• James Kunovski

Tribute to Those Overlooked: International Feature Film

Subtitled: A Starting Point for World Cinema

“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” – Bong Joon-ho

Overlooked by the Academy, yet outstanding as ever, the following works demonstrate the brilliance of cinematic language. Traversing the globe, they provide a snapshot of the human condition and hold the power to broaden understanding and worldview. Their testimony and impact are truly universal. There are several films beyond the realms of Hollywood that are crucial to piecing film history together. Credit is due to German expressionism and French new-wave. Unfortunately, not all of these are represented below. I am tempted to create a much more all-encompassing look at world cinema and its relation to Hollywood to highlight this.


My picks today mostly straddle the borders of Europe and Asia, but great world cinema should not be mistaken as being exclusive to these continents.

In regard to the category (recently retitled to “best international film”) there are several factors at play that may have led to the following films’ exclusion. For instance, eligible countries submit only one film for consideration, as a way to prevent the category being stacked by a single country. This year, France questionably submitted Les Misérables, a social drama centred around a Parisian protest instead of the universally acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire, resulting in the shutout of the latter work.


Moreover, the film’s language means more to the criteria than the nationality as evidenced by the disqualification of any film with more than fifty percent English dialogue. This included Israel’s life-affirming The Band’s Visit from 2007, and this year with Austria’s submission Joy, about the sex trafficking that occurs behind Vienna’s closed doors despite the creator’s case that English constitutes less than half of the film’s dialogue. No entirely English-language film has won the prize.


In the Oscars’ early days, unlike choices in say, the documentary feature category, Academy members were more open-minded when it came to foreign films, and several classics from De Sica, Kurosawa, Fellini and Bergman have taken the prize.

Without further ado, here are six non-nominated films that deserve your attention.


 

Smiles of a Summer Night | 1955 | Sweden

Directed by Ingmar Bergman


For its masterful balance between humour and tough matrimonial dynamics.


Smiles predates most, if not all, of the Bergman films that may spring to mind when gawking his filmography. With a retrospective pen, his early films, (especially those pre-Wild Strawberries) tend to conjure a lukewarm reception. Smiles of a Summer Night can confidently withdraw itself from that company. It plays like a romantic farce; the type we would see by the hand of George Cukor or Billy Wilder. Bergman, whose writing here is some of the best in his career, carefully maintains the contortion act of upper-class desire in turn-of-the-century Sweden in a who’s who of who’s in love with whom. Let’s not disregard the fact that one of the greatest creators of existentialism on screen also made a pretty ravishing comedy.

Bergman stays true to the themes that would make his work recognisable in the years to come. The sort of themes that include marital angst and generational conflict. His approach infuses a healthy dose of humour along the way. What’s all the more impressive is his seamless ability to go from lightness to melancholy in a way that keeps the production fluidly moving. Not only is the dialogue superb, but the diction of the actors is totally beguiling. Their peppy speech is completely rhythmic and bounces along from punchline to punchline. It seals the deal on this joyous watch. Oh, how blissful it would be to watch this film with Swedish fluency.


As mentioned before, Bergman did not fly under the Academy’s radars unlike other influential global directors. No stranger to the Oscars, he picked up the trophy three times for The Virgin Spring and Through a Glass Darkly (consecutively) along with his generational epic Fanny and Alexander. In addition, he received nine nominations for directing, writing and producing.



Who won in its eligible year?

Italy for La Strada, directed by Federico Fellini


What did critics have to say?

“A delightfully droll contemplation of amorous ardours.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times.


“…conjures up moments of intense despair, bitterness, insecurity, and shame before shifting seamlessly back into stately humour.” – Chris Cabin, Slant.


 

Tokyo Story | 1953 | Japan

Directed by Yasujirō Ozu

For its unglamorous yet truthful study of life.

Most reviewers who laud Ozu’s work will make mention of the simplicity of Tokyo Story’s plot. It is one of the defining features of the film. An aged couple visit Tokyo to see their children, only to discover they no longer have time for them. Their son’s widow takes the duties of keeping them company. Unfortunately, a tragedy occurs. No matter the syntax, for those unfamiliar with the film, it may seem like melodrama. Far from the truth.


Ozu’s framing and pace is simple. The camera remains mostly fixed as we absorb the personalities and behaviours of the characters abound. The film is a lot more complicated and layered than it lets on. It is an overarching tale of familial disconnect in post-war Japan and a criticism of the country’s increased westernisation and subsequent loss of traditional value.

An important note that must be mentioned regarding its omission from the Oscars is that Tokyo Story was not released in the United States until 1972. Distributors labelled the film ‘too Japanese’ to export. The statement is perplexing, considering, even by the 1950s, Japanese films were well received abroad. I wonder how Japanese cinema in '50s America would have been interpreted, if against the backdrop of hugely successful samurai and jidaigeki pics, a portrayal of the Japanese as a people like our own, with their own wants and dreams came to light.


