Lost In Translation: Making the Leap to Foreign Films

Foreign features are arguably the most underappreciated genre by Americans, which is understandable considering most Americans only speak one language. There’s nothing wrong with that if it’s your choice, but by limiting yourself to English-speaking films, you can miss out on a lot of wonderful movies. I know many of us at Columbia College are enrolled, whether by choice or not, in a secondary language class. Watching films in the language you’re trying to learn can really improve your elocution and listening comprehension. But even if you’re not trying to learn another language, don’t be afraid to broaden your horizons. Another common inhibition seems to be the doubt that one can relate to a film about people in a non-English speaking culture. The American experience is truly unique, right? Maybe so, but if there’s one thing I learned from English 201, it’s that There is only one story, which Thomas Foster repeats like a mantra throughout his book How to Read Literature Like a Professor. He doesn’t mean that there is literally one story to be told, rather, we are all joined together by the human experience. Love, fear, jealousy, grief, anger, passion, pain—these are all universal emotions. Storytelling, at its finest, is the attempt to make sense of life. So while the cultural norms and social structures will certainly differ, at the core of it all, films everywhere highlight some aspect of life. While shared circumstances and cultural identity help, typically, we love our favorite movies because we are tied to the characters on-screen through emotion.

So for those of you who decide to take the dive,  here are a few films to start you off.

Pan’s Labyrinth El Laberinto del Fauno (2006)

From the moment Mercedes’s haunting lullaby begins, over the slow-moving shot of a little girl, lying on a stone floor with a bloody nose, I was engrossed in this film. For anyone who has ever loved a fairytale or a Disney film, this is for you. That said, this film is not for the faint-hearted. Reminiscent of something the Grimm Brothers might put out, Labyrinth is a dark, twisted fairytale which merges innocence and sadism, fantasy and cruel reality. The story follows young Ofelia in fascist Spain, 1944, as she struggles to grapple with the abrupt change in her life. Her mother is pregnant and her new stepfather is a tyrannical captain of a ruthless army stationed in the woods. A welcome distraction from the war and chaos of the outside world, Ofelia is invited by a mystical faun to undertake three magical tasks for the ultimate prize. The performances are amazing, particularly by Ivana Baquero, and the score, which is mostly a variation of Mercedes’s lullaby, is simply amazing. However, the story is the true masterpiece. From the man who brought you the awesomeness that is Hellboy and Hellboy 2 (if that doesn’t recommend you, I don’t know what will), comes the beautifully shot, crafted, and acted Pan’s Labyrinth.


Tough Enough Knallhart (2006)

I watched this film about a year ago after I became obsessed with David Kross from The Reader (more about that in a later edition). I fell in love with it, and not just because my favorite-actor-of-the-month starred in it. Trust me. The soundtrack is, in a word, ridiculous-awesome—and if that’s not a word, it should be, if only to describe the music of Detlev Buck’s Knallhart, also known as Tough Enough. The film begins and ends with 15-year-old Michael’s trance-like trek towards the police station. Rewind to a few months earlier when Michael and his mother Miriam are thrown out of their temporary palace. Michael had been thoroughly enjoying the luxuries of his mother’s rich boyfriend, until he gets tired of being leeched off of and literally kicks mother and son out on the street. They are forced to move into a lower-class Berlin “projects” where Michael is bullied both at home and at school. His mother’s steady succession of boyfriends steal his money and parade around his apparentment nude, while classmates steal his shoes and beat him to a pulp. When Michael has finally had enough, he lashes out in an all too familiar way. With no permanent father figure, he falls easily into the protective, sly grasp of drug dealer Errol. The ending is sure to stay with you long after the credits roll. Along with the awesome soundtrack, the performance by Kross will leave you heartbroken.

 City of God Cidade de Deus (2002)


It must be said that this film is a difficult watch. I own it on DVD and I have maybe watched it one and a half times. I couldn’t even watch all of it the second time around. City of God is based on true events that took place in Brazil during the 1960s and 70s. The film follows two boys, Rocket and Lil Zé, who grow up in the same neighborhood but take completely different paths in life. Rocket, in spite of growing up in a rough neighborhood where one witnesses death and violence every other day, goes on to be a photographer for a major newspaper. Lil Zé, however, through brutal and horrifying tactics, rises to something akin to “The Godfather.” He rules his neighborhood with an iron, merciless fist that destroys lives and innocence, and more than a few times grazes Rocket. This is not the Rio de Janeiro we are used to hearing about. There is maybe one scene with Rocket and his friends lounging on the beach, but for the most part, this film is a raw, heartrenching portrayal of inhumanity. Every single performance is amazing and the film as a whole is heartwrenching.

