Last week, I explained why I believe that Christians should care about foreign films. But getting into foreign films can be daunting. It’s hard enough to stay on top of Hollywood’s output, nevermind the cinematic output of Japan, Iran, Russia, France, etc. (This is one area where the Internet has truly been a blessing.) To that end, I’ve compiled a list of foreign films that I think everyone should watch, but that I think Christians will find especially interesting and thought-provoking.
Obviously, this list is not exhaustive, but it does cover a wide range of genres, cultures, and eras. Some films, I believe, allow us to better understand and comprehend the Imago Dei, as I discussed earlier. Others may not explicitly deal with religious or theological subject matter at all, but nevertheless deal with profound themes. Others are fantastic tales of good and evil that are skillfully wrought. In any case, hopefully these films will provide folks with a good starting point for venturing into some unfamiliar cinematic waters.
1) Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1952) - A film that raises questions about what provides true meaning and value in life.
Akira Kurosawa is best known for his samurai films (e.g., Seven Samurai, Yojimbo) and understandably so. But Ikiru is no less a masterpiece, even though it features no katana-wielding heroes. Rather, Ikiru‘s hero is a low-ranking bureaucrat in post-World War II Japan named Kanji Watanabe who learns that he is dying of cancer in the film’s opening minutes. Thus begins a film that would make the writer of Ecclesiastes proud, as our hero reflects on his life and what meaning, if any, he has found. There’s a certain dark humor and pathos to the film, which also works as a satirical look at how political bureaucracy and power breeds heartlessness, cruelty, and complacency. However, it is Watanabe’s quiet, determined quest for meaning in the face of life’s cruelty and suffering, and the ultimate end of his search, that proves to be the film’s emotional and spiritual core. The movie is full of powerful and moving scenes, including one in which Watanabe silences a raucous nightclub while singing a sad, yet tender ballad about the ephemeral nature of life.
2) The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky, Sweden, 1986) – A difficult yet sublime film about sacrifice and what it takes to be faithful to God.
Andrei Tarkovsky is one of my favorite filmmakers, but I’ll freely admit that he’s not the easiest filmmaker to “get”. His aesthetic — glacial, long-running scenes, surreal imagery, dialog that feels more like philosophical treatises than actual conversation — is demanding, to say the least. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of his films here, considering his legacy as one of the great “religious” directors of all time. The Sacrifice — sometimes called Tarkovsky’s “last will and testament”, as he made it shortly before dying from cancer – is about an atheist writer who, upon learning that the world is on the brink of World War III, promises God that he’ll give up everything, even his beloved son, if only God will stop the apocalypse. When God apparently answers his request, the writer must then face the reality of his vow. It’s one of Tarkovsky’s most straightforward films… relatively speaking. Make no mistake, though: it is still a challenging film, but its ruminations on faith, prayer, and sacrifice, as well as its evocative imagery and virtuosic conclusion, can make for a sublime viewing experience for those looking for more of a challenge.
3) Three Colors: Blue (Krzysztof Kieślowski, France/Poland, 1993) – A film about sorrow, forgiveness, and the divine power of art.
Kieślowski’s famous “Three Colors” trilogy often feels like a “Foreign Film 101″ selection to me, because these three films are quite accessible as far as supposed “art house” fare goes. But that’s not intended as a knock at all. Inspired by the colors of the French flag and the political ideals that they represent (i.e., liberty, equality, fraternity), Kieślowski’s films are beautifully made, and wrestle with themes like regret and grief, justice and revenge, and our deep need for connection and relationship. All three films are excellent, but my personal favorite is Three Colors: Blue, the first film in the trilogy. This is due in large part to Juliette Binoche’s powerful portrayal of a woman recovering from the deaths of her husband and daughter. Though determined to live in solitude, her closeted life is broken open by various secrets and revelations, the unlikeliest of relationships, and by brief flashes of divine inspiration that insist on breaking through her sorrow and urging her to continue her husband’s work as a composer.
4) The Color of Paradise (Majid Majidi, Iran, 1999) – A film about truly childlike faith.
The literal translation of the film’s title is The Color of God, which makes more sense given that Majidi’s film is about one child’s search for God. The boy in question, Mohammed, is blind and therefore shunned by his earthly father, who sees the young boy as a curse. Nevertheless, he possesses an optimistic spirit and a deep faith in God, but for all of his faith, Mohammed still wants to know why God has subjected him to blindness and his father’s rejection. Set in the lush, verdant countryside of Iran — which can be an eye-opening experience in and of itself, and may very well challenge certain preconceived notions about the country – The Color of Paradise is a breathtakingly beautiful film full of striking, and sometimes surreal, images. And it ends with one of the simplest, yet most transcendent images I’ve ever seen in a film.
5) The Circle (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2000) – A film that forces us to confront the plight of the “least of these”.
