The Foreign Film Novice Starter Kit

The notion of watching foreign films can be a bit daunting for some people. There are obviously lots of fantastic movies that don’t require subtitles, and a person could easily live a fulfilling movie-watching lifetime with nothing but same-language cinema. There is no shame whatsoever in doing that. But there are so many wonderful films from other countries, ripe for the picking by those with the curiosity and patience to adapt to foreign language films. I’m here to help those people with this handy, dandy Foreign Film Novice Starter Kit.

I should probably note that when I say “foreign language films”, I’m referring to non-English language films, watched by English-speaking people. These rules and tips may apply cross-culturally but I’m in no position to say. 

Item 1: The Match
If you want to run a 5 mile race, you don’t start by running all 5 miles on your first day of training. You ease into it. The same applies here. It’s a critical step, and you’ll need something light and easy to spark your interest. Diving right into the heavy, experimental stuff might work for some people but not most. Fortunately, there are a lot of great foreign movies from recent years that can aid you in the transition. It’ll get you used to the occasional non-traditional story structures, reading subtitles, and balancing the subtitles with paying attention to the action. Ideally, you want something easy to follow, or at least closer to the types of films you’re used to seeing. Some films you might try if you like their specific genres: Run Lola Run (1998); Amélie (2001); Pan’s Labyrinth (2006); Let the Right One In (2008); Delicatessen (1991); The Host (2006); Enter the Dragon (1973); The Devil’s Backbone (2001); Hard Boiled (1992); The Illusionist (2010)

Item 2: The Scalpel
Once you’ve sparked your interest, you’ll need something to make the incision and go deeper beneath the surface. You don’t need anything too deep- just enough to break the skin. If you speak English, odds are good that you’ve learned French, Spanish, Italian, or German as a second language. As such, watching films originating in those countries will help you along the way. As you dig a bit deeper, you’re likely to encounter some movies that use unique filmmaking techniques. You want to maintain as much familiarity as you can. If you stick to a second language, it allows you to focus more on how the film was made. That’s not to say that you should limit it to those specific countries. Rather, look for films in a language that you’re familiar with. If you speak Japanese or Chinese or Indian, those would be great places to truly break the surface. Yet another way you might approach it is to find the original versions of films that have been re-made in English, perhaps even in different genres. For instance, Yojimbo was re-made as the more familiar Fistful of Dollars. The only caveat is to be careful. Don’t dig too deep or try anything too experimental just yet. Examples: Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972); La Dolce Vita (1960); The Seven Samurai (1954) or Yojimbo (1961); Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987); M (1931)

Item 3: The Security Blanket
After you’ve used the match to ignite and the scalpel to break the skin, you’ll start to find things that you really enjoy. You may find that you really enjoy films from a certain country. Perhaps you enjoy a specific director. Maybe there are certain actors that you enjoy. Cuddle up with these security blankets because they’ll only further enhance your ability to embrace foreign language films. You won’t always find great films or films that you enjoy but it gives you a baseline of expectations. Some directors and actors you might use as your security blanket: Ingmar Bergman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Yasujiro Ozu, Max Von Sydow, Jean Gabin, Francois Truffaut, Lars Von Trier
Image: copyright Charles M. Schulz

Item 4: The Test Tube
It’s now time to start experimenting with film movements and genres, since you’re completely familiar with the very basics of foreign film and you now have a grab bag of directors and actors that you know will deliver quality to you. You need a test tube to combine several elements, thus finding which genres, languages, and film movements might work for you. This is where most caution is thrown to the wind. There are a lot of directions to go here and none of them are wrong. They may not all work but the important thing is to try. Genres and film movements you might check out: the French New Wave, the Czech New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism, New German Cinema, J-Horror, Surrealism, German Expressionism, Soviet Montage, Dogme 95, Indian Parallel Cinema

And that’s all you’ll need. Obviously, not everyone will need the starter’s kit but I think it’d be helpful for lots of people. Once you use those items, you should be able to move beyond any apprehension that foreign films may give you and find a whole new wonderful world of cinema. Enjoy!


Filed under Foreign Film, Movies

41 responses to “The Foreign Film Novice Starter Kit

  1. This is a really good idea. A few of my friends aren’t as used to foreign films as I am, and I think a kit like this would be the perfect thing to set them in the right direction. If this doesn’t make the IMDb Hit List it will be a tragedy.

    • I’ve strangely had a lot of luck getting people started with Bergman (and regular visitor “Dude” with Kurosawa). But something tells me that Uncle Ingmar isn’t for everyone, not at the beginning anyway.

    • rtm

      I was gonna say that about the Hit List, but my hunch says it will be picked up, surely!

