By Spencer Davis. Yes, there will be subtitles. That’s the first hurdle you need to overcome when opening your mind to foreign film. But trust me, it’s worth it. You see, when you’ve only watched Hollywood movies, you unknowingly—through sheer repetition—become conditioned to believe that movies have to look and sound and feel a certain way. But popular art is influenced in all these subtle little ways by the culture that produces it. And just as there are distinctive stylistic differences between, say, American and British literature, or Italian and German opera, or even Japanese and Chinese food, the movie repertoire of a particular country takes on its own unique essence, flavored by the language and the history and the cultural values of the people who made it. That’s the magic of exploring foreign film: discovering how something so familiar as the American movie experience can, in new hands, become fresh and provocative and unexpected.
These aren’t the best foreign films ever made; any attempt to make such a list can’t help but be tainted by cultural bias. Instead, consider these as suggestions for a starting point. If you’re an American who has never dipped your toes into foreign films, these movies might offer you a more comfortable doorway into the possibilities that are out there. They’ll appeal to some of the things you love about American film while still allowing you to see just what makes the exploration of world cinema such a life-expanding pursuit.
Knife In The Water (1962): You’ve probably seen at least one or two of Roman Polanski’s Hollywood pictures: Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist. While the director’s personal life is a deserving target of condemnation, there’s no denying his contributions to film history. But few casual movie fans know that his very first film comes from his native Poland. Shot under the watch of an oppressive communist government, Knife In The Water is a stunning debut. With crisp black-and-white cinematography and a Hitchcockian flair for suspense, it does so much with so little. An affluent, middle-aged couple picks up a young hitchhiker and, on a whim, invites him to join them on their sailing trip. But it quickly devolves into a contest of masculinity between the cocky, good-looking young hitchhiker and the threatened husband determined to break him. Polanski uses the subtext between dialogue to say everything by saying nothing, and as the tension slowly escalates, you could almost mistake the film for a superb Hollywood thriller. But the latent class struggles and tragic history of Poland simmer beneath that familiar surface to make Knife In The Water an excellent entry point into foreign cinema. Subtitles or no, you won’t be bored.
Wild Strawberries (1957): On the more introspective side is Wild Strawberries, one of the many masterpieces of Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman. An elderly professor takes a roadtrip with his pregnant daughter-in-law to receive an honorary degree from his alma mater, and along the way, finds meaning in his life. As several hitchhikers join them on their trip, each serves as a reminder of a period of regret from his youth. Through conversation and a series of flashbacks, he tries to make peace with those episodes and with the family he has kept at arm’s length. It’s a moving picture, funny at times and sad at others, and its humanity and insight pierce any linguistic barriers. The catalogue of Bergman is expansive, ranging from dark historical melodrama (The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring) to biting satire (A Lesson In Love) to psychological horror (Persona), but Wild Strawberries finds the sweet spot in the middle.
Belle Du Jour (1967): Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Belle Du Jour is a fucking weird movie. But for those looking for something a little more modern and a lot more adult, this 60s French-language exploration of sexual empowerment from Spanish director Luis Bunuel will intrigue. A bored, beautiful Parisian housewife (Catherine Denueve) decides to take a day job in a brothel where she can let loose her inner fetishes, but inevitably, one of her clients threatens to expose her alter ego to her husband. That sounds like fairly standard French movie fare, but Bunuel unleashes constant intrusions of Salvador Dali-esque surrealism, as dream sequences and delusions cut beneath Denueve’s stoic facade to give vision to her suppressed fears and needs. Pay close attention to the way Bunuel uses sound as a signal of what’s real and what’s not. The meaning may cross into the enigmatic by the end, but it certainly provokes, presenting a complex female character who was two generations ahead of her time.
M (1931): Provocative for an entirely different reason is Fritz Lang’s M, an early German film whose subject matter would be shocking even today. Few studio heads would dare greenlight a film about a serial killer of children, but in daring to go there, Lang and star Peter Lorre present as vivid a picture of pure evil as you’ll ever see on screen. Indeed, Lorre’s murderer touches off such a wave of terror that the mob become the good guys, taking it upon themselves to hunt down and capture the culprit. This inversion of morality challenges our accepted notions of justice when the killer comes before a jury of his peers—a kangaroo court of criminals where neither the accusers nor the accused hold the high ground. The madness of mob justice features prominently in several of Lang’s films, like Metropolis and Fury—not surprising for a filmmaker who fled Nazi Germany when Joseph Goebbels gave him a job offer he couldn’t refuse. M is one of the most chilling movies ever made, both for its villain and for what it says about us.
Nights Of Cabiria (1957): Part comedy, part tearjerker, Federico Fellini’s Nights Of Cabiria can be viewed as a different era’s Pretty Woman. A prostitute with a heart of gold falls in love with a man after a chance encounter, and through him, sees a way to an ordinary life. Fellini’s direction gives the movie an air of Italian romance, though he also lets the lens linger on his country’s poverty and class division long enough to give the film the gravity of real world consequence. But this is really Giulietta Massina’s movie. Often described as the female Chaplin, her ability to endear herself to the viewer with comical facial expressions and oddball physical mannerisms makes her instantly lovable. Yet she also has the range to carry the film’s more serious moments with authenticity and vulnerability, making you feel the constant heartache of a woman whose fear of losing the dream life dangling before her threatens to undo everything. She won Best Actress at Cannes, and the movie took home the second of two consecutive Oscars for Fellini in the Best Foreign Language Film category. There are so many possible entry points into Italian cinema—most of them going through Fellini—but none will hit you in the heart quite like this one.
In The Mood For Love (2000): For a more recent classic of international cinema, look to In The Mood For Love from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. What it lacks in story complexity, it makes up for in visual flair and atmosphere. Set in 60s Hong Kong, it shows the budding friendship—or is it a romance?—between two neighbors who realize their spouses are having an affair with each other. The cinematography alone makes this movie worth the watch; Wong’s lush use of color makes the film like a living, breathing painting. With a Mad Men-like sense of nostalgia, the movie captures a lost era, and uses that sense of time past as a stand-in for the deeper life’s loss at the center of its story. And language matters little here, because so much about the feelings these two characters struggle with is said with expressions, gestures, and actions not taken that it translates to any viewer. How good is it? Just twelve years after its release, highbrow film publication Sight & Sound was already naming it the 24th greatest film of all time. Not a bad resume for a movie whose full impact is still percolating in the film world’s consciousness.
For more great foreign film recommendations, read what we’ve had to say previously about pictures like The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, Let The Right One In, Victoria, Lake Mungo, and a whole slew of others in our World Cup Of Cinema series.