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By Martin Keady · March 15, 2023
Non-English films and TV shows are having a moment. Squid Game (South Korea) racked up over 1.6 billion hours viewed in its first 28 days on Netflix. Money Heist (Spain) became Netflix’s most-watched international series in a non-English language. And for the last five years, non-English films have garnered Academy Award nominations in the Best Picture category, with Parasite (South Korea) taking home the Oscar in 2019. Suffice it to say, people are in search of the best foreign films to enjoy.
But let’s back up.
In the beginning, there was only one cinematic language: the universal language of images. In the Silent Era, all films were subtitled, with intertitles that relayed important plot points or lines of dialogue, so it was ultimately irrelevant whether a film was nominally in English or not.
However, as the 20th century progressed, the coming of sound and the increasing acceptance of English as the universal language (of air travel, business, and culture) meant that there was a schism between English-language cinema, which became by far the most dominant cinematic language globally, and non-English language cinema, which became more marginalized as a result (at least in the Anglophone world).
This is obviously a shame, as so many of the greatest films ever made, from the Silent Era till now, have been made in languages other than English. Here are 10 of the best foreign films that demand to be seen.
Directed by Fritz Lang; Screenplay by Thea von Harbou, based on her 1925 novel
Ironically, the high point of silent film-making came in the same year as the arrival of sound. Two of the greatest silent movies of them all, and certainly the two greatest silent movies in languages other than English, arrived just before the release of The Jazz Singer. It was the film that changed everything.
The first of those two silent non-English language epics was Abel Gance’s Napoleon, an extraordinary masterpiece of fluid, indeed seemingly unceasing, cinematography. This style is completely at odds with that of The Jazz Singer and other early sound films, whose camerawork was necessarily limited by the need to record sound as well as pictures.
However, I have plumped for Metropolis ahead of Napoleon because, as the first sci-fi cinema classic (at least in feature form, after the earlier shorts of Georges Méliès), it has been more influential. Indeed, in its depiction of a world in which the rich literally live over and above the underground-dwelling poor, it foresaw much of the 21st century, barely a quarter of a century into the 20th.
Read More: Out of This World Sci-Fi Screenplays
Directed by Jean Renoir; Written by Renoir and Charles Spaak
There are so many great directors and screenwriters not in this collection (including such titans as Ray, Tarkovsky, and Bergman) that it may seem perverse to include two films by the same director. However, if any director deserves to have such a “double bill,” it is Jean Renoir, arguably the greatest film director who ever lived.
La Grande Illusion is the first of Renoir’s great pair of films made on the eve of WW2, which looked back at WW1 and also foresaw the coming war. In La Grande Illusion, Renoir examines the often absurd aristocratic beliefs that would be shattered forever by WWI. However, he also shows the enormous emotion, even tenderness, that war and trying to survive it creates, especially in the film’s celebrated ending, where an unlikely love affair develops between an escaped French POW and the young German widow who saves him. When he promises to return to her after the war, there is absolutely no guarantee that he will, but at least there is the possibility: the possibility of hope.
Read More: The Top 10 Renoir Movies
Directed by Jean Renoir; Written by Renoir and Carl Koch
Renoir’s second “Eve of War” masterpiece, La Règle Du Jeu (The Rules Of The Game), showed how little had been learned from WWI, which, of course, was supposed to be the war to end all wars. And it is almost the diametrical opposite of La Grande Illusion, showing not POWs but the rich and privileged inhabitants of a country house as they gather together for a party.
La Règle Du Jeu was perfectly titled because the film portrays a world controlled by rules, such that ordinary human relationships, especially those between members of different social classes, are often difficult, if not impossible. However, it also foresaw the coming world, which would be one almost entirely without rules, such that social niceties gave way to the bureaucratic tyranny of the concentration camp. Of course, Renoir does not depict all of this in La Règle Du Jeu, but he hints at it beautifully and profoundly. And within a few months of the film’s release in July 1939, his worst fears would begin to be realized.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Written by Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto, based on the short stories In a Grove and Rashōmon by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Like so much of the continent itself, many European film industries were largely destroyed by WW2. However, another vital non-English language cinema emerged on the other side of the world in another country primarily destroyed by war – Japan. And it was Akira Kurosawa’s remarkable Rashomon that really launched Japanese cinema on the global stage.
