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Hi, I’m Lady Paola of Londonshire, aka Italian-born wannabe best-selling author living in London dreaming on getting an OBE for services to writing. I’ve been contributing for itcher magazine since the end of 2013.
But enough of that. There’s something quintessentially xenophile about being Italian: Italians love anything exotic and foreign, and that applies to cinema too.
That’s why I chose some foreign movies that made an impact on me
I’m Jonny Sweet, rookie cultural loudmouth here on Itcher, having been contributing to the magazine for roughly half a dozen months on the subjects of music, movies and books.
However, I’ve been a fan of cinema, and especially world cinema, for significantly longer. Having escaped the icy confines of Scotland two years ago, I have been enjoying the more sultry climes of Latin America, and the fantastic cinema that goes with it.
So you can expect plenty of Latin flair in my choices… as well as an Eastern twist, among my list of good foreign movies to watch.
As Jonny has spotted when reading my articles on films, I tend to enjoy my tear-jerkers. I guess I like public displays of emotion.
Great foreign movies to watch that didn’t make this list (we could be here all day listing them) include Jonny’s choice City of God (but also, still remaining in Brazil, O Passageiro is one of my favourites), anything from Pedro Almodovar (especially Hable con Ella) and I do enjoy my French rom-coms (like It Boy for example, which I have spoken about before, have a look). They are my all time best foreign movies for me.
Yes, guilty as charged, I enjoy my rom-coms. Bite me.
Before you start rolling your eyes, Jonny, and all the men out there already starting to switch off from the subject (stay here!), let me gently pull you in my direction.
JONNY: YOU HAVE TO WATCH THESE FILMS!
Almanya is a movie about a family of Turkish immigrants to Germany. You see Jonny? No rom com here! Maybe because I’m an immigrant myself and stories about immigration fascinate me. I understand the struggles to become accepted, to conform, to even change parts of your personality to try and fit in, only to discover that people appreciate you more if you simply be yourself.
I am sure you can relate to this experience, Jonny, as you moved from Scotland to Chile.
Back to the film.
Almanya has so many interesting elements to the story: you have the differences in generations, cultural differences between birth country and host country, potential for racism, inter-racial relationships… There is so much richness in this plot, even if it is ultimately extremely simple.
The strength of this movie is all in the performances, from the youngest members of the family to the head of the family.
You see how the younger generations have adapted to life in Germany and consider Turkey too backward for their liking. You see the grandfather reminiscing about an idealised, idyllic version of his Turkey that is far from the truth.
JONNY: This sounds exactly the sort of film I like, Paola, and you’re right about it striking a chord with my own efforts at emigration and integration into Chilean society. I will definitely give it a go.
I am a sucker for beautiful costumes and stunning photography. Again, bite me.
Raise the Red Lantern put Chinese cinema firmly on the map, well before Ang Lee‘s later box office smash Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon(2000)
When I watched this film on its release it was so exotic – I just had no idea about the lives of concubines in 1920s China, the bullying and the emotional warfare.
So, Jonny, here’s the deal: yes, the main plot is about women competing for a man’s attention, but let me draw your attention to the way Yimou Zhang treats his actors, choosing light and framing to best capture each scene.
What is the best lifestyle? To be a concubine in the lap of luxury and at the same time a prisoner, being flavour of the month for a fleeting moment only to be then forgotten and despised, or living a life of solitude but also, ultimately, freedom?
JONNY: I have mixed feelings about this one… on the one hand, I also share your love of stunning cinematography… on the other, the storyline does sound a little bit more geared towards a female audience. However, it never hurts to get in touch with your feminine side, does it? I’ll put this on the backburner; one to watch in the future, but I probably won’t be in a hurry to do so.
Yes, this movie is depressing. So what is your point? We will all grow old, frail and forgetful. And we will die. That’s the only certainty about life.
Amour, will either leave you cold, thinking you don’t like watching elderly people slowly declining, or it will melt your heart, as you warm to this elderly couple and their daily struggles.
I can’t say I came out of the cinema after watching Amour with a spring in my step and an urge to skip along into the sunset, thinking that live is beautiful and wanting to hug everybody in my path. This is a sombre and reflective movie, and if you ever had to care for an elderly relative you will re-live the same suffering.
We need to watch great world cinema movies like this: we are constantly anaesthetised by airbrushed versions of life in the media where illness and death don’t exist. Well, “tough banana” as I say: we can’t simply ignore these facts of life. I don’t care that sex sells, we must take a good look at ourselves and realise that these wonderful young bodies we look at in magazines, TV or cinema will grow old.
How am I supposed to convince you, Jonny, to watch this film? I don’t know what relationship you have with your grandparents, but this film can give you an insight into the life of people who have loved, lived, suffered and now realise that there’s not much time left. I would also recommend it because the leads Jean-Luis Trintignantand Emmanuelle Riva are phenomenal and are truly legendary actors. I am still shocked that Riva didn’t win an Oscar.
JONNY: This one came to my attention a while back when it won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar… I had been meaning to watch it for ages, but never got round to it. Although it is true what you see about the inevitability of illness and death and how we shouldn’t airbrush these facts of life out of our films, I could raise the same point in defence of your rejection of Oldboy… violence, unpleasant as it is, is also a fact of life. But I digress. As a film I’ve been meaning to watch for a while, you’ve convinced me to boost it up the pecking order a few notches and get round to it sooner rather than later.
When mulling over possible choices for good world films that have had an impact on me personally, I had some tough decisions to make and some excellent films to omit. As I said, Latin America cinema has had a big impact on me in the last couple of years and it was tough to say chau to the contributions of Brazil, Argentina and Mexico in particular.
I watched City of God at a fairly impressionable age (mid-teens) and would probably have included it but for the fact that it’s probably too well-known to qualify as a hidden gem.
