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.
For most of my life, I had zero interest in these films. I was aware that there were excellent foreign films showing in “art houses” 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 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 large 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 at the time 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 too much, I can say there is a traveling gnome. Seriously.
I moved on to other 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.
When I was reading a list of best foreign films, I found the 2014 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 filmmaker. The coming of age story originally ran just 17 minutes, the 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 than 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 YouTube. It was easy to find and I confess I was impressed 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 close to nine million hits on YouTube, 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, there are no gratuitous sex scenes. You will see how they react as they realize their feelings for one another.
At the time I researched the availability of a DVD, I also discovered that the feature was playing that week at the Music Box! I made plans to see it. The longer version meant additional characters. Leonardo, the main character portrayed by Ghilherme Lobo who was still a teenager, 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 (Hence the English title).
Having opened in Brazil in April 2014 to strong attendance and critical acclaim, and 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 shortlist for consideration by the Academy was cut down to 9 movies. The Way He Looks was not on it. 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:
During these pandemic years, I have watched a number of foreign language films on Amazon Prime Video. I enjoyed the German film “You and I” and decided to purchase a DVD copy, also from Amazon. Most of the dialogue is in German, but some are in English since one of the friends is from England. I thought, “I know this story,” as I was watching it. A young guy comes to another country to work, learns English, and makes a friend. Later they go on an adventure together. Yes, I can relate. Sometimes movies do that too.
See also: “Coming Of Age,” My Favorite Films, SERENDIPITY, August 9, 2020.