Believe it or not, some of the best films of the last three decades have not been Hollywood productions. Shocked? We know. Unfortunately, many first-class foreign language films fly below the radar of our generation of movie-goers. Limited accessibility, lack of proper advertising and the mainstream movie monopoly have curbed the path of these films to the audiences they so deserve. Perdeby has compiled a list of such films for the benefit of foreign film foreigners and seasoned subtitle scanners alike.

Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) 2006

This Spanish-language film has been labelled “the adult’s fantasy” due to its graphic content and solemn parable. An imaginative young girl, Ofelia, joins her pregnant mother and malicious stepfather at his military post where he is attempting to smoke out the Spanish Maquis guerrillas. She discovers an abandoned labyrinth in the forest and is drawn into a fantasy world by a magical faun.

The film draws disturbing parallels between the girl’s monstrous stepfather and the chilling creatures she encounters. Even famed thriller writer Stephen King shuddered at the sight of “the Pale Man” (a monster who eats children) during a screening of the film. The film’s redeeming qualities are the courage and innocence demonstrated by 11-year-old Ofelia. Pan’s Labyrinth bagged three Oscars and earned itself 22 minutes of applause at the Cannes Film Festival. Get the popcorn ready.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) 2006

Another Oscar favourite, this compelling German drama is set in the turbulent, USSR-controlled East Berlin of the 80s. A Stasi officer is ordered to conduct surveillance on a prominent playwright and his actress girlfriend. As the real motive behind the surveillance becomes clear, the officer finds himself appalled by the evident abuse of power and starts questioning the very system whose bidding he does. At the same time, he becomes increasingly absorbed in the lives of the couple and, as a result, begins to lie in his reports. It is quite moving to watch this austere socialist become the protective guardian of two strangers. This unassuming shadow of a man plays a huge role in their lives, without their being aware of his existence. The film is a tangle of poignancy, obscurity and deception that effortlessly embodies the political and social atmosphere of the time.

The Sea Inside (Mar adentro) 2004

Before Javier Bardem terrified us with his menacing haircut and cattle gun in No Country For Old Men, he gave the performance of his career in The Sea Inside. This Spanish movie is based on the real-life story of Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic who fights for 29 years for the right to be legally euthanised. You would have to be jaded to not be affected by his campaign to “die with dignity”.

The film portrays Sampedro’s impromptu relationships near the end of his struggle – first with his lawyer, Julia, who suffers from Cadasil syndrome, and then with a local girl, Rosa, who becomes enamoured with his story. It also explores the harrowing effect that his condition and his resolute desire to die have on his family.

Bardem’s performance alone is reason enough to watch the film. The story itself is so stirring that it more than deserved the 2004 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film – clearly a film that is worth your attention.

Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella) 1997

Life is Beautiful is unarguably the best fictional World War II film you will ever see. It chronicles the journey of Guido Orefice, a delightfully eccentric Italian Jew. From the optimistic beginnings of a fairytale romance to the nightmare of the concentration camp, your heart is sure to be warmed and broken a hundred times.

Orefice uses his remarkable imagination and humour to convince his son that the concentration camp is in fact the setting for a grand game. He disguises the horrors around them as elements of the game to protect his son from grief and death. With four Oscars and four more nominations to boot, it doesn’t belong on this list alone but on any list of movies that are worth watching.

As It Is In Heaven (Så som i himmelen) 2004

A world-renowned composer takes a break from his career after a heart attack and returns to his tiny hometown in Norrland, Sweden. Soon, the local reverend is knocking on his door to demand that he coach the church choir; he reluctantly agrees. What follows is a renaissance in the town: a revolutionary shift in perspectives on religion, love and emancipation. The church choir evolves into a symbol of the inspiring nature of music.

 No need to be a music lover to fall madly in love with this film. The characters are beautiful in their flaws: not one of them is textbook-attractive, yet it renders their charm even more irresistible. They are, most endearingly, “real” people – not Hollywood-manufactured mannequins. The comedy is light, the music is beautiful and you’ll no doubt sit through the credits just to hear “Gabriela’s Song”again.

Photo: JP Nathrass

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