautiful, but absolutely perfect for this film.

It is quite simply the story of a human life and its tragedies and triumphs within the context of a vocation. A young boy matures and gradually learns the lessons of life, cultivates his passion for the cinema, and is rewarded with professional success; however, he remains unfulfilled for true love has escaped him only to return in the form of a gift of love which transcends time, space, and death. It is a wonderful and touching film that deserves to be watched again and again.

Europa Europa (German, 1990)

The first time I watched this great film was in my first year of university. And I have to say that it was probably one of the first times I was exposed to a film that was not in English, Pashto, or Urdu/Hindi. I was pleasantly surprised! The film is based on the true story of Solomon Perel when he, as a young Jewish teenager, hid his identity as a Jew and first became a member of the Russian Kosmonol, and later a member of the Hitler Youth. I found the film absorbing and entertaining with much in it to recommend, especially the insight it provides about what went on in the Kosmonol and the Hitler Youth.

Although, I have seen a lot of war films, this one definitely stood out as one of the best! It gives you a different perspective other than the usual Hollywood view of Americans killing the Germans. It shows you just how horrible life during the time of WWII truly was. The Jewish boy who has to find ways to stay alive in a country that would kill him on the spot really did an excellent job of showing the fear and terror of the Nazis wrath. And his fight for survival is depicted wonderfully throughout the whole film. (I won’t provide any spoilers, as one would have to watch the film to understand what I mean.) Furthermore, the acting, the setting, the sounds, everything is so perfect that you feel like you’re really with the main character (Solomon). This film is just wonderful.

Bacheha-Ye Aseman (Iranian, 1997)

Ohhhhh, I can’t even begin to describe how incredibly special and meaningful this film is to me. From the same director who created Baran, Bacheha-Ye Aseman (also known as “Children Of Heaven”) is an extremely symbolic film. It is the story of a young boy who accidentally loses his sister’s (Zahra) newly repaired shoes. They are a poor family and the lost pair happens to be her only pair. The remainder of the film is spent with the two children trying to figure out how to replace them without their father (whose job is serving tea) and mother (who is seriously ill) finding out.

The film is special in that every moment seems to add to a deeper understanding of the compassion and humanity of each character. Furthermore, it is impossible for me to imagine a Hollywood film coaxing performances out of its stable of actors in the way this director achieves with these amateur actors.

As mentioned, the family is very poor. The father is of Turkish decent and works a menial job serving tea. When he returns home from work, he shows the duplicity that makes us all human. On the one hand he yells at his son, Ali, for not accomplishing his chores. Ali offers no rebuttal, because to admit where he was would be to admit he has lost his sister’s only shoes. The story later focuses on Ali’s running ability. There is going to be a race for children. The third place prize is a new pair of sneakers. Ali promises Zahra he will come in third place and win her the shoes.

Outside of the overall themes, this film portrays a beautiful brother-sister relationship between Ali and Zahra. Ali’s persistence to find Zahra’s shoes is very heart-warming. Overall it’s a very pleasant film with several sweet and touching moments.

Cidade de Deus (Brazilian, 2002)

All I can say about this film is wow. Simply wow. Based on a true story, this amazing film (also known as “City Of God”) gives you an insight into the slums of Rio De Jineiro. It recounts the story of a young Brazilian boy named Rocket who grows up in and around the City of God. We follow his life, from a very young age through adulthood, as he narrates all the crazy adventures of his life and describes all the various characters he encounters along the way. His life is a tough one, filled with horrific violence, incessant theft, and rampant drug abuse, which seems commonplace in his world. More than anything, this is a story of survival in a vicious community that chews people up and only spits them out if they are lucky. This existence is a vicious circle that seems to inevitably lead to short life, or a life spent in jail, or absolute poverty. And the only way out is to risk your life in the drug trade where things become assuredly more dangerous.

However, avoiding trouble completely is a very tricky accomplishment and we watch as Rocket does his best to make it in this God-forsaken world. I would strongly recommend this film despite the brutality and the overwhelming sense of despair that the film conveys. I usually don’t like films that refuse to feature even a glimmer of hope, but this film avoids that pitfall in the final twenty minutes. I won’t reveal what happens, but the film offers a sliver of hope without selling out the reality and tone of the earlier scenes. Based on true events, “City of God” is a visceral and shocking peek into a living hell that, by all accounts, still exists to this very day. Poverty will always make crime a viable option — a natural human instinct.

Lucía y el sexo (Spanish, 2001)

Despite the strong sexual content and blatant nudity, I’ve decided to add this film to my list of favourites simply because it is bold, sexy, and interesting in a strange yet stimulating sort of way. Also known as “Sex And Lucia,” the film, for me, pretty much had all the ingredients to be a wonderful experience, both emotionally as well as intellectually. Intellectually, the film parallels the difficult creation process, and very elegantly mixes in imagination and reality. The central character is a writer, and the film follows his life story while he’s writing a novel, based on the events he is currently living. What’s more complex and thus more interesting, is that the female character, Lucia, is telling us the story as if she was writing the book herself; or more precisely, unearthing from her memory, the elements of the plot.

I won’t provide any spoilers, but the film also offers a sensuous experience, as the beginning illustrates Lucia tracking a writer she admires, and declaring to him her unconditional love in a bar. Because love is contagious, the writer, who easily confesses to being lost himself emotionally, also falls for her. A passionate sexual relationship follows suit, in all its sheer erotic glory that will surely leave its viewers breathless. (It surely did that to me!) Perhaps not everyone will appreciate this film, nor perceive it the way I did (due to its explicitness), but it will always be one of my favourite foreign films.

Mar adentro (Spanish, 2004)

This was another film that I had the privilege to watch during my last year of university when I was taking a course called Medical Anthropology. And as I watched this marvellous film (also known as “The Sea Inside”), I couldn’t help thinking just how important this film was, as it is the true story of a quadriplegic man named Ramon Sampendro, who turns himself into an activist for euthanasia, begging anyone and everyone to let him die.

The thing I love most about this film is that it left me adrift in a shifting sea of philosophical views about life and death and their ultimate meaning. In particular, Ramon says he believes there is no afterlife — we simply return to the nothingness from which we came, and I couldn’t help but agree with him. “The Sea Inside” shows that, even after Ramon’s death by assisted suicide, he lives on in the poetry he wrote and published, the memories of those who loved and cared for him, and of course now the film itself.

“The Sea Inside” is a paradox in many ways. It shows us a man who yearns to die, but lives more intensely than most ever do — a man who says he cannot love (that is, have sex) — but is surrounded by love (that is, caring) every day of his life — a man who longs to be free from the limitations of his disability, but fails to see how he has enslaved those around him.

The film is an honest, unflinching, clear-eyed look at the issue of whether people should have the right to die with dignity, rather than endure degenerative and life-diminishing physical conditions.

And to add, this was the film in which I discovered the beautiful opera song by the late Luciano Pavarotti called “Nessun Dorma.” (The man had the MOST beautiful and powerful voice ever.)

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