Culture Up: Foreign Films

I was a little ambitious when I originally planned my “Culture Up” posts.  A surprising amount of work goes into each other (though they probably don’t read that way).

My aspirations were to become more like

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but I’m more like

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So, instead of twice a month, you’ll be getting culture posts from me once a month.  They won’t be as in-depth, but they’ll cover more breadth.  For instance, this one!


Emador’s Top 5 Foreign Films

5. The Bicycle Thief (1948)

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I admit it. The first two or three times I saw this movie, I hated it. I hated it and Italian Neo-Realism and all their stupid…realism. Seriously. This movie is about a guy and his little boy. And his bike gets stolen. They spend the rest of the movie walking around the city looking for the bike. SPOILER ALERT: They don’t get the bike back.

During Italian Neo-Realism movement, the Italians were really into portraying life as it really was. Forget Hollywood and all of its glitz and glamor. They showed life with all of its grit and disappointment. Sometimes when you lost your bike, even if your livelihood depended on it, it stayed stolen. Keep in mind, this movement happened just after WWII ended. The Italians weren’t too keen on pretending life was anything except what it was.

To either love or hate a movie like this, you look at movies in one of two ways. You can look at movies as a way to escape daily life. Hollywood movies were often made with this in mind – big screen heroes saving the day.  You also can look at movies as an art form, not just entertainment.  In this case, art often imitates, commentates upon, and reflects real life.  The Bicycle Thief attempts (and succeeds) in the latter.

Also, the little boy, Bruno, is so stinkin’ adorable.

4. “Les quatre cents coups” (a.k.a. The 400 Blows) (1959)

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The English title of this film is a literal translation of the title, but it misses the meaning it has in French.  The title refers to a French idiom that basically means to raise hell.  That’s exactly what Antoine, the main character, does.  He’s growing up in Paris in the mid-1950’s and is constantly truant from school, running away from home, and causing trouble.  He plagiarizes and quits school, steals a typewriter from his stepfather, and ends up staying the night in jail.  He eventually is put into a center for troubled youth and that’s where the movie ends.

Ah, French New Wave.  The artists of the French New Wave hated the period pieces often put out by French studios and wanted contemporary pieces.  The films are often filmed more like a documentary, both in style and set-up.  Portable equipment, long takes, and discontinuous editing was the name of the game.

3. Seven Samurai (1954)

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Considering that this movie was the basis for both Magnificent Seven and A Bug’s Life, you really can’t go wrong.  Poor Japanese villagers are being bullied by bandits, so they recruit seven ronin (masterless samurai) to help them defend their village.  Classic. 3 1/2 hours of classic (if you watch it a 1.5 speed, you won’t miss a thing).

From a technical standpoint, the film used multiple cameras and telephoto lenses (both of which were not commonly used at the time). Seven Samurai was the first film to utilize the trope of gathering heroes to form a team to accomplish a mission.  Basically, they were the first Avengers.

2. Kanal (1956)

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Kanal is the second in a trilogy of films about Poland’s involvement in WWII.  It takes place during the Warsaw Uprising when the Home Army was resisting Nazi occupation, just as the Soviet are about to invade. Being trapped between the Nazis and the Communists is not a happy place to be.  The Home Army is surrounded and they need to retreat to the city center – the only way to do that is through the city’s sewers – and that is where the majority of the film takes place.  Like any well-made WWII film, it rips your heart out, but it’s so good.

The Polish Film School is quite possibly my favorite movement of all. When I was in college (doing all of my film studies), I was hugely into war movies. Any and every kind of war movie you could conceive of, I was into. I was also into learning everything that could possibly be learned about WWII. So Andrezej Wajda’s movies were a big hit with me.

1. Joyeux Noel (2005)

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WWI. Christmas. Peace on Earth. It doesn’t get much better than this.  Joyeux Noel tells the story of one of the WWI Christmas truces that occurred up and down the front lines on December 24, 1914.  The movie follows three leaders – one Scottish, one German, and one French, before and after the Christmas Eve and Christmas day unofficial cessation of hostilities.

The most touching scene happens when one of the Germans is in his trench with his fellow soldiers and he begins singing “Adeste Fidelis” (“O Come All Ye Faithful” in its original German). The Scottish hear and in a pause in the song, the Germans hear the tune begin played on the bagpipes across no man’s land.  The German sings back and both parties rise up out of the trenches.  I bawl my eyes out every time.

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