Watching Foreign Language Films, Rich Paschall

Unless you were born in another country or became fluent in another language, you probably have little interest in foreign language films. The language barrier is something many of us do not wish to overcome while reading subtitles. So we take a pass on them, and in turn may be missing some of the best films ever made.

Even if you are interested in films of another language, where would you go to see them? Large cities might have “art houses” that show indie and foreign language films, but that is not the case in most locales. You can always order them online, but do you want to own a foreign language DVD or stream a film to your computer or tablet? Perhaps the whole process of tracking down the good ones to watch seems to be more trouble than it is worth.

For most of my life I had zero interest in these films. Yes, I could find some and I was aware that there were excellent foreign films showing here, but basically I thought it should be left to the snobs who were proud of themselves for seeing something the rest of us did not. I thought of that in much the same way I see pretentious art critics standing in front of a painting while making pronouncements about brush strokes or some other obscure point. I was wrong, not about the art snobs but about foreign language films. They are as vibrant and artistic as anything Hollywood has to offer.

Living in a largely German American neighborhood, I often heard of the 1981 German-made World War II movie, Das Boot (The Boat). Some friends talked me into watching the gritty and often claustrophobic tale of life and conflict on the U-Boat. At the time it was made, it was the most expensive German film ever produced. The picture received six Oscar nominations. It was both unpleasant and powerful.

Years later a French intern at the company that gave me my day job was surprised to learn I had never seen the highly praised French film, Amelie (French title: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain). The 2001 comedy concerns the title character and her attempts to manipulate everyone’s life but her own. She even sets out to improve the life of her father, depressed since the death of his wife. Without giving away more, I can say that I now know why there was a travelling gnome in the Travelocity commercials.

My friendship with several Frenchmen, including one who is now among my best friends, has led me to a number of French films, including the classic comedy La Cage Aux Folles. Roughly translated this means The Cage with Madwomen (or Queens, as in homosexuals).  I have enjoyed the French films, and while my French is terrible, I followed along nicely with the aid of subtitles.

Recently I was reading a list of best films of 2014 and found a Portuguese language film from Brazil, Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho (Today I Want To Go Back Alone), but titled The Way He Looks for English-speaking audiences. It is based on a highly regarded 2010 short film, Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho (I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone) by the same film maker. The coming of age story originally ran just 17 minutes, the new feature runs 96.

There are plenty of coming of age stories and I thought I had seen my fair share. This included the German language film Sommersturm (Summer Storm) which I viewed at the Music Box theater in Chicago. The one time first run theater, and home of many of my Saturday afternoon movie and cartoon features as a child, has mercifully found new life playing indie films and old features. A former screening room, holding less that 100 seats, is now the site of many of  these foreign language films that will not find a wide audience.

On the recommendation of the reviewer, I sought out the Brazilian short film on You Tube. It was easy to find and I confess I was memorized by the tale of the teenagers trying to make their way in the world.  The writer and director Daniel Ribeiro found his young players through auditions. They are all perfectly cast and totally believable in their roles. This was particularly difficult for the lead character as I will explain below the short.

When it came time to make the feature, some years after the short, the director faced an interesting decision. Who shall be the lead teenagers in the movie? After all, the charm of the short, now with almost 4 million hits on You Tube, is the principal players. The solution was to bring the two boys and lead girl back.  The fact that they looked a little older actually works in pushing the story a little further. No, you will not see portrayals of teenage sex. There is nothing even close. You will learn how they feel as they grow to realize their feelings for one another.

My research indicated the DVD would be out in March, but my good fortune discovered the film was playing at the Music Box! I was off to see the feature film almost immediately. The longer version meant additional characters. Leonardo, the main character portrayed by Ghilherme Lobo who at this writing is only 19 in real life, now has protective parents. Additional classmates include boys who torment him for being different. He’s blind. Giovana, portrayed by Tess Amorim, is the girl who helps him get around and develops feelings for her friend. The new boy, who gets a seat in class behind Leo, is Gabriel as played by Fabio Audi. His introduction into the mix creates both an awakening and confusion of feelings for Leo.

When someone mentions that Gabriel is good-looking, Leo asks Giovana if he himself is good-looking. He has no idea the way he looks. When Gabriel takes Leo on adventures only sighted people have, Leo is intrigued and Giovana is jealous. Just who loves whom will become clear enough in due time. The ending, while not a total surprise or even huge in a cinematic sense, is nonetheless satisfying.

