It seems that the consensus among the general public is that reading subtitles feels like a chore.
Independent film theater chain Laemmle sells T-shirts that read “Not afraid of subtitles,” which accurately describes its niche audience.
But a handful of foreign films have been traveling film festival circuits and are now being released in the United States to critical acclaim.
It has indeed been a prolific year for foreign filmmakers. There have been features from all corners of the world, and many have something in common: They focus on the power of human emotion, a characteristic these filmmakers hope will attract audiences from around the world regardless of their respective languages.
In a panel discussion at the Egyptian Theatre on Saturday, directors of foreign language films nominated at the Golden Globes spoke about their work.
The discussion included Angelina Jolie, Pedro Almodóvar, Asghar Farhadi, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne shared the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival with fellow filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan for films The Kid with a Bike and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, respectively.
The Dardenne brothers are known for films rooted in the styles of naturalism and realism and have been working together their entire careers.
“Alone, we can’t do anything,” Jean-Pierre Dardenne said.
The Dardenne brothers explained that the final moments in The Kid with a Bike highlight the notion that “love is stronger than death, sometimes … and for a short time.”
Pedro Almodóvar, who boasts a stylistic approach bolder than that of the Dardenne brothers, claimed his interests lie outside of the subtlety of naturalism. “I want to represent feelings,” the Spanish filmmaker said. In his film, The Skin I Live In, he tackles issues of sex, gender and identification with expressive techniques.
In response to the success of 2011’s The Artist, a black-and-white silent film, Almodóvar said he couldn’t imagine making a film without words, considering how talkative he and his fellow Spaniards are. Almodóvar also admitted he has flirted with the possibility of leaving his homeland for a film and shooting in the United States, though he has reservations.
“I don’t think the production system of this town really fits me,” he said.
Iran’s most famous film of the year, A Separation, is impressive in that it was made with an $800,000 budget. The film also has been receiving acclaim since the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Bear.
“[A Separation is] a detective story, but the detective is actually the audience,” Farhadi said.
Later he explained that this decision allows the audience to become more involved in the film’s narrative.
A Separation is critical of Iranian culture yet largely universal in its themes — something that Farhadi said was inspired by the thematic tone of Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Rashômon.
“There’s an image of Iran outside of Iran which is not correct. I don’t mean to say that there are no issues or problems, but the types of problems that you often imagine are not the ones that are there,” Farhadi said.
He also said that people tend to forget the similarities shared by people of different nations.
“We look at the people of a country through the prism of politics,” Farhadi said.
The politics of another nation are explored in Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey — a surprising departure for the famous actress. The love story is set during the Bosnian War and shot in two languages, Serbo-Croatian and English. Jolie explained this setting was chosen in hopes that the film would appeal to a wider demographic and would attempt to shed the language barrier most audiences seem to have a problem with.
Jolie also discussed her approach as a director in her first feature.
“The style for [In the Land of Blood and Honey] was dictated by the war. Some people say that [the] lighting was beautiful in some scenes, but there was no electricity. It wasn’t some genius move of mine,” Jolie said.
In speaking about the events that took place during the war, Jolie made her intentions clear with this film.
“We want people to talk about it. We want people to cry. We want the world not to forget about it,” Jolie said.
In a film industry that is swamped with remakes, sequels and ideas that can often feel uninspired, foreign-language films such as these and others offer a compelling alternative — that is, as long as audiences aren’t afraid of subtitles.