A Few Good Reasons To Watch "Foreign" Films

Need a reason to catch the Portland International Film Festival? Here are several.

By Anne Adams January 31, 2011

Easily the “prettiest” moment in the riveting Russian film, Silent Souls.

First, let me defend the above title, though I know the word “foreign” has fallen from vogue. In this context, I say “foreign” in the most objective sense of the word. I mean films that are from another nation than the one you’re from, no matter where you’re from. (If you are Chinese, I might mean a Czech film. If you’re Spanish, I might be referring to an Indian piece. Et cetera. You get the idea.) Now, obviously I write this from Portland, Oregon, so for the purpose of this discussion, “domestic” is defined as “North American,” and, implicitly, “Hollywood-based.” That said, some points in this article will apply to whatever’s foreign to you. Glad we got that out of the way. Okay.

This morning, Portland International Film Festival hosted its first press screening, a Russian film called Silent Souls. The barrage of images, the slips of sparse dialogue, and the novel, unique camerawork were completely mesmerizing, and got me thinking about…


They evoke your inner child. Presuming you don’t speak the language of the film you’re seeing (that it’s “foreign” to you), you’ll hear words and phrases as babble, but observe people and things with the usual clarity. This is a childlike, right-brained experience. Your inability to process the language is humbling, even as your other senses become more acutely attuned to the other nonverbal cues. Subtitles help you decode the storyline, but not before you’ve immersed yourself in a moment that’s quite literally beyond your comprehension. Widen those eyes, kid.

They’re educational. I know, I know: this seems like a spoonful of medicine in the sugar. But I defy you to watch a foreign film and not accidentally learn something. Now, Silent Souls is particularly educational, with a narrator volunteering a lot of information about the marital and burial customs of the Merjan people (Most unforgettably, their habit of braiding colored strings into bridal pubic hair. Hm.) But usually, the simple act of watching, painlessly imbues you with a new understanding of foreign traditions, industries, or conflicts.

They’re uniquely “poeti-sophical.” That is not a word. But foreign films have a way of blending poetry with philosophy that’s puzzlingly brilliant. “Drowning means to suffocate from joy, tenderness, and yearning.” “A living woman’s body is a river that carries grief away.” These are just two quotes from Silent Souls that support this admittedly broad generalization. But I bet the selection of screenings from PIFF, will unearth many more stunning mantras and koans.

They’re exotically erotic. Mainstream, “commercial” forms of erotica often (ahem) leave much to be desired. They’re explicit in all the wrong ways, and puzzlingly _de_humanize, the most human of acts. Hollywood films avoid this debauchery altogether with a rigorous ratings system which kiboshes natural amounts of nudity, and a de-facto practice of only denuding implausibly beautiful people from predictable angles. Films from elsewhere, are less likely to impose these prim restraints, lingering on believably imperfect bodies and believably spontaneous acts. Not preoccupied with the “hot spots,” they’re just as likely to salaciously pan across a knee, or zoom into a neck-nape. This sexuality feels more real, more interesting, and more human, than vulgar porn or glib, perfunctory “rated-R.”

They burn smaller fires. We’re all-too-familiar with Hollywood pyrotechnics and general hyperbole. Buildings and cars too often explode into livid orange fireballs, and the recent 3-D craze now routinely unleashes dragons, suspends us from dangerous heights, and plumes the aforementioned fireballs right into our faces. In foreign films, (and, admittedly, less commercial, more modern domestic ones) the metaphorical and literal fires are smaller. In Silent Souls, there is a funeral pyre. Two men stack the wood and lug a body onto it, in almost-real time. They pour vodka, and touch the pyre with a torch. That is the brightest the film ever burns. And that’s fine.

They have homelier heroes. You know what? Bald men fall in love. Plump women dare to dream. Slackjawed, furrowed faces can reveal heavy emotion in closeups. While Hollywood favors those who age gracefully (Clooney) or not at all (Locklear), and tends to prefer its actors to manually subtract the 10 pounds the camera metaphorically adds, it seems foreign films more often train their cameras’ unjaundiced eyes on imperfect specimens. It’s a relief, really.

The endings are less predictable. One might guess that foreign filmmakers, especially those who aren’t driven by commercial incentives, have fewer studio execs breathing down their necks, lobbying for tried-and-true “feelgood” themes. Hence, foreign films seem less burdened to please, and more invested in simply delivering a meaningful experience. Gone is the obligation to “tie up loose ends,” or to implausibly shelter heroes from tragedy, or even death. When no character is indispensable, anything might happen.

They offer new objects and landscapes. There are a million variations in this big world, of a peely-painted old fence. Of a shed, a house, a blouse, a dog, a boat. Each region of each country has its own style of utilitarian, commonplace trappings, which combine to impart a larger sense of character to the place. These everyday sights look ordinary to the natives, but seem quaint and strange to “foreigners.” In Silent Souls , a handmade bird-cage is mounted on the back of a bicycle. An antique typewriter is towed by sled, across a snowy lake. A bridge formed from a flotilla of loosely-connected rotting wooden rafts, snakes back and forth as a man walks across it. It all looks very functional and basic, but it doesn’t look like any sights you’d typically see.

All right. That’s the best case I can make. For romantic, rhapsodic, surprising, surreal, eye-opening experiences—watch the most “foreign” films you can find.

The Portland International Film Festival starts next Thursday, February 10. Meanwhile, check out the schedule or pre-purchase tickets. For more upcoming arts events, visit PoMo’s Arts & Entertainment Calendar!

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