THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (2003) Language: French. Remy Girard, Stephane Rousseau. Dir. Denys Arcand
First up: our lovely neighbors to the north, and Canada’s Oscar winning entry in the Best Foreign Language film race of 2003. This is French Canada of course, and this movie was a highly moving, highly involving and effortlessly funny exercise in nostalgia and death, with ruminations on love, friendship and all kinds of other subjects. It’s kind of a superior version of The Big Chill, upon closer inspection. It was Denys Arcand’s sequel to a film he made in 1986, called The Decline of the American Empire, but the truth is I saw this movie before I saw that earlier one, and not only is it better, but you don’t have to have seen that film to love this one at all. Remy is the main character, a feisty old man who is now dying and whose vicarious exploits and socialist past lay long behind him. His estranged son Sebastien returns to arrange for his father’s peaceful death at a summer home in Vermont, and makes arrangements to bring all Remy’s old friends (and their kids) to come visit him one last time. At the summer cottage, the characters reminisce while verbally and physically engaging in all kinds of interactions, involving politics, drugs, and their own sordid histories. I compared it to The Big Chill before, and that’s accurate, but if that description repels you, trust me this film is FAR better. The characters are not self-important narcissists, or if they are they themselves are aware of it and relate with each other in ways that are funny, casual, but at times also sad and serious (this is after all, somebody’s deathday party they’re attending). The playful and literate script is consistently smart and insightful about the nature of people’s lives, and the tragic end we all must meet someday. You come to know and like these characters, care about their relationships and connections with each other, and I dare you to not choke up at the extremely powerful and rather daring ending. Remy believes the end doesn’t have to be tragic, and maybe if we’re lucky, it won’t be for us either.
JU DOU (1990) Mandarin. Gong Li, Li Baotian. Dir. Zhang Yimou
Get ready guys, this is some dark stuff. Zhang Yimou was, and still is one of the most acclaimed directors in China, and this particular early film of his was banned by the Chinese government for its risqué content. That also makes it hard to find, but the ban was lifted recently, so hopefully this one is due for a restoration. It’s the early 1900’s in rural China, and Ju Dou is a young girl sold as a bride to a sadistic monster who owns a cloth factory. He keeps the girl as a prisoner for his own amusement, torturing her every night to the pained helplessness of his nephew, who operates the textiles in continuously poor working conditions. But slowly, the young girl and the nephew fall in love, have an affair and she is soon pregnant with his child. At right about the same point, the old man becomes paralyzed and his victims turn the tables on him, keeping him as their prisoner and forcing him to suffer for his sins committed against them. It’s an engaging and dark melodrama, but the passions and emotions are real, and you never know what twist is coming next. If you can find a good quality version of this, it’d be worth the wait, because the cinematography and colors in this movie are striking and a genuine part of the story itself. The textile factory symbolizes the emotions being felt on screen, and the use of Technicolor for the cloth brings out the passion in every scene. You can practically SEE the various shades of jealousy, revenge, fervor and anger spilling forth as the plot unfolds. The film’s strong sexuality is what got it banned in China, and you can imagine the expression of repressed emotion as representative of oppressive Chinese culture. Yimou was daring in his exploration of the dark side, and though his most acclaimed film is probably still Raise the Red Lantern (from 1992), I actually prefer this one, with its bolder themes and striking visual metaphors. Again, seek it out. It’s worth it.
AMELIE (2001) French. Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz Rufus. Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Next up, France. Ok, this was difficult, because France has a thriving film industry, and is home to the works of some of the most revolutionary directors of all time: Godard, Truffaut, Renoir, Melville. The list goes on and on. Sure, my head is telling me that I have an obligation to recommend Breathless, The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, etc., but something would be gnawing at me the whole time and telling me that I HAVE to be true to my heart’s desire, which would be Amelie, one of my favorite films of all time. I love it, I can’t help it. I won’t pretend it’s on the level of a Godard film from the French New Wave, but so what? Few things are, and it’s a wonderful movie in its own right. Every time I see it it fills my heart with joy. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, that fanciful director with the penchant for whimsy, put forth perhaps his most whimsical effort with this story of an imaginative and carefree young woman who fills her time by meddling in the lives of neighbors, co-workers, and even strangers, plotting epic romance in their life, a discovery of a long lost relative, or straining to give them a bit of a thrill by creating a secret admirer. Oh, and Jeunet also made a big star out of Audrey Tatou in the process, who shines as the dreamer Amelie. There are frequent flights of fancy, inanimate objects come to life, surreal twists of reality, and it all makes perfect sense through the eyes of our protagonist, who lives in a fairy tale world of her own making. Amelie tells herself this is all for the sake of making people’s lives better, but is the real truth that Amelie is all alone and indulges in her games to hide from the hard work of interacting with those around her? The movie was a whimsical piece of fantasy, sure, but it was also a moving, poignant and heartwarming tale of lonely people who want just what the rest of us want, the things that make life worth living: a chance at love and human connection with others.