Coco Before Chanel Coco Avant Chanel (2010)


If you’re not one of those fashion-is-my-life people, have no fear, because this is not a film about fashion. Please take the title literally. This film is about Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel before she became the iconic figure she is today. The story begins when Coco and her younger sister are abandoned by their recently widowed father. Fast forward a few years and Coco and her sister are a rather pitiful singing act in a shady club, but it is here Coco first meets Etienne Balsan, a rich baron. Coco quickly moves into his grand mansion where he throws lavish parties she is not invited to. Perhaps it is this shame she sees so clearly in the Baron’s actions, if not in his readily smiling face, that thrust her into the arms of the handsome and charming, Arthur “Boy” Capel. If you know the history, then there is nothing surprising about this story, but it is no less engaging. The acting is perfection: Audrey Tautou rarely fails and American actor, Alessandro Nivola, in a stunning turn, masters not only an English accent, but the French language. Benoît Poelvoorde is also great as Balsan. Now this must be said, so here goes:  Alexandre Desplat is a genius. Hands down. If you’ve seen The Curious Case of Benjamin Button you’re likely to recognize the nostalgic sound he has mastered so effortlessly. He captures the romantic whimsy of Coco’s affair with Boy (listen to the track “Coco & Boy” for the proof), and he also captures—in sound, if you can believe it—her classic designs in “Chez Coco” (a. k. a. House of Chanel) for the gorgeous display at the end.

Motorcycle Diaries



In the 1950s, Ernesto “Che” Guevara was a lot like many of us walking around Columbia College campus today: unsure of what he wanted to do with his life after college. So armed with a medical degree, his diary, a rusty motrocycle, and his best friend Alberto, the not-yet-legendary Che and his friend set out for the open road. On their documented adventure across South America, they laugh, drink, dance, and make friends, but they also witness the tragedy of poverty. Here we see the foundation for the ideals Che fought so violently for. The film is beautifully shot, and the very attractive Gael Garcia Bernal gives a starmaking performance. The score by Gustavo Santaolalla is gorgeous, particularly the track  “Chichina.”

The Class Entre Les Murs (2008)


This film is about the French public school system, and trust me, if you’ve ever spent a day in a public school this film will hit home. Hard. The plot is rather unconventional and it would be pointless for me to even begin to describe it. Suffice it to say that it is basically a typical (or so it starts off) semester in a public school that happens to be in France. Middle school teacher François Marin desperately tries to inspire his students in alternately amusing and tense, but always engaging, classroom scenes. At certain points, it seems Marin has begun to break through, however most days it’s like taking two steps forward, three steps back. Marin eventually cracks and his actions, arguably, lead to an explosion that was no doubt building before the first frame. The last scene is hugely impacting; it’s a bitter taste of what teachers around the world must go through at some point in their careers.

Lila Says Lila Dit Ça (2004)

The love story between a French girl and a Muslim boy unfolds rather unconventionally in a poor Arab neighborhood. Aspiring writer, Chimo, 19, lives with his single parent mother and leads a pretty dutiful life until he meets his new neighbor. Lila, 16, has just moved in with her aunt, and she and Chimo become rather fast friends. She regales him constantly with tales of her sexual consequests, and he listens earnestly, giving her the attention she so desperately craves. They fall in love, but a tragic event cruelly shatters the perfect bubble they make for themselves. The performances are great, however this is not one of the easier films to watch. For one thing, a lot of Lila’s stories are eyebrow-raising to say the least and over-the-top at worst.

Krabat (2008)

Now it’s time for another film I watched during my I-love-David-Kross phase. If you have ever enjoyed a Harry Potter film, please pick this up. In the same vein as  that hugely popular series, Krabat, based on a popular German novel, follows the young title character, newly orphaned,  as he goes to live in a mysterious mill. The master of the mill takes him in and provides him with all the basic necessities—food, work, sorcery training—in exchange for arduous manual labor. It’s not long before Krabat begins to notice that the Master never stays old for long. The few days that he does start to get old and sickly, a vistor arrives and a boy disappears. Krabat’s closest friend in the house, Tonda, quickly warns him, “Everything in this world has a price” and the price of magic is no choices beyond the master’s discretion. That means no girlfriends, no friends outside the mill, no leaving the mill without permission, little tyrannical things like that. This film is no classic, but it’s a highly entertaining fantasy film.