On December 20, 2010, acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail and forbidden from making any films for 20 years. His crime? Creating propaganda that attacked the Islamic Republic. Or, from another perspective, creating socially aware films that were highly critical of the Iranian authorities. The Circle is one such film, a brutal indictment of the ways in which women have been marginalized and mistreated in modern Iran, even from birth. Shot in a documentary-esque style that adds to the film’s immediacy and suspense — it contains scenes as tense as any commercial thriller – The Circle is not a happy, upbeat film by any means. It is, however, a bold and deeply sympathetic film that tells the story of those who have no voice to tell it themselves, and constantly forces us to consider the plight of those who have been shunned and ostracized simply because of their gender.
6) The Son (The Dardenne Brothers, France, 2002) – A film about the hard demands of forgiveness.
On the one hand, I don’t want to say too much about The Son because to do so would inevitably spoil the powerful surprise that lies at the core of the film. On the other hand, the film seems so simple — due to the Dardenne Brothers’ stark, naturalistic filmmaking style — that it doesn’t seem like there’s all that much to talk about. But that simplicity is ultimately deceptive, and as we watch the film’s main character — a thoroughly mundane wood shop teacher — go about his daily routine, which ranges from carrying heavy wooden beams around the shop to spying on a new student, we’re drawn deeper and deeper into a story that never goes where you’re expecting it to. But the result is a deeply redemptive experience made all the more so by the fact that we feel like we’ve truly lived in another person’s shoes, thanks to that naturalistic approach.
7) A State of Mind (Daniel Gordon, United Kingdom, 2004) – A film that reveals that our apparent enemies are more similar to us than we might like to think.
It’s unlikely that there exists a more secretive nation than North Korea. That fact alone makes A State of Mind, a British documentary following two North Korean girls as they train for the Mass Games (the world’s largest acrobatics display), remarkable for even having been made in the first place. Even more remarkable, though, is how it challenges assumptions made so easily about a nation as vilified as North Korea (which had been labelled an “outpost of tyranny” by George W. Bush’s administration). But as the film reveals, North Koreans are not merely mindlessly evil automatons. Rather, they are much like us: mothers bustling in the kitchen, teenagers trying to get homework done so they can watch TV, families enjoying picnics in the park. It’s an encouraging reminder that even constant state propaganda can’t change some fundamental things about human nature. However, the film is also very sobering, as it reveals the levels of mistreatment, abuse, and deception that the North Koreans have suffered at the hands of their leaders.
8) Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Mexico/Spain, 2006) – A film about fairies and monsters, and sacrifice and redemption.
Fairy tales are typically viewed as children’s fare. Which is ironic since many of the classic fairy tales are, when you get right down to it, pretty grim stories. In that sense, Pan’s Labyrinth is a true fairy tale, and it is certainly not for children. A young girl escapes the war and violence that surrounds her in post-Civil War Spain by disappearing into a fantasy world where she learns that she is a long-lost princess. There, a dark, foreboding faun who gives her three tasks to prove her worth. But soon, reality and fantasy begin colliding in strange, bloody ways, and the girl finds herself forced to make increasingly difficult decisions. The film, told with considerable style and effect by Guillermo del Toro, one of modern cinema’s great fantasists, is dark and disturbing where it ought to be (i.e., in its depiction of evil and horror, human or otherwise) but it refuses to let evil have the last laugh. In this fairy tale, sacrifice and redemption rule the day, but not without cost or peril.
9) The Island (Pavel Lungin, Russia, 2006) – A film about guilt, repentance, and holy pranksters.
Anatoly is a monk with a past. His experiences in World War II have left him scarred emotionally and spiritually, and he lives with a perpetual sense of guilt for his deeds. Now, he lives in a remote monastery and spends his days repenting. However, his penitent nature has him at odds with his fellow monks — and has made him a bit of a celebrity with the locals, who see him as a true holy man and miracle worker (much to his consternation). Anatoly is a deeply pious man, but he’s also a prankster who isn’t above playing dirty to challenge the materialism that he perceives in the other monks — or to bring about some miraculous change in the local villagers. In other words, he’s a deeply flawed human being who nevertheless desperately seeks to be forgiven and used by God. Which makes the film’s exploration of sin, guilt, repentance, and miracles all the more interesting and affecting.
10) Departures (Yôjirô Takita, Japan, 2008) – A film that provides a glimpse into another culture’s view of life and death.
A few years ago, while visting Japan, a missionary friend called Departures an absolutely critical film to watch if you wanted to understand Japanese culture. The film follows an out-of-work cellist named Daigo who returns to his hometown and, desperate for work, takes a job preparing the dead for cremation. Shunned by friends and even his wife for taking such an “unclean” job, Daigo realizes the value of his work as it provides the friends and families of the deceased with a sense of closure. The film does get a bit melodramatic in places, but at the same time, it offers a glimpse of how life and death are perceived in Japanese culture, and does so in a very inviting, accessible — and non-morbid — way. And even though the ceremonies depicted in the film have a foundation in a Buddhism, Christians may nevertheless find themselves reflecting on what it means to live a full life, and how our respect for the dead influences our respect for the living.