Video: "Prisencolinensinainciusol" is a song composed by Adriano Celentano, and performed by Celentano and his wife, singer/actress-turned-record producer Claudia Mori.
The song is deliberately meant to sound to its intended Italian audience like English spoken with an American accent, but the lyrics are actually pure gibberish, with the exception of the words "all right", spelled in the internet-posted video as "oll raigth". Celentano's intention with the song was to explore communication barriers. "Ever since I started singing, I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did. So at a certain point, because I like American slang; which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than Italian; I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn't mean anything."
Let's Face It...American Moviegoers Just Do Not Like Subtitles...
It is a sad, sad accuracy that a lot of English-speaking moviegoers will not watch adopted (and accordingly subtitled) movies. No matter the type of film… Regardless of actors, the director, or whatever – if it’s not in English and subtitles have to be read, the choice will usually be made to opt for something else that doesn’t require reading while watching a movie.
In a recent 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, it was discovered that 80% of Americans don’t like viewing subtitled films. It’s my suspicion that film buffs from other parts of the world are more accustomed to having translations scrolled across the bottom of the screen. The complaint is that some people find it difficult to read and watch at the same time. What’s the alternative—dubbed movies? I don’t think so. Remember the old Godzilla movies when the words we heard didn’t even come close to the Japanese lips that were speaking them. That and the little toy soldiers and cars being stomped by good ol’Zilla made the films hilarious.
U.S. box office for the top five foreign-language films has declined by 61% in the last seven years.
There have been some arguments made among film critics that American audiences are becoming more accepting towards subtitles. Films that usually get pointed out are American originated productions dominated by foreign tongues such as Inglourious Basterds, The Passion of the Christ, Slumdog Millionaire, Avatar and District 9.
One of the best, but not immediately obvious running gags in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, is that all of the foreign characters can speak multiple languages, while the Americans, led by Brad Pitt's Basterds, can't speak a lick of anything foreign.
However, these films aren't germane to international cinema. Works by Quentin Tarantino, Mel Gibson and James Cameron don't open the doors for subtitled Cannes selections such as the Dardenne brothers’ French language Two Days, One Night or Andrey Zyagintsev's Russian-language Leviathan.
According to data culled from boxofficemojo.com, foreign-language box office has shown a steady decline. In 2013 the top five foreign-language releases earned collectively just $15 million at the U.S. box office; in 2007, the take was $38 million. (This doesn’t count films catering specifically to immigrant or diaspora populations, whether Spanish-language films for Hispanic Americans or Bollywood films for Indian-Americans.)
Even acclaimed foreign directors have seen a precipitous fall; in 2006, Pedro Almodovar had his most successful release with Volver, which saw $13 million in U.S. ticket sales; in 2013, I’m So Excited earned just over $1 million.
And the demands of the U.S. marketplace have pushed many top-notch foreign-born directors (Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, Luc Besson) toward Hollywood and English-language filmmaking.
However, this doesn't account for the biggest challenges to foreign-language films finding a U.S. audience.
Digital distribution is killing foreign-language film on large screens, and small ones.
The theaters that would be playing foreign-language films don’t have enough room.
We’ve all heard that VOD platforms give non-Hollywood films a chance to find their audiences. But foreign-language cinema has never performed in ancillary outlets in the same way as they have in theaters.
Netflix is the industry’s leading VOD powerhouse, and the popular streaming service has been steadily abandoning foreign-language films.
While these films are finding their way to sites such as Fandor, MUBI, SnagFilms and a number of rapidly proliferating, smaller services, there's still only a minimal customer base with these [platforms], and the increasing number of these players is not producing more than a fraction of the revenues from even a modest license from Netflix.
As far as cable goes, the situation is worse. Cable VOD is out for the count regarding foreign, and no surprise given the cable operators' very limited worldview. World film lovers are learning that they have to seek out these films and pony up to see them rather than having them passively available.
You’re Missing Out On Greatness
Video: One of my favorite foreign language films of all time is The Seventh Seal, a 1957 Swedish drama-fantasy film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Set in Sweden during the Black Death, it tells of the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) and a game of chess he plays with the personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot), who has come to take his life. Bergman developed the film from his own play Wood Painting. The title refers to a passage from the Book of Revelation, used both at the very start of the film, and again towards the end, beginning with the words "And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour".[Rev. 8:1] Here the motif of silence refers to the "silence of God" which is a major theme of the film.
The film is considered a major classic of world cinema. It established Bergman as a world-renowned director and contains scenes which have become iconic through parodies and homages.
Breaking news flash: English-speaking countries aren’t the only ones which make great movies. Some of the best films ever made are in a language other than English, and by avoiding certain movies because they’re subtitled, people are effectively robbing themselves of a potentially great experience.
Also, much like the example of modern moviegoers not watching black and white films, a lot of English-language movies wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for certain foreign ones. A prime example of this is the work of the late-great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. His masterpiece, Seven Samurai (which is foreign AND in black and white…Shock! Horror!), was one of the prime inspirations (if not the inspiration) for the classic John Sturges English-language film, The Magnificent Seven. Imagine if Sturges had shunned Kurosawa’s work because it wasn’t in English: no Magnificent Seven.
