Final in my movie series.

And what if they don’t speak your language? Ah, but they do, if you just watch.


Actually, when you think about it, there is no such as a “foreign film,” given that even major movies made in Hollywood are dubbed for overseas release. Or more to the point, Swedish films are not considered foreign when viewed in Stockholm. Then again, if the same audience is watching “The king’s speech” with Swedish subtitles, well…and so forth. .

So indulge me as I champion films that are originally written and produced in a language other than English, remembering that movies are stories told in pictures, with dialogue serving a support role.

Alright, alright wordsmiths. Settle down. The words are important, and crappy dialogue can kill the whole effort. But on the other hand, take away the pictures and you’ve got radio. And if you really want to appreciate the point, download, say, an Italian-produced movie and see how completely the pictures carry the story, even if you tire of reading.

Too true, plus a strange thing happens, especially if the subtitles are well done: you can sort of kid yourself into believing that you can — in a rudimentary fashion — understand, say, Italian. Context plays a part, of course; as the plot progresses the characters will portray the emotions — the drama — that you expect them to. Aiding the viewer is the job of the translator, which is why some subtitles work markedly better than others. Years ago I saw a German film called “Das boot” (“The boat”) and the subtitles were so well done that I could have sworn I picked up German by the time I left the theater. Not only that, seeing the film that dramatized the trials of a German u-boat crew in WWII in the native language enhanced the story immensely.

Long before that I watched my first “foreign film,” a little black-and-white beauty called “The virgin spring,” directed by Ingmar Bergman. The spoken language was Swedish, supported with English subtitles, but visually it was so powerful that the scenes still remain — and haunt — me to this day.

Here’s something you could do if you can stream Netflix: download the Swedish version of “The girl with the dragon tattoo” and stick with it to the end. Then add the new English-language version to your holiday viewing list, and compare the impact of both. You may actually prefer the original production, especially since the story was by a Swedish author and set in Sweden.

As it turns out, what you’re experiencing with a non-English movie is a sense of what conversation would feel like in a non-American context, which means you really have to go with the flow. In the first place, if you try to speed-translate to English as the story moves on you’ll get hopelessly lost. Plus, figures of speech or idioms are very tough to translate in a literal fashion. (Interestingly, Rosetta Stone bases its approach to learning a new language on visual cues; i.e., instead of saying the French word for a horse is cheval, you see a picture that says this is a cheval).

So in its best sense, a foreign language film — set in a foreign locale — is a transporting experience. The very language aids your entry to the new place, even as the pictures complete the task.

It took me some time to get to that realization, but it was well worth it. And what’s really striking is how common emotions are on a world scale. The laughter in French or Italian is just the same as that of American. And the tears are just as moving. You just have to get in tune.


If the scene above was dubbed for a showing in Rome, Rhett Butler would be famously assuring Scarlett, “Francamente, mia cara, io non me ne frega niente”.