The release misfortune is also sadly ironic, given that most contemporary reviews praise the film for its universal quality. For modern eligible films, an American release is not essential in nabbing a nomination, but the conditions were trickier seventy years ago, and consequently, Tokyo Story was overlooked.



Who won in its eligible year?

Japan, for Gate of Hell directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa (1954)

or

France, for Day for Night directed by François Truffaut (1973)


What did critics have to say?

“As much a journey of discovery as it is an opportunity to reflect.” – James Berardinelli, ReelViews.

“…tells a tale as simple and universal as life itself.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.

“Tokyo Story remains one of the most approachable and moving of all cinema’s masterpieces.” - Wally Hammond, Time Out.


 

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul | 1974 | West Germany

Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder


For its desperately sad premise and naturalistic, remarkable performances.


Originally planned by Fassbinder as an experiment, Fear Eats the Soul was shot in under two weeks. The work makes clear reference to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and his predilection for painting empathetic characters who are trapped in their unlikely social conditions.

The plot is deceiving. On the surface, it is a tale of two unlikely lovers finding warmth in each other, but soon, the encompassing presence of prejudice reveals itself. Unlike its inspirations, Ali downplays any melodrama or contrived monologues and its realistic approach to social problems was beneficial in its contribution to the German new-wave movement of the 1970s.


A scene where Emmi, played by Brigitte Mira, berates an audience of repelled onlookers as she attempts an enjoyable outdoor lunch with her boyfriend, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem – Fassbinder’s real-life partner), haunts me, that many years later.



Who won in its eligible year?

Soviet Union, for Dersu Uzala directed by Akira Kurosawa


What did critics have to say?

“The reason it gathers so much power… is that Fassbinder knew exactly what was meant by the title and made the film so quickly he only had time to tell the truth.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.


“The performances are flawless; the themes remain timely.” – Wendy Ide, The Guardian.


 

The Conformist | 1970 | Italy

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci


For its sleek, refined surface and indicative architectural integrity.

One of the most visually impressive films ever made, owing to the photography of Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) and its towering bureaucratic sets, The Conformist, twisted a blueprint for the type of Hollywood film that would take off in the same decade.

Set in the 1930s, and speaking to the fascism of the era, Marcello, a member of Mussolini’s secret police, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, goes abroad to assassinate his former professor, now an outspoken anti-fascist exile living in Paris. Beyond this, Bertolucci’s film demonstrates both the price of conformity and fascism. The character study of Marcello is a fascinating one. Despite his social intelligence and bureaucratic nature, he is blinded by the intensity to belong to a dominant political group.


If not for the plot, the style of The Conformist should make the film essential viewing. Its expressionism and appeal for architectural presence is often favourably compared to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.



Who won in its eligible year?

Italy, for The Garden of the Finzi-Continis directed by Vittorio De Sica

What did critics have to say?

“…a great film, drunkenly beautiful and deeply disturbing.” – David Thomson, L.A. Weekly.

“…stunning, challenging, transporting film.” – Shawn Levy, The Oregonian.

“…decadent visual beauty…” – Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer.


 

In the Mood for Love | 2000 | Hong Kong

Directed by Wong Kar-wai


For its dreamily composed tale of forbidden love.


The Academy loves a picture about forbidden love. It was certainly the common thread during the 90s as no less than five Best Picture winners resonated those themes.


With that being said, it only makes the omission of this Hong Kong masterpiece all the more surprising.


Watching In the Mood is allowing yourself to be swept up by the foreboding presence of 1960s Hong Kong; Shigeru Umebayashi’s luscious theme, and the brilliance of its slowed montage. The densely populated apartments of the bay lend a hand in atmosphere, as it tells the story of a bond between two neighbours when they learn their spouses are having an affair with their respective partners. In the Mood for Love is an intoxicating experience like no other. Its lasting impact is gloriously defined in those poetic buzzwords below…


Who won in its eligible year?

Bosnia & Herzegovina, for No Man's Land directed by Danis Tanović


What did critics have to say?

“…dizzy with a nose-against-the-glass romantic spirit…” – A.O. Scott – The New York Times.


“Rapturously elegant and deeply sexy in a deliciously restrained way.” – Jonathan Foreman, New York Post.


“...ravishing beyond mortal words.” – Ed Gonzalez, Slant.


 

I find one of the most beneficial ways to explore world cinema, is to first realise they are all inquisitively linked. Whether it originates with its nationality, a director (or said directors’ inspirations) or an actor who dabbles with multi-national European ventures, I truly believe that the rabbit-hole of world cinema is just one subtitled film away...