Rashomon was the perfect film for the new nuclear age, and a world almost completely lost faith in the old pre-war ideals about life and cinema itself. If, before Rashomon, cinema had been considered the great conveyor of truth, Rashomon showed how it could also be the ultimate means of creating deception, or at least uncertainty. It portrayed four different versions of the same event – a sexual assault and murder – from four other points of view. Indeed, Rashomon didn’t just show the ending of the old certainties but arguably anticipated our own “post-truth age,” in which seemingly no one is to be believed.
Read More: Screenwriting and Filmmaking Wisdom from Akira Kurosawa
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot; Written by Clouzot and Jérome Geronimi, based on the novel of the same name by Georges Arnaud
Some English-speaking audiences still tend to perceive foreign films as uninteresting simply because they require reading in addition to viewing, especially for those who only speak English. Le Salaire De La Peur (The Wages Of Fear) gives the lie to such misconceptions because it is arguably the greatest action film ever made in any language.
Desperate men in South America are offered the chance to earn their airfare back to Europe if they risk their lives by delivering nitro-glycerine to help put out an oilfield fire on the other side of a mountain range. It is almost a suicide mission because the explosive is so volatile that it could go off at any moment, especially if it hits a bump.
What follows is a slow-moving epic, as the men, driving different vehicles, attempt to reach the oilfield and thus earn their ticket home. Although the backdrops used throughout may alienate some younger viewers, allowance must be made for the film-making technology of the time. And there is certainly no need to make allowances for any other aspect of Le Salaire De La Peur, which is what might be called a genuine action movie – one that is set on Earth in the present and not in space in the future, and so is realistic and not fantastical – par excellence.
Directed by Yasujirō Ozu; Written by Ozu and Kōgo Noda
The other Japanese film on this list is the polar opposite of Rashomon, in that it is the simplest epic film ever made. Tokyo Story depicts the journey to the Japanese capital of an elderly couple who want to visit their children (and daughter-in-law), but in the process, discover, as almost all parents do, that their children may not love them quite as much as they had hoped. Instead, it is their daughter-in-law, the widow of their son who had died in the war, who is most welcoming, showing how families are not just made up of those born into them.
Indeed, Tokyo Story is probably the greatest film about family ever made. It shows how parents and children are almost always at odds with each other, partly because, of necessity, they come from different generations. We may not all be Japanese pensioners struggling on and off trains with our luggage while waiting for disinterested children to come and pick us up, but we all are, or at least were, at some point, part of a family. And Tokyo Story shows just how difficult and rewarding that can be.
Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard; Story by François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (uncredited)
The death last year of Jean-Luc Godard was a reminder of the greatness of the greatest nouvelle vague (French New Wave) director and, in particular, of his greatest film, À bout de souffle (Breathless). Indeed, as was said at the time by many film critics and historians, if Godard had never made another film in his career, he would still have been hugely influential.
Martin Scorsese and others have referred to À bout de souffle (Breathless) as “the axis of film history,” the one film that changed everything artistically, just as The Jazz Singer, the first commercially successful sound film, changed everything scientifically or technically. In one sense, it was a look back to the past, to the original noirs of Nick Ray and other American directors that had emerged in the wake of WW2. But in another sense, it was completely future-facing, even futuristic, in its portrayal of an amoral young man on the run who didn’t seem to care whether he would be caught.
Perhaps the most important invention (or at least popularisation) of Godard in À bout de souffle (Breathless) was his radical use of the jump-cut to communicate the sense of jumping forward in time. Of course, this was the perfect cinematic technique for a film that itself jumped forward in time from the more moribund, studio-bound film-making of the past to the faster, more improvisatory, and more independent film-making of the future
Directed by Luchino Visconti; Written by Visconti, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, and René Barjavel, based on the novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Alongside De Sica, Rossellini, and others, Luchino Visconti had been one of the fathers of Italian Neo-Realism after the end of WW2. Still, less than two decades later, he had effectively left behind the movement and its emphasis on the working class and the poor. Instead, he made a film about Sicilian aristocrats struggling to respond to the increasing calls for Italian unification. And in the process, he made perhaps the greatest period drama ever made.
