Without doubt the eyes of the world are on the major American films during the once a year Academy Awards presentation. One of the categories, however, that is often treated as a stepchild is the foreign film category. Yes, each year on the Oscar telecast foreign films are presented as a category and the nominees and the winner do get their brief moment in the sun. Afterwards, these films often fade back to obscurity. Film enthusiasts know that if more viewers really paid attention to this category they would learn that foreign films often showcase undiscovered treasure.
It is true that foreign films are still a hard sell in the United States market. The films often play at smaller “art houses” and not the major multiplexes frequented by most American movie goers. At the same time, most foreign films focus more on story and character and less on car chases and explosions. They are known to be more cerebral and thoughtful. The casts are largely unknown in the United States. Studies have also shown that many American viewers simply do not prefer to sit through a film with subtitles.
As a result, foreign films seem to come and go very quickly. Further, their box office is too often anemic. In fact, some observers think that foreign films are becoming an endangered species at the American box office. There was a time in America, particularly in the 60s and 70s, when foreign films were more popular. One was seen as hip when discussing foreign films at the water cooler. These days, not so much. Foreign films were also sexy and provided a luring window to the world.
For example, the 1960s brought the film world Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita which is still the highest grossing foreign film of all time. It grossed some $20 million at the time which would translate into $240 million today. Most foreign films never approach those numbers.
Over the years many astute film critics will tell you that foreign films are still among the best films that the world of movies has to offer. They say that, these days, in particular, there is no excuse for at least not taking a peek at these films since many are soon available on surging internet streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu and others. In effect, instead of going to the art house, the art house has come to the viewer.
From time to time foreign films will cross over and become a world breakaway hit because of word of mouth. Over the years, for example, the foreign film category has brought the world such modern classics as China’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Italy’s Life is Beautiful; Mexico’s Pan’s Labyrinth; France’s La Cage aux Folles; Spain’s All About My Mother, and Italy’s Il Postino. On rare occasions, films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Italy’s Life is Beautiful creep into the main best film category and thus have their profile raised.
Then there are the better known all time classics of foreign cinema such as Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, The 400 Blows, The Seven Samurai, The Battle of Algiers, La Dolce Vita, Breathless, Rashomon, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and others. These films have also introduced the world to some of the greatest film directors of all time including Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman, Italy’s Federico Fellini, France’s Francois Truffaut, Japan’s Akira Kurosawa and Spain’s Luis Bunel. Those directors have also launched the worldwide careers of such well-known actors as Marcello Mastroianni, Toshiro Mifune, Max von Sydow, and Jeanne Moreau.
What are the nominees for best foreign film for 2013? They include Omar from Palestine, a thriller about a young Palestinian man dragged into the murder of an Israeli solder; The Missing Picture from Cambodia, a documentary about the horrific atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. The Hunt from Denmark, about a teacher wrongly accusing of child abuse; The Great Beauty from Italy, a tale of a once promising writer reflecting back on his life; and The Broken Circle Breakdown from Belgium, about a couple’s daughter who is battling leukemia set against a backdrop of bluegrass music.
This year when the Academy Awards broadcast features the foreign film category, film enthusiasts hope viewers will sit up and take more notice and then be encouraged to buy a real or streaming ticket for foreign films as these films can often showcase much undiscovered treasure.
By Jim McCullaugh