Having opened in Brazil in April 2014 to strong attendance and critical acclaim after a round of successful screenings and awards at film festivals, Brazil chose this film as its entrant in the Best Foreign Film category at the 87th Academy Awards. Fifty countries submitted their best efforts. The short list for consideration by the Academy was cut down to 9 movies. The Way He Looks was not on the list, so you will not hear it announced in the coming week. Perhaps it did not stand a chance against the heavy crime dramas and political stories. It is just a charming film, beautifully enacted by a crew of handsome young players and a strong supporting cast. It will leave you with a smile, and sometimes that is all a film should aspire to do.

Be sure to hit the CC at the bottom for captions, unless you know Portuguese, of course. Here is the trailer for American audiences:


  1. Marilyn Armstrong January 11, 2015 / 12:16 am

    I used to occasionally go to see foreign films when I lived in New York and there were art film theaters in the neighborhood. Of course, when I lived in Israel, anything that didn’t come from the U.S. or England was (to me) in a foreign language. The subtitles were in Arabic and Hebrew, neither of which I could read. I remember sitting through a couple of Russian films (I was dating a Russian guy) and not understanding anything. Including my date. However, every once in a while, we still watch a foreign language movie. If you haven’t seen Cinema Paradiso, it’s not new … I don’t remember the year … but it’s lovely. And some others. Thanks for an intersting post. You have reminded me to check through the offerings on Netflix and Amazon Prime to see what’s available.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Rich Paschall January 11, 2015 / 12:38 am

      I watched the trailer for Cinema Paradiso and it has been remastered and released on DVD with 51 additional minutes. That makes me wonder why it was not there in the first place. It does look beautiful. I think I will like it. The Russian film Leviathan takes the place of the Brazilian film this weekend at the Music Box. It may get an Oscar nomination. I am actually glad these films are not dubbed. That always inspires me to watch something else.


      • Marilyn Armstrong January 11, 2015 / 12:44 am

        Dubbing is the pits. No movie should be dubbed. You get more sense from the real voices even if you don’t understand the language!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Garry Armstrong January 11, 2015 / 12:24 pm

      I think I was 16 or 17 (?) when I saw a double bill (almost said double header) of “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (without subtitles) and “Open City” (with subtitles). A very interesting afternoon. Both stayed with me for a very long time. On another note, I went to our local theater that showed lots of porn. I went in with great expectation and saw “Tunes of Glory”. What a bizarre and pleasant surprise. Nice one, Rich.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rich Paschall January 11, 2015 / 12:29 pm

        I guess I did see little bits of old Japanese black and white monster movies with subtitles on television decades ago. There is nothing like a Japanese monster eating people and crushing your fake buildings and cars.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A Home Cook January 11, 2015 / 2:39 am

    We have our international film festival every year here. I’ve missed a few (um, a decade’s worth) due to young children, but there have been some excellent films over the years. The joys of living in a capital city, I guess.

    The funniest thing is when you do speak the language, or if you’re with someone who does. There’s always this undercurrent of ‘that’s not what he/she/they said” comments as those in the know realise the subtitlers couldn’t make the words match the speech in the short sequence of frames available.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rich Paschall January 11, 2015 / 11:53 am

      It’s true, Sometimes they can not put all the words up and sometimes the literal translation would make no sense to us. I still want to hear the sounds of the original actors. That helps understand the emotions.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Marilyn Armstrong January 11, 2015 / 12:04 pm

        Even with closed captions, which we use all the time, that’s true.


  3. bkpyett January 11, 2015 / 3:36 am

    We used to belong to a film club that showed mostly foreign films. Really wonderful! Great post!


    • Rich Paschall January 11, 2015 / 11:50 am

      Thanks. There really are many good ones available to us each year.


  4. swo8 January 11, 2015 / 12:01 pm

    I listened to the first part without the subtitles and could understand a fair bit. Lovely movie, very touching.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rich Paschall January 14, 2015 / 11:35 pm

      I recommend the feature film. It is just as nice as the short.


    • Rich Paschall January 15, 2015 / 11:59 pm

      I am glad you liked it. The feature is also very nice.


  5. Rich Paschall January 17, 2016 / 12:15 pm

    Reblogged this on Sunday Night Blog and commented:

    This was written last year when “The Way He Looks” played in limited release in America.


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