Foreign Films For Newbies: Umberto D


It’s the final week of my spotlight on good foreign films for newbies. And I’ve saved a powerful film for my final selection. It’s Vittorio De Sica’s heartbreaking 1952 masterpiece Umberto D. The tale of an elderly man and his dog struggling to make it on the man’s government pension has more depth than you would expect. It only runs 1 hour and 29 minutes. But it remains one of the most moving films I have ever seen.

As the film opens, police are dispersing a street demonstration of elderly men who are demanding a raise in their pensions. Among them is Umberto Ferrari (Carlo Battisti). When Umberto returns to his rented room, he learns his landlady has rented his room out. She threatens him with eviction if he cannot come up with his overdue rent by the end of the month. He sells a few of his possessions, but comes up with only a small amount of what he owes. The landlady will not accept a partial payment.

Umberto does garner sympathy from maid Maria (Maria Pia Casilio). Unfortunately Maria has troubles of her own. She’s pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is.

Umberto then becomes ill with tonsilitis. He stays in the hospital for a few days. When he is discharged, he comes to his room to find it with a gaping hole in the wall and workmen renovating the whole place. As if losing his living space isn’t bad enough, his dog Flike has gone missing. The maid was looking after Flike. But a door was left open and he got loose.

Umberto takes off for the city pound, and is relieved to find Flike. However, all is not well. Umberto pleas with a friend for a loan to no avail. Unable to bring himself to beg on the street, Umberto considers suicide. But he has to make sure Flike is taken care of first. He packs up his things and leaves the apartment. Umberto then tries to find a new home for Flike. None of them work out. Out of ideas, Umberto takes Flike for a walk on a railroad track. They nearly get hit by a speeding train, which briefly frightens Flike into hiding. But Umberto mends fences with Flike, and the film endless with the penniless Umberto in the park with Flike.

Umberto D is the type of movie you really see anymore. It’s a real slice of life. The story is basically how a man and a dog struggle to survive in poverty. The film doesn’t have fancy special effects, splashy sets, etc. It’s a devastating and moving character study. It addresses real issues of poverty and how we care for the elderly. But it never comes across as preachy.

Part of the film’s brilliance is its simplicity. It doesn’t reek of self-importance as lesser films do. Umberto D hits you right in the feels, especially at the very end when we really see how deep Umberto’s bond is with his dog. If the ending doesn’t move you, at least a little bit, you’re not human. This is the film to see for an introduction to Italian neo realism. It’s a small movie. But it has a big heart.

Foreign Films For Newbies: Dead Snow


Last week my blog entry on foreign films for newbies was devoted to Amelie. This week I’m going in a completely different direction with Dead Snow. It’s a Norwegian horror comedy that has developed a cult following. So many zombie films just seem to be pale ripoffs of Night of the Living Dead. But Dead Snow takes the zombie movie and turns it on its ear. Just when you think you’ve seen every kind of zombie, here comes director Tommy Wirkola with a movie about people fighting off Nazi zombies. Really. I’m not making this movie up. It’s gory, outrageous, twisted…and I love it for all those reasons.

As Dead Snow opens, a woman is being pursued through snowy Norway by zombies wearing World War II Nazi SS uniforms. She is the film’s first casualty. Later, seven medical students on Easter break arrive at a cabin near Oksfjord. One of them is Vegard (Lasse Valdal), who we learn is the boyfriend of the woman killed during the film’s opening. The group holds a party in the cabin. And then a mysterious hiker shows up at the door. They let him in the cabin and he proceeds to tell them the region’s dark history. Nazis once occupied the area, where they abused and tortured the local people. As the war ended, the Nazis looted the town. But the citizens fought back by ambushing them. The Nazis were chased into the mountains, and it was presumed they froze to death.

While making dinner in the mountains later, the hiker is killed and eaten by a zombie. The next morning, the hiker’s body is discovered by Vegard. At that point it becomes a more macabre version of Ten Little Indians, where you wait around to see the students get picked off one by one.

What makes Dead Snow a fun movie is also what will turn some off about it. It’s gory, even for a zombie movie. An intestine is used as a rope at one point. But I appreciated the film’s imagination. We’ve seen plenty of zombies before. But never Nazi zombies. That makes them twice as loathsome. And I love how the back story of the town is developed to give it its own sort of mythology. In that regard it made me think of the opening of John Carpenter’s The Fog, another underrated horror film.

Dead Snow is a great way to bring horror fans into the world of foreign films. It’s bloody, funny, and wildly inventive. Plus there’s a great part where one of the characters cuts off his arm when he’s bitten by a zombie to avoid becoming infected. Did a mention the part where a machine gun gets attached to a snowmobile to fight the zombies? One of my favorite parts. The film has everything. If you’re sick of predictable horror movies, I would urge you to see Dead Snow. I can almost guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it.

Foreign Films For Newbies: Amelie


This week I’m continuing my spotlight on foreign language films for newbies. For this week’s blog entry, I have chosen the quirky but charming Amelie. Released in 2001, it become the most successful French film released in the United States. Romantic comedies these days are far too often formulaic and predictable. But Amelie broke the mold. And its legions of fans love it for that.