  2. Dude

    The feds just got merked bruv. somtimes you need subtitles for your own language.

  3. Great idea matey!! Love this idea.

    There is some amazing cinema out there that gets missed by so many as they are scared of having to read the subtitles whilst watching a film. I think the sign of a good bit of world cinema is when you completely get wrapped up in the story and forget to read!!! I did that constantly in City of God…awesome!


  4. Phil

    Great list. You should make an even longer list of ‘intro to foreign films’, there are a lot of people out there who could use it!

    The Illusionist is great (one of my favorite films from last year), but there is so little dialogue, it almost doesn’t qualify as a foreign film.

    • I was really close to doing the “intro” list, and waffled back and forth on how I was going to do it. I like the idea, though, and will probably be doing that later on as a companion to this one.

      “The Illusionist” made me want to go back and watch every Tati film I’ve seen.

  5. rtm

    What a fun AND informative post, John! I knew we can all rely on you to make something educational in a fun way. I could use some of these tips as I don’t watch foreign movies often enough (though technically I am always watching ‘foreign’ movies as I’m not a native English speaker, he..he..)

    • As I was writing it, I definitely kept wondering how unique the experience might be for you to watch english language films. Didn’t you say at one point they taught German in your schools?

      • rtm

        Well, I’ve been speaking English for over two decades now, in fact, watching Indonesian movies actually seem more ‘foreign’ to me, ahah. Yeah, they taught German in my high school which is so weird as we’re not even geographically close, there are hardly any Germans to practice with! They should’ve taught us Chinese instead, much more useful even today.

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  7. I have a full proof three step process:
    1. Show them a Kurosawa movie (Hidden Fortress always scores consistently high marks though I would prefer they take Seven Samurai, Ikiru, or Yojimb0).
    2. Show them a Bergman movie (Seventh Seal ftw).
    3. Show them a Truffaut movie (doesn’t matter, if it’s got french people talking they won’t know the difference anyways).

    If they don’t find one they like, label them unworthy and punish them by forcing through to sit through a twelve hour long marathon of old beanie babies infomercials. Might seem harsh, but it’s for the greater good.

  8. John, I’m currently at Stage #3 – The Security Blanket. My first blanket was Kurosawa, but I’m looking to add more to my linen closet. What would you recommend specifically by Ingmar Bergman? I have yet to tap into his genius and wonder what you would recommend as my first film? However, I’ll have to say this, if any of it is like Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2”, it’s going to be a long night for me.

    • My personal favorite from Bergman is “Winter Light”, though I tend to recommend “The Seventh Seal” as a starting place. “Fanny and Alexander” is also a great place to start. And “Wild Strawberries” works, too. They all show off big-time Bergman themes. Odds are pretty good that if you like one, you’ll like the other three. The only one he’s ever made that I disliked just a little bit was “The Serpent’s Egg”, and that had more to do with the marvelous “acting” skills of David Carradine.

  9. StarkyLuv

    There is no need for a “special guide” to foreign films. A good movie is a good movie in any language. If you can get used to quickly reading subtitles, watch any movie you want. You don’t need any sort of prep. A foreign film isn’t inherently superior just because it’s a foreign film (I know I just exploded many a film-snob’s head). They aren’t any intellectually superior. True, far less stupid, cash-grab blockbuster stuff, but they’re just movies. Movies made in other countries.

    Enjoy them, without the pretentiousness.

    • True, but I definitely think there’s an adaptation period where you have to get used to subtitles and the way some films are made. If you went from, say, Goodfellas to Bunuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, they’re both fantastic incredible amazing movies, but a non-foreign film watcher has probably never seen anything quite like Discreet Charm. That’s not to say that it’s “too good” for them or anything like that. Not at all. It’s more of a culture shock type of thing.

      It’s just like food. Good food is good food, but it’s easy for some people to be turned off by the more eclectic stuff if they’ve never had anything similar.

      Now I’m hungry for some Indian food.

  10. Tambourine Man

    Fantastic post, John. I’m about to tackle some more Bergman material.

  11. nimorphi

    I had seen a few foreign language films and then dove head first into bergman, godard, french new wave and czech new wave. somehow i made it through with my sanity (except the part the czech new wave stole from me).

  12. Yea, I’m most comfortable with the scalpel 🙂 I have ventured into the security blanket and test tube now and then but I’m still not ready to go in with both feet. Doesn’t help that my first von Trier movie was “Antichrist”…

    • Oooh… “Antichrist”… yikes. And I say that as someone who liked that movie a lot. If I recall, you’ve started getting into a lot of Kurosawa, right? That’d be a great one to run with. He made a TON of movies.