The Problem with Dubbing
One of the big arguments that will be brought up by some people with regards to this issue is that there are dubbed versions released so that the viewer doesn’t have to read subtitles. And this is true – you will find most foreign language movies will have a dubbed audio track as an option.
But what I find is most often a huge problem with the dubbed audio is that it doesn’t allow you to fully appreciate the subtleties of the sounds, the emotions, the true nature of what is being said by the native actors, because all you can hear is (often half-assed) English-language voice work. Sometimes dubbing is done well – particularly if it’s some sort of special edition of the movie – or in the case of animated movies, where dubbing is not as much of an issue (all animated films require voice-over work, after all). However, for most live-action films, dubbing detracts from the experience – especially if the voice-over person was not involved in the production, on the set, or directed by the film’s director.
Dubbing is often done by actors, not from the country which the original film is from, and thus what is being dubbed over isn’t getting across not just what precisely is being said, but not getting across how it’s being said. One example of this that comes straight to mind is the non-special edition UK DVD release of Hard Boiled, which had Chow-Yun Fat and Tony Leung dubbed by American actors and it just sounded ridiculous going with the visuals of who’s meant to be speaking (the actors).
Thankfully a special edition of Hard Boiled was released with remastered subtitles…
Apart from the actual language, the actual way certain words are said in English is radically different to China, or France, or Sweden (and so forth) and dubbing doesn’t often reflect that. The sense of culture from one language/country to another is undoubtedly different, and dubbing doesn’t really get across certain parts of a word, or slang terms and so forth.
English Language Remakes
Foreign/subtitled movies’ inability to make bank at the U.S. box office usually means that the big studios (usually American) will take the idea and remake it as an English/American film, rather than debut it in it’s foreign-language form. This often leads to the remake being seen by more people, and thus making more money. As an example, the original Japanese version of The Ring (called Ringu) went straight to video in the U.S., whereas the Gore Verbinski/Naomi Watts remake was released theatrically and made just under $130 million domestically.
However, dollars and cents aside, English-language remakes are almost always inferior to the foreign-language original, and the lack of attention the original gets just means we will get more and more unneeded and unwanted remakes, not only of foreign films, but of any film, new or old, which is deemed “inferior” or “past its prime” (the horror genre is a great current example). By watching a remake (whether they’re aware it’s a remake or not), people are (for the most part) exposing themselves to re-hashed version of somebody else’s inspired idea.
There are certainly other, more specific reasons why avoidance of subtitled movies should stop, but those are the main ones.
And, in case you happen to be one of those folks who have been actively avoiding subtitled films, here are some great ones to get you started on becoming a convert:
Oldboy (2003, Korean)
Seven Samurai (1954, Japanese)
Amelie (2001, French)
Downfall (2004, German)
Hard Boiled (1992, Cantonese)
City of God (2002, Portugese)
Let The Right One In (2008, Swedish)
Audition (1999, Japanese)
Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, German)
Rashomon (1950, Japanese)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Spanish)
[REC] (2007, Spanish)
Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
The Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film is one of the Academy Awards of Merit, or Oscars, handed out annually by the U.S.-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). It is given to a feature-length motion picture produced outside the United States of America with a predominantly non-English dialogue track.
When the first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929 to honor films released in 1927/28, there was no separate category for foreign language films. Between 1947 and 1955, the Academy presented Special/Honorary Awards for the best foreign language films released in the United States. These Awards, however, were not handed out on a regular basis (no Award was given in 1953), and were not competitive since there were no nominees but simply one winning film per year. For the 1956 (29th) Academy Awards, a competitive Academy Award of Merit, known as the Best Foreign Language Film Award, was created for non-English speaking films, and has been given annually since then.
Unlike other Academy Awards, the Best Foreign Language Film Award is not presented to a specific individual. It is accepted by the winning film's director, but is considered an award for the submitting country as a whole. Over the years, the Best Foreign Language Film Award and its predecessors have been given almost exclusively to European films: out of the 66 Awards handed out by the Academy since 1947 to foreign language films, fifty-four have gone to European films, six to Asian films, three to African films and three to films from the Americas. Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini directed four Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award–winning motion pictures during his lifetime, a record that remains unmatched as of 2007 (if Special Awards are taken into account, then Fellini's record is tied by his fellow countryman Vittorio De Sica). The most awarded foreign countries are Italy, with 11 awards won, 3 Special Awards and 28 nominations, while Israel is the foreign country to have the most nominations, 10, without winning an award. Portugal has the highest number of submissions (30) without a single nomination.
Unlike other Academy Awards, the Foreign Language Film Award does not require films to be released in the United States in order to be eligible for competition. Films competing in the Foreign Language Film category must have been first released in the country submitting them during the eligibility period defined by the rules of the Academy, and must have been exhibited for at least seven consecutive days in a commercial movie theater. The eligibility period for the Foreign Language Film category differs from that required for most other categories: the awards year defined for the Foreign Language Film category usually begins and ends before the ordinary awards year, which corresponds to an exact calendar year. For the 80th Academy Awards, for instance, the release deadline for the Foreign Language Film category was set on September 30, 2007, whereas the qualifying run for most other categories extended till December 31, 2007.