The cinematography of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), by Giuseppe Rotunno, is extraordinary, capturing the Sicilian sun’s searing, almost blinding, light. However, it is only one element of Visconti’s luminous storytelling. The titular leopard is an aging aristocrat (played by Burt Lancaster) who may still have claws but no longer has the speed or agility to adapt to changing circumstances. And as his social order crumbles around him, the conventions of period drama film-making up to that point are also challenged, especially in the famous sequence in which the aristocrats at a ball are all brought their own piss-pots to relieve themselves after imbibing. In depicting the aristocracy at its most aristocratic and the often-tawdry reality behind that show, Visconti made a period drama for the ages.
Written and directed by Ousmane Sembène
The titles of films are often mistranslated, sometimes with hilarious results. For example, White Men Can’t Jump (1992), Ron Shelton’s basketball comedy, was famously rendered in German as “White Men Can’t Get It Up.” Similarly, the first film of Ousmane Sembène, who is often called The Father of African Film, is usually given in English as “The Black Girl,” when in reality the “de” in the title is vital, as it conveys the sense of her being “somebody’s black girl” or even “somebody’s idea of a black girl.”
The distinction is important because the film is about the appropriation, both literally and metaphorically, of black culture and even black people by the white (and invariably English-speaking) world. It shows a young Senegalese girl, Diouana, moving between her homeland and France, its imperial occupier, and experiencing great difficulty as she tries to transition between Africa and Europe.
Earlier films such as Satyajit Ray’s seminal Pather Panchali (1955) opened up the eyes of Western audiences to the issues of the developing world. However, La Noire De… (The Black Girl) is arguably even more important in that it shows the clash of the developing and supposedly “developed” worlds. Indeed, in the 21st century, in which climate collapse is driving more and more people to flee “the global south” in search of a better life in “the global north,” it is arguably one of the most prophetic films ever made.
Written and directed by Chantal Akerman
When Chantal Akerman’s extraordinary portrait of a seemingly ordinary sex worker, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, was voted No.1 in the 2022 Sight and Sound list of The 100 Greatest Films Ever Made, it was rightly regarded as a triumph for feminist (or even just female-made) cinema. However, it was also a triumph for non-English language cinema. It was the first non-English language film to head the list since its first iteration in 1952 when De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves was voted No.1.
Hopefully, this is evidence of growing critical and audience acceptance of the best foreign films. When Parasite became the first non-English language film to win the Best Picture Oscar in 2020, it seemed that it might herald a new golden age of non-English language cinema, only for the pandemic to intervene almost immediately and curtail nearly all cinema, whether it was made in English or not.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is also a landmark in another respect. In showing how seemingly ordinary stories set in seemingly ordinary domestic settings can themselves be truly epic, it anticipated a trend in cinema that is now perhaps unstoppable.
Read More: ‘Jeanne Dielman’ Getting Sight & Sound’s Top Spot Isn’t Woke. It’s Reality
For so much of its history, cinema meant films shown on big screens. But ever since the development of video at the end of the 1970s, there has been a gradual move away from public screening to private screening, which has only been accentuated by both the pandemic and the corresponding increase in streaming. On the one hand, this is disappointing, as the greatest films should be made for and shown on the biggest screens. On the other hand, if more films are as emotionally powerful and unconventionally “epic” as Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles can be made, that will be considerable compensation.
The emergence of sound and the growing influence of English as a universal language resulted in a schism between English-language cinema and non-English language cinema. Despite this, many of the greatest films ever made come from languages other than English, and it is important to recognize and appreciate the richness of other cinematic languages. As such, it is imperative to seek out and watch films from various linguistic backgrounds, including the 10 of the best foreign films mentioned earlier, to truly appreciate the art of cinema in all its forms.