Elite Squad, on the other hand, is not quite so famous but equally compelling. It tells a similar story but from the perspective of the cops rather than the gangsters, highlighting not only the stress and the sleepless nights and the sacrifices that go hand in hand with the job, but also the concerningly deeply-rooted corruption.
From Argentina, Nine Queens and The Secret in their Eyes are both excellent offerings, the latter of which contains one of the best one-take cinematic shots I think I have ever witnessed.
However, in the end I decided to dispense with these choices, partially because I believe my eventual picks are superior but partially because I have already elucidated their virtues in an article on South America movies here.
Similarly, there are a multitude of Mexican movies to choose from which could have made this list, but I have devoted an entire article to that particular font of cinema elsewhere as well, and hoped to avoid repeating myself like a doddery old octogenarian… those days are still to come.
Across in Europe, there were a whole host of films I have watched, loved and taken with me. Bullhead from Belgium and Festen from Denmark are both compelling watches, filled with pathos and intrigue as they pore over secrets from a dark past. Holy Motors from France is a bizarre, disjointed film which offers no explanation for itself but which opened my eyes to alternative ways of film-making, rather than the standard linear narrative.
Finally, Australia’s Animal Kingdom (though it’s in English, it still counts as world cinema, right?) highlighted the very real presence of organised crime and that the idea of the mafia as a shady cinematic presence confined to New York, Sicily and the silver screen is a naïve one.
However, in the end, all of the above were raised, toyed with and ultimately thrown on the scrap heap. Though they are all undoubtedly excellent cinematic achievements in their own rights, they don’t fall in to my personal list of all-time best foreign movies… here are the ones that do.
PAOLA: YOU HAVE TO WATCH THESE!
As an Italian film, I figured this would be right up your street Paola!
This fictional story follows real-life celebrated Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as he is exiled to a diminutive island off the coast of Italy, and the unlikely and endearing friendship he develops with the local postman. I watched this shortly after I first moved to Chile to try and get a bit of background on one of the nation’s most famous people (even though its fictitious) and found it to be a very moving and delicately-executed cinema.
Even more moving is the knowledge that the lead actor, Massimo Troisi, postponed heart surgery in order to complete shooting… and the very day after the film was completed, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Watching the film again with this knowledge (the first time I saw it I was unaware of these circumstances) made it all the more heartbreaking.
I know you said you like weepy films Paola… in which case, this one should have you in tears.
PAOLA: you totally convinced me. I still can’t believe I haven’t watched this movie – you see, up until Il Postino was released, Massimo Troisi was just another TV comic actor who spoke in a totally impenetrable Neapolitan accent so I could never understand him. I will definitely watch this.
Sticking with the Chilean theme, this one comes directly from the country itself and relates daily life in Santiago leading up to and immediately after the military coup d’état executed by General Pinochet. The twist? The action is seen through the eyes of a young adolescent schoolboy.
The early part of the film focuses on Gonzalo (the young protagonist) and his blooming friendship with another outsider, Pedro Machuca. Despite getting on famously, the boys are deeply divided by their social backgrounds; while Gonzalo comes from an upper-class, “momio” (right-wing) family, Machuca is a member of the impoverished proletariat. The two come to be placed in the same class due to a forward-thinking scheme by the school’s principal, a leftist priest named Father McEnroe.
As the film develops, Gonzalo struggles to understand what is happening around him, not only in his family and school life and his imbalanced relationship with Machuca, but also in the country in a wider context.
An incredibly powerful and moving representation of how life must have been at such a crucial time in the country’s history, Machuca is for my money by far and away the best Chilean film of all time and again fits your penchant for sad films Paola… although this one is perhaps more hard-hitting, given how it is based on real events.
PAOLA: this is definitely up my street and I will watch it, thanks for the recommendation.
Oldboy comprises one third of the Vengeance trilogy by director Park, all of which are great foreign movies to watch.
However, in my eyes, Oldboy is head and shoulders above the rest. Based on a Japanese manga (comic) series, the story follows Dae-su Oh, who after 15 years imprisonment in what appears to be a hotel room, finds himself released without explanation for either his incarceration or liberation.
The rest of the film covers his pursuit of the truth.
Oldboy is by turns hilarious, disgusting, shocking, devastating and is incredibly entertaining throughout, containing fantastic plot twists, gruesome torture scenes and quite possibly my favourite piece of fight choreography in any film ever.
I don’t know how you cope with graphic violence in films Paola, and this one is certainly not for the faint-hearted… however, it is very rewarding it you can stomach it for its sheer unpredictability alone.
PAOLA: nice try Jonny, but as much as you have put a lot of effort into trying to sell me this movie, unfortunately I can’t stomach violence.
I understand what you say about violence being a part of life – but in my rather bourgeois, sheltered life I am happy to say I haven’t personally come across it apart from hearing about it in daily news reports of atrocities in the UK and other countries. Quite frankly I prefer it that way.
And the Winner Is….
You make convincing cases for all three films Paola, and I wouldn’t baulk at watching any of your choices. However, I think the first one, Almanya, spoke to me the most for the very reasons that you yourself outlined. The theme of cultural differences and how they are seen by different people sounds very intriguing. The different viewpoints from the older and younger generations sound like they might voice different parts of my own personality – one half pining for home comforts, the other loving the laidback Latin lifestyle and all that comes with it!
Because of these reasons, Almanya gets my vote. Thanks for the recommendations!
… And the winner is….
Well, Jonny, you made an excellent case for Machuca, which I will be watching straight away. From what I’ve learned from your description, it combines a good story with documenting historical events in Chile. Thank YOU for the recommendation – I am sure other itcher magazine readers will enjoy the film too.