Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Foreign Film

This past Sunday at the JCC, Grandmaster Kermecha and I had the opportunity to watch "Sweet Mud," an Israeli film about life on a kibbutz. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea of a kibbutz, they are contained communities of Jews wherein the group works for the group, like a miniature model of Socialism. Set in the bar mitzvah year of the main character, the film was grippingly raw and brutal with its portrayal of the human element which make utopia improbable. While it was difficult to concentrate on the film over the sound of Kermecha's laughter (he especially liked the part where a 12-year old boy found his own dog dead in a freezer), it brought to my attention an advantage of the films exported to this country.

I don't know if the film was well acted. My initial impression would be that, like most films, it has its good and bad actors. However, being unfamiliar with the language (approximately 4 lines are spoken in English, the rest of the movie is Hebrew and French), I was able to focus completely on the story. Having only the action on screen and the subtitles to guide me, I realized I was watching an intensely emotional movie. It is my sincere belief that having no quantifiable basis to judge the acting on actually improved my experience with the film.

Subtitles are the main problem people seem to come up against when watching a foreign language film. Dubbing can be a nightmare; the inconsistency of lip movement is distracting, and ofttimes highly inappropriate voice actors are chosen. So people choose to avoid foreign film altogether. This is a mistake if you're serious about seeking out good cinema. Consider, as I now have, the possibility that not being able to understand what is being said and having to read the words as they are scripted actually improves your understanding of the movie. You get to approach the film from the perspective of how well it was written, not how well it was acted. Sometimes that can be a huge benefit. Just think of how many well-written American movies would be vastly improved if the acting was better. Anything with Natalie Portman in it, for example. Now let's imagine we didn't have to hear Natalie Portman sleepwalk her way through every line. Instead we heard her talk in a language incomprehensible as her normal dull mumbling, but this time we weren't trying to understand it. Instead we saw the meaning of her words spelled out for us on screen. And if, by some miracle from above, she actually managed to add inflection at certain times, we would get the gist of the emotional content while fully understanding the words being spoken.

While there are likely foreign language films that are every bit as dull and poorly executed as a bad American movie, it can be exciting to view a film not constrained to Hollywood limitations. Foreign movie studios have a completely different guidebook that they follow. For someone interested in film or writing, I would highly recommend getting to know foreign films and the ways they do things in Japan or India - or Israel for that matter.

Overall, you could think of it as a cultural experience. So the next time you've got nothing to do and are looking to spend a quiet evening at home, curl up and read a good movie.

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1 comment:

Daniel said...

most of my favorite films are foreign, notably anything by Bergman, Felinni, and Woodfall Films. That said, these movies sometimes get off a little easier than American movies because we don't know really how the line is being delivered or how good the acting is, it's hard to judge with subtitles. Take a movie like "Breathless," you wonder if that movie was in English if it would have been as critically acclaimed. It's a great movie sure, but a lot of it is just a dude smoking, driving, and trying to get a girl to sleep with him. Oh but wait-they're speaking FRENCH! it's something to think about.