Subtitled films are a great addition to any evening.
Before I make any kind of rousing call to dive into as many foreign language films as you can handle, I’d like to say first that I believe this article would be rendered unnecessary if you simply stopped reading it, ordered the Criterion LaserDisc of Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu, slid it into your DVD player, curled up with a friend, companion, snack, or all three, and witnessed magic unfolding on the screen in front of you.
Over the past few years, I’ve been slowly but steadily falling in love with film. I think I can describe my enthusiasm in a sentence by acknowledging that movies are the most dynamic form of storytelling available to us. That dynamism is given fully-realized breadth only when films representative of all languages, countries, and release dates are considered in picking out a Friday night flick.
This past May I made my annual return to the homeland, intent on four solid months of sharing as many possible cinematic discoveries with my family and friends. Most were well-received on the whole, but about two minutes into City of God (Cidade de deus), my sixteen-year-old brother stood up and hit pause—the dialogue had begun and the subtitles were rolling. “Is it gonna be like this for the whole movie?” he whined. “Yes,” I told him, “but just trust me.” We ended up striking a deal wherein his sitting through the entire movie would ensure my company throughout a few episodes of Game of Thrones. After the film ended, however, something had changed within him; in the end, he never even cashed in on my promised side of the bargain.
There is a word in the Japanese language, arigata-meiwaku, which translates very roughly to: ‘An act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favour, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude’. This is one of the most visible and elegant examples of how language expresses its culture. Watching foreign language films can be a rewarding way to understand the subtle complexities of another different culture and time. And why do we go to the movies in the first place? To be entertained and informed. What better medium than film exists to present a slice of life completely alien to us? On the one hand, explosions and bright lights are nice to look at, but in the end, it’s the movie that challenges the mind which has the most staying power.
A problem I’ve noticed regarding the marketing of foreign films is that they’re often branded in with the Oscar bait/Art House/festival cycle films. These surely sound appealing to some, but I imagine many automatically disregard them on account of this bundling. That there are hundreds of wonderful and involving movies that are not in English is lost to far too many potential viewers. A great foreign film can add an entirely new dimension to your viewing experience.
Austin Landry is the president of the Classic Film Society.