      If you like gangster movies, there are some really good ones starring Jean Gabin. I’m partial to Pépé le Moko and Touchez Pas Au Grisbi/Don’t Touch the Loot.

  13. Great stuff John! While I haven’t seen most of it, I want to, but haven’t found the time. Here are a few others to consider for the Novice…

    Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso: A classic film which I had the good fortune of seeing when it came out in Sicily (1990). Even rode to the theater on a Vespa! Sure, it’s a little cheesy, and two major roles are played by French actors, but it’s about nostalgia and one man’s love of cinema. Just don’t bother with that Director’s cut version. Didn’t like it.

    Johnny Stecchino and Life is Beautiful: a little light, a little heavy. Benigni is a brilliant comic actor, but he can also show lots of heart. Much like Amelie, these are films where it’s easy to forget that you’re reading dialogue.

    Jean de Florette + Manon of the Spring: Great stories, great acting, and just plain beautiful to watch. Gerard Depardieu, Yves Montand, and Daniel Auteuil are fantastic, and Emmanuelle Beart is simply unforgettable (in the 2nd film).

    There are others, but I think this is enough for now.

    • Strangely, I haven’t seen Cinema Paradiso but everything I’ve heard is that it’s great light-hearted fare. I HAVE seen “Life is Beautiful” and it’s the same type of thing- very easy and accessible.

      At one point, I sort of chuckled about including those two French movies because I’m pretty sure they’re the first foreign film I ever saw, in a French class when I was a kid.

      • Cinema Paradiso is one of my all time favorites. Just a very sweet film. Tornatore has been a bit of a mixed bag since his first film, but overall, he’s made some good ones. Tutti Stano Bene (Everybody’s Fine which starred Marcello Mastroianni) and Malena (Monica Bellucci. Need I say more?) are two of his other better films.

        • BTW, did I mention that I watched the Scorsese documentary about his parents? Loved it.

          • No. You didn’t. You must have been reading my mind! Was wondering if you saw it when I read your “Black Sheep” post (After Hours is awesome by the way!). Glad you enjoyed it!

            His parents remind me of one of my oldest friend’s parents (they even looked alike!). I love how he put his parents to work on his films. I remember seeing a behind the scenes video about Cape Fear. His mom was saying how Robert DeNiro packed on the Raging Bull pounds via her cooking. She also made pizza for the crew and cut it with scissors… just like my Mamma does! I wonder if it will ever get released on Blue Ray. Would be awesome with a Scorsese commentary track. Such a good son. 🙂

  14. Match me all the way! I have no aversion to subtitles and admonish those that do, I’m just limited by time/interest. Can’t rush into these things too quickly, and I like to have many things cooking on the back-burner, along with all the classic films (foreign or otherwise). Oooh…is that Galaxy Quest on TBS again…sorry, gotta go.

    • Ha… enjoy Galaxy Quest. You speak the truth re: interest. Prime example- I know with 100% certainty that I’m going to love Ingmar Bergman’s “Music in Darkness”. I own it. I’ve never seen it. It’s been sitting on my coffee table for a few months. Why? Because I love Bergman and I want to do him justice by watching it when it feels like the right time to watch it.

  15. Great article and true in many ways!

    The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D are good neo-realist films that I would include in the match category thanks to their simplicity!

    • Those are both great additions to that list. I admit, I sort of hated The Bicycle Thief (I need to try it again down the line) but it’s a great recommendation in this context. Umberto D was fantastic.

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  17. Alexandra

    I’ve got one for your “match” list–“8 Femmes.” It’s so frothy and familiar. I mean, who can beat a locked-door murder-mystery musical starring so many grandes dames of French cinema?

  18. DiWill

    A Foreign Film Novice Starter Kit—genius. I’m gonna show this to my friends. I love foreign indies and have been trying to show them how culturally rich and meaningful these movies can be. Another great suggestion for a starter foreign film is “Bride Flight.” I have to get my friends to watch this one. It’s phenomenal. One watch and I’m sure they’ll be hooked on foreign films for good. I came across an L.A. Times review that praised it shamelessly and was glad to see that it was so well received. You guys should check it out. It’s a Dutch film but it finally hit the US this weekend. Here’s the L.A. Times review.

  19. Not only do I love this, but if you had a lengthy infomercial on TV at 6 in the morning I would probably order a Foreign Film Novice Starter Kit. Could it come with a Classic Movie Novice Starter Kit, a $99 value but it can be mine for just $19.99?

    (In all seriousness, i would definitely purchase the latter for family members/friends of mine who still say things like, “How can y’all watch that movie if it’s not in color?”)

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