The Joy of Foreign Films with Larry Karaszewski
In honor of the Foreign Language Film Award’s 60th anniversary, Academy members discuss the significance of the category to them. Here, screenwriter Larry Karaszewski reflects on his own foreign language film education.
Larry Karaszewski knows plenty about human nature on the silver screen thanks to a vibrant screenwriting career with writing partner Scott Alexander, including such films as Ed Wood (1994), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), Man on the Moon (1999), 1408 (2007) and Big Eyes (2014). What you may not know is that he’s a longtime member of the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Committee, which screens submitted films from around the world in contention for the Academy Awards each year. In fact, Larry still recalls the first film he saw as part of the committee in 2002. “I remember my very first night was City of God! I thought if it was going to be like that every time, well, okay! It was extraordinary.”
Larry grew up in “a smallish town” in Indiana during the heyday of American moviegoers’ love affair with foreign films in the ’60s and ’70s, where Midwest towns would still get a sampling of cinematic gems around the world. “Foreign product would come to us, but it was always later or a 16mm print at a local college, so it became a very precious kind of thing. There was still that sense of strong foreign distribution with superstars like Federico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman or Lina Wertmüller, who could open a picture back then! There was that sense of these masters at play, which has changed a bit; Pedro Almodóvar is one of the last people who can still make that blast through in American theaters. There are a lot of other huge foreign directors, but they don’t have that kind of name recognition to get people in the seats.”
Larry also has thoughts about that obstacle you hear so often about foreign films: some people don’t want to read when they’re watching a movie. “I feel their pain!” he laughs. “I love to read, but I grew up in the early ’70s which was still the last gasp of dubbing. When Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers played in Indiana, it was a dubbed version compared to the subtitled one in bigger cities. That actually allows you to take in the visual splendor; I’m not that concerned about the lips sometimes. Two of my favorite movies are Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn! (1969), and in both of those films you have to make a decision when you watch them: do you want them with subtitles and Burt Lancaster or Marlon Brando dubbed into Italian, or in English with every other character’s lips not matching? A lot of times I pick Brando or Lancaster because I’m just used to their voices.”
Even the definition of a foreign film can be tricky given the number of countries involved and the multiple languages that can be spoken on a set (or even in front of a camera). Larry explains, “The way we run the Foreign Language category is every country gets to send one film, and it has to be from that country. Sometimes you look at these credits and it’s a Euro pudding. The movie business itself is so international these days; there’ll be a Spanish director, Chinese money, a French producer, so it can sometimes be hard to see which country can claim it.” Some directors have managed to make their stamp in multiple languages, such as Guillermo Del Toro’s juggling of films in Spanish and English. As Larry puts it, directors like him “have personal visions, and that vision is promoted. A Guillermo Del Toro movie is sold as a Del Toro movie whether it’s in Spanish or English, and there’s that signature that can be presented as something in which you should be interested. The films stand out but feel fresh and new and mainstream at the same time; it’s not a three-hour movie about a goat!” That said, a film worth seeing should be sought out in any language. “You should watch good movies. I don’t care if they have subtitles, if they’re dubbed, if they’re from Lithuania or the United States. There’s only one genre that counts and that’s good.”
Sometimes a worthy director can be overlooked, with another Spanish filmmaker ranking at the top of Larry’s list: Álex de la Iglesia, whose energetic, genre-bending films include The Day of the Beast (1995), Perdita Durango (1997), 800 Bullets (2002), The Last Circus (2010), and My Big Night (2015). “He makes these great pop confections, and I think he’s one of the true great filmmakers of our time,” says Larry. “I don’t know why those movies haven’t broken through in a commercial sense in the United States; maybe it’s because we’ve taken the subtitled foreign film and made it exclusively the art house division so a populist filmmaker sometimes doesn’t have a place in that environment among movies that travel festivals and try to win the Palme d’Or.”
He also champions some international titles that have largely fallen through the cracks in recent years. For example, you can find him among a diverse slate of filmmakers over at Joe Dante’s site, Trailers from Hell, where he sang the praises of Voyage en Douce (1980) with Dominique Sanda and Geraldine Chaplin, as “one of these incredibly beautiful films that no one talks about.”
“Foreign genre filmmaking was something that really used to break through and still can,” Larry adds. “We just gave an Academy Award to Jackie Chan; there was a time when I had to drive out to San Gabriel to get a laserdisc of Police Story because that was the only place you could find those things. The ’70s martial arts movies, Italian action films from people like Fernando di Leo, the ones that feel ‘pop’ — even the French comedies that were so popular for a while like The Tall Blond Man with One Red Shoe or La Cage aux Folles. Occasionally now you’ll still have one like Amélie that breaks through.”
Regularly watching foreign films also allows you to stumble upon little gems that you might have avoided otherwise. For example, he says, “There was a foreign film a few years back that didn’t get nominated (or even released in the United States) called Corn Island (2014), and from the description you couldn’t imagine a duller-sounding movie. It was about a guy who tries to plant corn on these temporary islands, and it sounds like watching grass grow. Instead it ended up being this beautiful, fascinating film that you couldn’t imagine being made. It takes you to another place, and that’s the great thing about the Academy’s Foreign Language division. If you work in Hollywood, you know everything about a film before it comes out. You know about reshoots, how the actors behaved, all the gossip. But with these films you know the country that made it, Venezuela or Portugal, and you go in there and may not even know what genre it is. You’re watching this movie and sometimes you get this sense of ‘whoa, a true discovery!’ That’s the joy of the committee to me.”
If you’re new to foreign films, there’s one Larry recommends above all other as the perfect gateway: Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). “You can’t beat it even after all these years. It’s a perfect film. It’s still hip and touching; that last scene on the beach is so profound. I knew I did a great job of being a parent when the Cinefamily in town was having a Fellini retrospective, and my daughter in her late teens and my son in his mid-teens, without any nudging from me whatsoever, ran into each other at La Dolce Vita because they wanted to see it on the big screen!”
This piece is part of the Academy’s celebration of 60 years of the Foreign Language Film Award as a competitive category. Be sure to check out this gallery of posters from the winning films and six decades of Oscar acceptance speeches.