Last summer, I interned at a film company based in New York that promotes foreign films to American audiences. Over the course of the internship, I watched and researched hundreds of films from around the world, most of which were unknown to me.
It is natural to be intimidated by subtitles, but to limit ourselves to movies in our native language is a mistake. What I have come to value about foreign films is how — whether in the form of an unfamiliar language, setting or culture — they challenge us to sit with and reinvent our own understandings of what film can be and how it can make us feel. In this medium, artistic choices often feel heightened as we must overcome language barriers and identify with cultures that differ greatly from our own.
Here, I’ve compiled a list of five films from five different countries. Some of the films on this list might be your thing; some of them might not be. But, hopefully, they will click for you as much as they do for me, or at least give you insight into what global cinema can offer.
France, “35 Shots of Rum” (2008)
“35 Shots of Rum” is French director Claire Denis’ warmest film, an homage to Yasujiro Ozu’s “Late Spring” (1949). The film unfolds in an apartment building in Paris’s 18th arrondissement, home to widowed father Lionel (Alex Descas) and his university-aged daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop). Calming, quiet shots linger on the pair, emphasizing the nonverbal intimacy between them. There is also Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), an ex of Lionel’s who still longs for him, and Noé (Grégoire Colin), a moody bachelor with a crush on Joséphine.
In one of my favorite scenes, the four head out together one night to attend a concert. Gabrielle’s car breaks down and to get out of the rain, they escape into a Jamaican café. Noé cuts in on a father-daughter dance between Lionel and Joséphine to “Night Shift” by the Commodores. The dynamics of the group shift before their very eyes — and our own. What I love most about this film is how real it feels. There is no climax, but change gradually comes in one way or another as the characters move quietly through their lives.
Brazil, “City of God” (2002)
“City of God,” which might be the most well known film on this list, offers a visceral look at life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro from the 1960s to the 1980s. The film’s approach to representing violence is incredible, packaging its brutality with tight editing and great performances from its cast of mostly non-professional actors. Filmed on location in Rio’s poorest neighborhoods, it documents the fictional lives of kids growing up in the favelas, from José “Zé” Pequeno (Douglas Silva), an ambitious drug dealer, to Rocket (Phellipe Haagensen), an amateur photographer whose photos of the drug-related violence in his neighborhood are used by Zé to rise to fame. “City of God” is a technical triumph — breathtaking and brutal.
“What I have come to value about foreign films is how — whether in the form of an unfamiliar language, setting or culture — they challenge us to sit with and reinvent our own understandings of what film can be and how it can make us feel.”
Taiwan, “Millennium Mambo” (2001)
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Millennium Mambo” is a slow but mesmerizing movie. It also has one of the best uses of electronic music I’ve ever heard. The film does not adhere to a linear timeline. Time is circular and fractured, marking the uncertainty of the new millennium for Vicky (Shu Qi), a beautiful club girl who keeps going back to her amateur DJ boyfriend, Hao-Hao (Tuan Chun-hao). In a haze of fluorescent club lights, cigarette smoke and throbbing electronica, she floats through her empty life in the metropolis of Taipei. New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell wrote in his 2003 review that “the insistence of high-throb electronica calls out to Vicky, so that she pounds the thoughts out of her head.” This is not a perfect film — there is no such thing. Qi’s performance as Vicky lacks depth, which sometimes works for her emotionally remote character and sometimes does not. However, what is deeply remarkable about “Millennium Mambo” is how Hou Hsiao-Hsien uses this unlikely muse to explore the hope and malaise of an entire country confronting the new millennium.
Iran, “Taste of Cherry” (1997)
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” is visual poetry. This quiet film follows a middle-aged Tehranian man, Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), who has decided to kill himself, a sin under Islam. Driving around the outskirts of the city, Badii meets with different people, asking them to take on the job of burying him. Kiarostami pairs long tracking shots of a car moving along a dusty road with deep philosophical conversations about existence. You will either find this movie incredibly boring or deeply comforting. For me, it is the latter.
Japan, “Tampopo” (1985)
“Tampopo” is a “ramen western” by Japanese director Juzo Itami, in which a pair of truck drivers encounter a roadside restaurant selling ramen noodles. The widowed owner, Tampopo, begs them to help her turn her shop into the perfect ramen restaurant. This story is interspersed with vignettes set around Tokyo. Itami’s film bends genre, alternating between comedy and romance to show both the innocence and sensuality of food culture. While “Tampopo” is the oldest film on this list, its color grading, cinematography and original screenplay more than stand the test of time.
In the age of digital distribution, American audiences now have unprecedented access to foreign films and television. This presents us with the opportunity to look past the cultural myopia of Hollywood; to foster empathy and reinforce our interconnectedness on a global scale. Just as Bong Joon-Ho aptly said upon receiving his Golden Globe for “Parasite”: “I think we use just one language — the cinema.”
Hannah Eliot SC ’24 is from San Francisco, California. She likes to surf and is always looking for more films to watch.