Reviewing foreign language films may seem daunting to the general filmgoer, but there is much that can be learned from exploring international cinema. You can gain new appreciation for language, culture, locations & topical interests. You can also expand your film baggage (positive, negative, neutral). When you begin to critically evaluate a global world of film, you develop a stronger understanding (and appreciation) of the powerful impact of story, character, acting and technical expertise available around the world. The bottom line is, that you don’t have to understand the language to know if a film is or is not excellent, average or horrible. Sure, it may help, but it is not essential to understanding and/or appreciation.
International filmmaking crosses every standard film genre (drama, comedy, horror, sci-fi, superhero, action), so our approach and appreciations for reviewing those genres should remain the same. But we should always take into account our understandings (or lack of understandings) of different cultures. That may impact our critical evaluation of certain aspects of foreign-language cinema. We just need to be aware of that speedbump, and acknowledge it if we can’t get over it.
Justine Barda is the founder if Telescope Film. Her website is a portal for international cinema. Here she talks with Noel Manning about the impact of film of culture, language and people.
Here are a few tips to reviewing foreign-language films that you may find beneficial:
- The story is still the story. Go back to the basics of evaluating the story narrative. Blake Snyder’s story-genre formulas cross language barriers as well. Gustuv Freytag’s story arc study also crosses cultures. There are even strong examples of directors helming a film in a foreign language (one they can’t speak), yet they understand the power of “story” and the impact it can have…that’s what ultimately matters for interpretation and appreciation. Iranian filmmaker (and Oscar-winner) Asghar Farhadi directed the Spanish-language film “Everybody Knows” even though he couldn’t understand the language he was directing, yet he understood how to lead the acting talent through narrative.
- Characters are still characters. Go back to the basics of the evaluating character and their place within narrative (look at conflict and crisis). The hero’s journey and the classifications of hero remain, no matter the language.
- Some argue that the best way to evaluate a foreign language film is to do so with a non-dubbed film, meaning to critique the film in its original form, original language. This may take some getting used to for the average film-goer, but reviewing films this way will keep the film in the director’s original concept and distribution intent.
- Strong acting is still strong acting, and regardless of language, excellent acting talent can bring to life universal vulnerability and believability no matter the language (natural or non-natural). The techniques of reviewing acting that we examined in earlier lessons are still valid across language lines. There are many great acting talents who can perform in multiple languages and find success in each, Oscar-winner Javier Bardem is one example:
- Technical achievements in film (sound, score, production design, special effects, CGI, makeup, costumes, stunts) should still be evaluated based on the elements we’ve discussed and shared so far in this course. You can always research the production budget and available resources the filmmakers had available, but you should still analyze these qualities as you would any film. If any of these elements pulled you into the story and the characters or if they distracted you, make note of it.
- You should always acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses as you would any film (mainstream or independent).
- You should always mention the country of origin and the original language of the film.
- Mention key cast and crew; this may take you a little research to find out the background of the talent.
- Always be patient and keep an open mind. You should understand that reviewing foreign language films may be an acquired taste and can take time to appreciate. But it is well worth it in the end. *Thx to NC Film Critic Douglas Davidson for sharing this thought.
- It is usually best to watch a foreign language film in one setting and distraction-free. It allows you to become fully immersed and invested in the story, characters and the constructed world and culture of the film.
- Cultural Context is important. When you view a film and you see something you are culturally shocked by or don’t fully understand or appreciate, instead of immediately judging what you witness, try to understand the cultural context even if you disagree or don’t understand it. Both time and place have a big impact on the voice of the film and what is/was going on in society at that point (and in that location). *Thx to former film student Tyler Kucifer
Written by Noel T. Manning II, 3.2.21