The film’s protagonist is a shy waitress named Amelie Poulain (Audrey Tautou). When Amelie was growing up, her parents incorrectly believed she had a heart defect and decided to home school her. To combat her isolation and loneliness, Amelie develops a vivid imagination and mischievous personality. One day in her apartment she is startled by the news of the death of Princess Diana. Amelie drops a plastic perfume stopper, dislodging a wall tile. Beneath it she discovers a metal box of childhood memorabilia hidden there by  boy who lived int he apartment decades ago. She goes on a mission to track down the boy and return the box to him. If she succeeds and it makes the boy happy, she will devote her life to bringing happiness to others.

Amelie does track down the owner of the box through a reclusive neighbor. The boy is moved to tears and vows to reconcile with his estranged family. Amelie then embarks on her new mission. But what’s fascinating is that she brings happiness to those around her in wonderfully inventive ways. For example, she helps her father realize his dream of traveling the world. But she doesn’t just do it by handing him a passport and a plane ticket. Instead, she steals his garden gnome and has a flight attendant friend airmail him pictures of it posing with landmarks from across the globe. She also escorts a blind man to the Metro station, describing the street scenes on their way there.

The bulk of the story is about how Amelie manipulates people around her. But it has a great third act where Amelie finally finds happiness by having the tables turned on her. I could break down every sweet gesture that happens during this charming little film. But watching them all unfold is part of the fun. Amelie isn’t the most important film ever made. But it’s definitely one of the most charming. Part of the reason is its innovative story, co-written by the film’s director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant. But it also works becomes of the marvelous performance of Audrey Tautou. She is absolutely magnetic and make her eccentric character charming from beginning to end.

Amelie was nominated for 5 Oscars: original screenplay, art decoration, cinematography, sound, and Best Foreign Language Film. While it sadly went home empty-handed, it became a favorite of audiences the world over. And for good reason. In an era where we seem to be bombarded with nothing but sequels and remakes, Amelie remains a breath of fresh air. It’s a great introduction to French cinema and its wonderful leading lady Audrey Tautou.











Foreign Films For Newbies: Rashomon



Greetings, readers! I’m back from my January hiatus and ready to write about movies again. For February I decided to write about foreign language films that would be good first foreign language films for people to see. Now there are many to choose from. Don’t limit yourselves to the ones I cover. But what hope you gain from this month’s blog entries is a good starting point for enjoying world cinema. Right out of the gate, my first choice is what I consider the best of director Akira Kurosawa’s incredible body of work. Just edging out his magnum opus, The Seven Samurai, it’s his 1950 psychological thriller Rashomon. The film is famous for its use of flashbacks and its characters telling different accounts of the same event. It has been duplicated numerous times. But it was a groundbreaking film in 1950 and opened the world to the wonder of Japanese cinema.

The film opens with a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) seeking refuge from a rainstorm under the Rashomon Gate. They are later joined by a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda). The woodcutter and the priest regale the commoner with their different accounts of a disturbing event. The story involves the murder of a samurai and the rape of the samurai’s wife. The woodcutter claims to have discovered the samurai’s dead body while out looking for wood in the forest. The priest claims to have seen the samurai traveling with his wife the day the murder occurred. Both the priest and the woodcutter are summoned into court to testify. In court, there is yet another account of the story told by a notorious bandit (Toshiro Mifune). His story involves tricking the samurai into looking at some ancient swords and even a duel. The samurai’s wife tells her version, And even the samurai’s story is told, via the use of a medium.

Who is telling the truth? It’s never completely spelled out for us. The fascinating thing about Rashomon is how it studies human nature and human perception. Why does each person have a different account of the same event? We all see things differently. On the surface Rashomon appears to be a simple whodunit. But at its heart it’s a character study. The drama doesn’t just come in the court room though. The closing scene, in which we see the effect that the whole experience has had on everyone involved and how their perceptions of one another change, is powerful. We’re left with much more to think about than we expected.

Why did I choose Rashomon out of all of Kurosawa’s films? It changed movies when it came out. And it changed my perception of Kurosawa when I saw it the first time. I already knew he was a great filmmaker from seeing The Seven Samurai. That film showed his knack for sweeping epics. In Rashomon I came to appreciate the master director’s ability to tell smaller, more intimate human stories. And it told a crime story in a way I had never seen. Figuring out who committed the crimes is not what Rashomon‘s point is. It’s more about understanding human perception and human nature. Not many mysteries are that bold.

While I’ve been discussing Kurosawa for most of this blog entry, I must mention cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa as well. There are incredible images here, especially where the camera is pointed directly into the sun. It sounds basic. But at the time that was simply not done. The whole opening sequence in the rainstorm is beautiful and haunting at the same time. Rashomon is a masterpiece of not just storytelling, but film technique as well. Other films have told stories in flashbacks before. Some have even used the plot device of many having different perceptions of the same event. But very few, if any of them, have been anywhere close to as good as Rashomon. It’s a great introduction to Kurosawa, Japanese cinema, and foreign language films in general.