I think foreign-language films can show us things about the world we will never see if we watch only movies where the dialogue is in English. Here's a list of ten of my favorite foreign-language films by ten different filmmakers. Three of the movies are in French, two are in Japanese, two in Italian, and one each in Bengali, Russian, and Swedish. In my opinion, the films listed below are among the greatest in all of cinema.
Jean Renoir's French-language The Rules of the Game
is one of the top two or three all-time greatest films on my personal list. I'd characterize the movie as an exploration of manners, morals, and society, where Renoirs approach is an artful blend of farce, satire, and tragedy. The film has eight major characters, and I marvel at the ensemble acting, but the performance that stays in my mind is that of Marcel Dalio as wealthy aristocrat Robert de la Chesnaye.
Universal in theme, humanistic, and accessible, Yasujiro Ozu's Japanese-language Tokyo Story
is one of the greatest masterpieces of world cinema. The movie chronicles the journey of an aging married couple who live in a provincial town when they travel to Tokyo to visit two of their adult children. A memorable portrait of Japanese middle-class family life in the early 1950s, the film always leaves me in tears as it winds down with three of the characters contemplating their futures.
I find Federico Fellinis Italian-language 8 1/2
to be one of the most entertaining of the great movies. Among the reasons for this are its visual spectacle and humor, the charisma of its leading man Marcello Mastroianni, and the lively music of Nino Rota. The story is about Guido (Mastroianni), an internationally famous filmmaker who has committed to make a new movie, but is blocked on how to get started. But Guido must also deal with problems involving all the women in his life.
I rate Akira Kurosawa's Japanese-language Seven Samurai
as one of the two or three greatest action-adventure movies of all time. I think this film balances realistic fight sequences, social interactions, and individual characterizations better than perhaps any other movie. Set in feudal Japan, Seven Samurai
shows what happens when peasant farmers hire professional warriors to defend them. The film boasts Kurosawa's stunning visual style and an unforgettable performance by Toshiro Mifune.
is a French-language cinepoem that is infused with a mood of lyrical, bittersweet romance, and I think it is one of the greatest movies ever made. In the film, an attractive young woman marries a man who operates a river barge, where the newlyweds live with a salty first mate, a klutzy cabin boy, and a bunch of cats. But when the strong-willed bride and the controlling husband clash, he abandons her. The movie's motif of looking for one's true love underwater moves me deeply.
A lively exploration of romantic love and friendship, François Truffaut's French-language Jules and Jim
is one of my favorite films. The story chronicles the intertwined lives of three European intellectual bohemians from 1912 to 1933. I think Jeanne Moreau creates an unforgettable character in Catherine, the free-spirited woman loved by a pair of best friends, the two men for whom the film is named. She is a femme fatale who sets up a whirlpool around her that leads to tragedy.
I see Michaelangelo Antonioni's challenging Italian-language Lavventura
as a tawdry love story set among bored, alienated, rich people. The central character is Claudia (Monica Vitti), a young adult who goes on an adventure leading her to greater self-knowledge. When Claudia's friend mysteriously disappears, she begins a romantic relationship with the missing girl's fiancé. I like the way Antonioni added visual interest by shooting his film at stunning locations in and around Sicily.
To my way of thinking, Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali
(1957), and The World of Apu
(1959) arguably comprise the greatest of film trilogies. Set in India, these Bengali-language movies use lyrical cinematography, mesmerizing music, and compelling characters to create an unforgettable portrayal of the sweep of life. The trilogy traces the life of Apu from his impoverished rural boyhood to his years in Benares and Calcutta to his marriage and fatherhood.
Set in the 15th century, Andrei Tarkovky's Russian-language Andrei Rublev
chronicles the life and times of Russia's greatest icon painter. I would say it is among the most unconventional biopics ever made: the title character is often peripheral, there are gaps in time, it's frequently hard to know where we are. This complex film has a somber tone and graphic violence that make it hard to take at times, yet I think its stark beauty and resonant images make it well worth the effort.
Using stunning visual imagery and theatrical dialogue, Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal
explores philosophical issues such as the silence of God and mans search for meaning in life in the context of death's inevitability. The story is about a 14th-century knight (Max von Sydow) who decides to try to perform one meaningful act before he dies. I'll never forget the imagery of the knight playing chess with Death, who appears in the form of a pale-faced man wearing a black hooded robe.