Submission and Nomination Process
Every country is invited to submit what it considers its best film to the Academy. The designation of each country's official submission has to be done by an organization, jury or committee composed of people from the film industry, whose members' names must be sent to the Academy. Only one film is accepted from each country.
After each country has designated its official entry, English-subtitled copies of all submitted films are shipped to the Academy, where they are screened by the Foreign Language Film Award Committee(s), whose members select by secret ballot the five official nominations. Final voting for the winner is restricted to active and life Academy members who have attended exhibitions of all five nominated films. Members who have watched the Foreign Language Film entries only on videocassette or DVD are ineligible to vote. These procedures were slightly modified for the 2006 (79th) Academy Awards, with the Academy deciding to institute a two-stage process in determining the nominees: for the first time in the history of the award, a nine-film shortlist was published one week before the official nominations announcement. In the meantime, a smaller thirty-member committee, which included ten New York-based Academy members was formed, and spent three days viewing the shortlisted films before choosing the five official nominees. Residents of the city hosting the country's second largest film industry were thus allowed to participate for the first time ever in the selection process for the Foreign Language Film Award nominees.
Unlike the Academy Award for Best Picture, which officially goes to the winning film's producers, the Foreign Language Film Award is not given to a specific individual but is considered an award for the submitting country as a whole. For example, the Oscar statuette won by the Canadian film The Barbarian Invasions (2003) have been until recently on display at the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City. It is now on display at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Thoughts on Some of the Foreign Language Films I've seen.
There really is quite a crop of Foreign Films this year, the strongest I've seen in a while.
Leviathan (Russia) d: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Leviathan (Russian: Левиафан) is a 2014 Russian drama film directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, starring Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova and Vladimir Vdovichenkov. It is set on a peninsula by the Barents Sea and tells the story of a man who struggles against a corrupt mayor who wants his piece of land. The screenplay is a modern reworking of the Book of Job. The producer Alexander Rodnyansky has said: "It deals with some of the most important social issues of contemporary Russia, while never becoming an artist's sermon or a public statement, it is a story of love and tragedy experienced by ordinary people".
It was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or in the main competition section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Andrey Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin won the award for Best Screenplay.
Leviathan, is shocking in that Russia even picked the film given how critical it is of the country, is acted and directed with unflinching zeal, moving with deliberative gradualness and periodically expediting at moments of high drama and suspense. It isn't trepidacious of massive symbolic moments and operatic gestures. My Rating: ***1/2 out of ****
Two Days, One Night (France) d: Dardenne brothers
Two Days, One Night (French: Deux jours, une nuit) is a 2014 Belgian drama film written and directed by the Dardenne brothers, starring Marion Cotillard and Fabrizio Rongione. It was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or in the main competition section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. It won the Sydney Film Prize at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival. It has also been selected as Belgium's submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards.
Even if you’ve skipped the Dardennes’ work until now, this is a verbalizing-point movie, and an outstanding lead performance, you require to visually perceive. It’s an infrequent film of unforced simplicity that will stick with you for a long time. And it’s veracious right to its impeccably judged ending. My Rating: ***1/2 out of ****
Norte, the End of History (Philippines) d: Lav Diaz
Norte, the End of History (Tagalog: Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan) is a 2013 Filipino drama film directed by Lav Diaz which explores themes of crime, class, and family. The film lasts for more than four hours.
Screened at the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, as well as the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, the main slate of 2013 New York Film Festival, and the Masters section of the 2013 San Diego Asian Film Festival, the film has received wide acclaim for its riveting storytelling and unique cinematography. The film also won four awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress at the 2014 Gawad Urian Awards.
The film had a limited release in the Philippines on 11 March 2014 and will have its wide theatrical release on 10 September 2014. It has been selected as the Filipino entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards.
Norte is not without nuance. Its sheer breadth permits a level of detail and a degree of characterization unthinkable on a smaller scale. A 250-minute running time necessarily demands patience from an audience, but no less important is the patience of the filmmaker demanding it. My Rating: ***1/2 out of ****
Mommy (Canada... Well, French Canada) d: Xavier Dolan
Mommy is a 2014 Canadian drama film directed by Xavier Dolan. It was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or in the main competition section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize. It has been selected as the Canadian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards.
The film stars Anne Dorval as Diane Després, a widowed mother who is overwhelmed by the difficulty of raising her troubled, sometimes violent son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) as a single parent. Després then begins to receive assistance and support from her mysterious new neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément).
Dolan is a director who thinks hard about the possibilities of cinema and explores them with verve and ingenuity, but it is in his latest film that everything has come together. My Rating: ***1/2 out of ****
Force Majeure (Sweden) d: Ruben Östlund
Force Majeure (Swedish: Turist) is a 2014 Swedish drama film directed by Ruben Östlund. It was selected to compete in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Jury Prize. The film has been nominated for the 2014 Nordic Council Film Prize. It has also been selected as the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards.
Read my ***1/2 out of the **** star review here.