RUN LOLA RUN (1998) German. Franka Potente, Mortiz Bliebtreu. Dir. Tom Tykwer
This is a tough one as well. As we travel to Germany, there some incredible German films of importance you feel obligated to recommend (Das Boot comes to mind, for example, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God was this close to making it), but when you’re limited to one per country, you’re forced to pick your favorite over the one you think might be the “best,” and once again, I love this particular movie. It’s an experimental film and a really cool one at that. Not inaccessible in the slightest though, so don’t fret about the word “experimental.” Franka Potente is the twentysomething punk rocker Lola, who has 20 minutes to get $100,000 to save her boyfriend’s life. From that point on it’s a complete whirlwind, as she literally races to the task, and the movie shows you three alternate ways she could have gone to get the cash. It never lets up, and we’re with her through every path she takes, practically the driver in her race against the clock. It’s a pure adrenaline rush from beginning to end, and it’s kinda cool to see a female protagonist at the heart of a gripping crime thriller for once (ok, so her only goal is saving her crook boyfriend’s life, but every move she makes tells us she’s a better con artist than he is, so she ought to trade up). It plays out in real time (just 81 minutes long), and before you know it the ride’s over. But it’s exciting, action packed, and a million times better than American made movies in a similar vein (Sliding Doors, Speed). Check it out, especially if you think you’ve got a bias against foreign films. I imagine this one just might win you over.
LA DOLCE VITA (1960) Italian. Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekburg. Dir. Federico Fellini
A much easier call. La Dolce Vita is not only one of the greatest movies ever made, but it also happens to be one of my favorites, thank goodness. Fellini, that brilliant Italian mastermind, had an affinity for the surreal, the carnival atmosphere, and the just plain nutty, as his later work showed. His earlier films though, were much more grounded in reality, and this one is the perfect bridge between his earthbound stories and his later ventures into surrealist fantasy. There are elements of both here, but he more or less plays it straight. Mastroianni is a showbiz reporter, assigned to cover the glamorous movie star Anita Ekberg, but is disillusioned by his work, his life, and his relationships. He takes us on an extended journey through the various hot spots of Italy, dogged by the occasional “paparazzo,” (the italian word that immediately became the universal term paparazzi), and indulges in the existential emptiness of a decadent society obsessed with celebrity and artificial connection. Noted at the time as a critique of a shallow post war Europe (and the 60’s had barely begun), it’s eerily even more timely today, with our superficial and hundred times magnified tabloid culture swamping everything in sight…Fellini would have been horrified. Mastroianni isn’t the hero in this story, more of a passive everyman who sees but nevertheless indulges in what he claims to condemn. This may sound like depressing material, but trust me, in Fellini’s hands it’s the exact opposite. Every scene is brimming with life and energy, and they include his token moments of pure breathtaking imagery that may have you begging for meaning but never once condescended to explain. People have made a study out of finding meaning in Fellini’s films, but I take them simply as a declaration of life’s passing moments, many of which cannot be explained. It’s an affirmation of life, rather than a condemnation of its decadence. We see it but we cannot help but go on living anyway, even if there’s something better waving at us from another shore. We simply shrug our shoulders and move on.
SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) Japanese. Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune. Dir. Akira Kurosawa
The prelude to every team up movie in existence, basically. Kurosawa was one of the most prolific filmmakers, constantly churning them out Hitchcock style, so he’s bound to have quite a few masterpieces in his repertoire. This is far and away the best, and most influential film he ever made. With his stock players at the ready (Toshiro Mifune was in nearly every Kurosawa movie), Kurosawa fashioned the story of a village of peasants in 16th century Japan, who hire a group of Samurai to defend them from the bandits who ravage their crops every year. The team of seven who assemble are comprised of the archetypes this movie practically invented: the young learner, the old master, the crazy wild card, the professional killer, etc. If you’re at all schooled in movies, that plot should sound familiar. It’s now the standard for every modern heist movie, and immediately became so after it came out, with the American remake, The Magnificent Seven, released just 5 years later. At more than three hours running time, it never feels long, and the final battle sequence in the rain is filmed with a majestic beauty that remains unsurpassed on screen. The film explores the complicated class system between the samurai and the peasants, and even manages to push a somewhat political message that was much more intended for the modern Japanese audience than the western. Kurosawa was occasionally criticized for his films being too westernized, too out of step with the traditional values and culture of his home country, but he wasn’t afraid to push boundaries in the face of objections. Audiences didn’t seem to mind the end results. Other classics of his include Rashomon and Yojimbo, check those out as well.
Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN (2001) Spanish. Gail Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna. Dir. Alfonso Cuaron
Alfonso Cuaron’s crowning achievement (so far) now rightfully takes its place among the modern classics in foreign cinema, a stunning, sexy, insightful movie that manages to sneak in layer upon layer of meaning, some of which you may not absorb upon first viewing… due to the all the sex, of course. Understandable, considering that so many American made films are basically banned by our ancient and outdated ratings system from having too much sexual content, which pretty much prevents them outright from exploring sex as a subject matter, outside juvenile American Pie-type snickering. Cuaron clearly returned to Mexico to make this one because it couldn’t have been produced in the United States (a sad state of affairs indeed). On the surface, it’s a road movie about two horny teenage boys whose girlfriends are gone for the summer, and who then take up with a sexy older woman on what will be a life altering road trip. Sounds simple enough, right? Could have been made in America so far. But then what happens along the way is too much for the MPAA- it’s a fast paced, frankly sexual, ultimately meaningful journey that takes you to unexpected places emotionally, geographically, and intellectually. The boys start out immature and raunchy teens, and think they end more or less the same, but with the audience guarantee that they haven’t yet absorbed what’s happened, and we know the truth is they will never be the same. The older woman is played by the famous Spanish actress Maribel Verdu, who gives us a character at once fun, playful, mature and harboring secrets that imbue her every move, which we only realize in the end, if then. The screenplay manages to combine coming of age with a much deeper, humane and gutwrenching subtext, while of course tackling human sexuality directly and subtly showing us the realities of a present day Mexico that seems to inflict life at every turn, for better or worse. Pretty much flawless. And because it can’t be said enough: screw the ratings system, tear it up, burn it down, whatever must be done. Movies this smart deserve to be given a wide release in this country.
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS (2007) Romanian. Adi Carauleanu, Luminita Gheorghiu. Dir. Cristian Mungiu
An intense and tremendously powerful experience. Cristian Mungiu expertly directs this story about two college girls living under the iron fist of the Soviet Union before the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of them needs an abortion, and her roommate goes to extreme lengths to figure out how to obtain one for her. Filmed almost entirely in long tracking shots and claustrophobic close ups, the movie literally follows the two girls as they maneuver their way about their surroundings in one 24 hour period, the longest day of their lives. The gray and gloomy atmosphere along with the severity of the problem they face combine to make the whole film into a gripping suspense thriller. You’re on the edge of your seat the entire time, a fly on the wall of these people’s lives, and witness to the sacrifices the girls have to make, which are tragic and sorrowful indeed. The acting is powerful, especially Carauleanu giving a powerhouse performance as the capable roommate, forcibly saddled with fixing her emotionally fragile friend’s problem. Mungiu mostly tackles material that deals with life in Romania under the oppressive regime, this one being the most effective, because it places the burden on the shoulders of young women who suffer severe consequences of a society with zero regard for women’s rights. There were people who lived this way and still do, feeling every day that they have no choice but to constantly look over their shoulder for the watchdogs whose job it is to oppress freedom and individual choice. There were some who tried to read this as an anti-abortion morality tale, but I think it couldn’t be more obvious that the message conveyed is one of choice, and the horrifying consequences that result under a police state that squashes it.
THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE (1973) Spanish. Fernando Fernan Gomez, Ana Torrent. Dir. Victor Erice
Get ready to have your minds blown. And also maybe, hate me a little bit for recommending this. But I had to do it. One of the all-time great debuts from first time director Victor Erice, this is a haunting, contemplative mood-piece that really challenges you to look beyond the surface of everything you see. Set in a post-Civil War Spain in 1940, just months after Franco had come to power, it chronicles the life a 7 year old girl whose first viewing of the 1931 Frankenstein film leaves a tremendous impact on her. She becomes convinced that the spirit of the monster inhabits those in her immediate surroundings, and it’s not long before we begin to question it along with her. That description makes it sound simple, but the movie itself is not nearly so clear cut in its implications. Filmed at a lyrical pace, much of the movie seems to take place in a dreamlike setting, with its characters unsure of themselves, their standing in life, and the ideas that occupy their thoughts from day to day. I think the intent is to force the audience to figure out the subtext of the film for themselves, with only vague intimations and one blatantly surreal sequence that may or may not be imagined, as clues to the greater meaning. A consistently wondrous, consistently evocative reverie that will stay with you for a long, long time. That is, if you stay with it and don’t find its refusal to state its meaning too frustrating to behold. The ultimate power of Beehive lies, like the best of our dreams, in what it leaves open to interpretation.
FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982) Swedish. Pernilla Alwin, Berta Guve. Dir. Ingmar Bergman
The great Ingmar Bergman was known for ponderous, deeply philosophical films that struggled with questions about death and the meaning of life. His films were not the most accessible to general audiences, but he was revered in Sweden and worldwide as a master filmmaker, who used his medium to tackle the issues that gnawed at his own spirit. I think this film is the best example in his canon to tell you at once, everything you need to know about what Bergman was about. It’s simultaneously his most accessible and his most challenging, perhaps because it draws you into the internal lives of children. A semi-autobiographical look at the life of a wealthy family in early 1900’s Sweden, Fanny and Alexander are two siblings who are part of an upper class, privileged world of parties, material riches and loving parents. Then their father dies, their mother remarries, and the kid's lives descend into a cruel, harsh and oppressed reality under the tyrannical operations of their new stepfather. It sounds pretty accessible from the plot right? Well, Bergman’s direction reels you in with the beginnings of the story and the incredibly detailed look at life in the extended family, with crazy and loveable relatives at every turn. But the second half takes on sinister forces, both from within the mind and without, and since our point of view is 10 year old Alexander’s, reality starts to become skewed and we begin to question it right along with him. Is what he’s seeing really happening or just in his mind? And ultimately, what’s the difference? It’s an incredible look at the life of a child in dire circumstances, and exposes the questions that haunt him, and the rest of us as we grow up. Oscar winner for Best Foreign film of 1984, this one should not be missed.
A SECOND OPINION
IN THE HEAT OF THE SUN (1994) China: Mandarin. Xia Yu, Ning Jing. Dir. Jiang Wen
In the Heat of the Sun deserves a mention here. This film is incredibly difficult to find in the United States, if it can even be found at all. In fact, the version that I viewed was a fan-subtitled copy that had been burned onto a DVD. The film was originally released in 1994 and shown at the Venice and Golden Horse Film Festivals, but was then banned in China, resulting in Jiang Wen being prohibited from directing another film for years. It might be possible to find on DVD in South Korea or maybe Japan, but likely without subtitles. It was controversial because of its depiction of the Cultural Revolution,which, for those unfamiliar, was a period in China from the mid-sixties to seventies in which there was political upheaval led by Chairman Mao Zedong, now remembered as a dark and violent period in Chinese history. In the film however, it’s chosen as the setting for a coming of age tale about a teen over the course of one summer. The film marks the directorial debut of Jiang Wen, an actor who had been described as China ’s Marlon Brando. It is hard to believe that this could be anyone’s debut film after watching it; it seems to have been directed by a master of the art. There are some wonderful sequences that display not only Wen’s understanding of China ’s history, but of the history of Chinese cinema as well. There are references that could only be understood by one who grew up in the times depicted on film; references for example, to films such as Lenin in 1918, a Soviet propaganda piece that was part of the limited film library that China allowed to be dubbed and viewed by the people. The story is of a teenager named Ma Xiaojun, or "Monkey" as he is called by his friends, who grows up during the Cultural Revolution. Over the course of a summer he falls in love with an alluring older girl named Mi Lan, and he and his gang experience love and violence while living in chaotic times. Too young to be forced into the military, he and his friends have a certain freedom in their town; that is, they more or less run the place. Monkey is likable and interesting to watch and it’s his character in the future who narrates the story. The film maintains a dream-like commentary on the period from a Post-Mao point of view through its imagery and soundtrack. Chairman Mao, though not depicted in person in the film, is part of many scenes through his ever present images in the background, revealing just how much a part of the day-to-day life he was. There are enough details and references that it is possible to notice something new after every viewing. If a chance to see this film presents itself, seize the opportunity. - (By Guest Writer Ian D)
1995 Trailer (sorry, no subtitles):