Why You Should Watch More Foreign Language Films
That’s the motto of writer Vera Blasi, a part of the 2016 class of new Academy members with credits including Woman on Top (2000), Tortilla Soup(2001), and Emperor (2012). She grew up in São Paulo, Brazil, which gave her a perspective on foreign language films. The Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award is now celebrating its 60th anniversary as a competitive category, so we thought we’d talk to Vera about what makes foreign films an essential part of anyone’s movie diet.
“I grew up watching movies only with subtitles,” Vera notes, “which were required in Brazil for American movies or movies from just about any other country. Going to the movies for me meant subtitles, so that was never much of a factor. Back then I loved the big epic movies like Lawrence of Arabia, which wasn’t a foreign film by American standards but was for me. After coming to the United States, it was strange not having to read subtitles. I love French and Italian cinema, and now I’m watching a lot more Middle Eastern movies. It helps me understand that part of the world better.”
By far the most common resistance to watching a foreign language film for American audiences has been a simple one: “I don’t like to read while I’m watching a movie.” However, Vera has advice on how to enjoy a film and get used to the process. “Subtitles aren’t always reliable; you have to pay attention to what’s being told cinematically. You learn to watch a movie and pay close attention to the visual language, the body language of the characters, which changes from one culture to another. Some cultures are more expressive and bombastic, and others are very reserved, with things conveyed in the flicker of an eye or something tucked away in the scenery. You shouldn’t be afraid of subtitles because it’s the visual aspects that really help you understand what’s being said.”
That also means foreign films are best experienced in a movie theater where every detail can be appreciated. “They should be seen on a bigger screen as often as possible,” she says about the ease of often watching a film at home via streaming or home video. “The visual details are so important. If you miss a subtitle and don’t quite understand what’s being said in words, the picture will tell the story. Through the raising of an eyebrow you can get what’s being communicated, but you might not be able to see it on your laptop or, heaven forbid, your phone.”
Vera’s familiar with the process of how submissions from countries around the world are narrowed down to a shortlist, which in turn becomes the five final nominees and one winning film on Oscar night. “By the time they make it to that shortlist, they’re all gripping in different ways — poetic, intimate, or epic. They’re all so varied that I think they all win.” We asked about any particular films that stood out to her as recommendations, and she picked two off the top of her head. “One of the films that was so haunting and stayed with me to this day is Waltz with Bashir. It was unique, emotional, and thought provoking. Last year I saw one called Timbuktu, which also stayed with me for a long time. To explore more, I would say go online and see which movies made it to the finals and watch all of them!”
“When you see a movie like Timbuktu, you identify with a character from a completely different culture,” she explains. “You share their deepest thoughts and feelings. It creates a sense of intimacy with humanity, with the rest of the world, which I think is so important today. We realize in that moment that there’s only one of ‘us’ here. We are them, they are us.”
However, there’s one Foreign Language Film winner that holds a special place in her heart. “My favorite moment recently when I jumped out of my seat was when Paolo Sorrentino and Italy won for The Great Beauty, which I saw over and over. Talk about cinematic language! That was probably my favorite foreign language win. I was very, very happy!”
One of the great rewards of watching foreign films is the infinite ways it can open up the world for you as a viewer. “In an increasingly homogenized world, foreign films tend to focus more on human drama,” she observes. “Instead of being the usual types of movies, they tend to be more raw and unrefined, the same way true emotions are. I think it comes from the fact that these films often don’t have the budget for expensive pyrotechnics, so the only things turning into an orange ball of fire are human emotions!”
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 the 2016 qualifying films, this gallery of posters from the winning films and six decades of Oscar acceptance speeches.