Feature: "Life Is Beautiful" -- In A Mirror
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"Life Is Beautiful" -- In A Mirror

By D. Scott Apel

"Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursel's as others see us!"

--Robert Burns, "To a Louse"

Scottish poet Burns might have died a hundred years before motion pictures were invented, but he could easily have been talking about foreign films in this famous couplet. While cinematic imports frequently provide us with a different perspective on the Human Family, they also quite often hold up a mirror to our own society, providing a unique, outsider's reflection on topics that are considered too controversial -- or too unprofitable -- for filmmakers to address in American culture.

A case in point is the 1998 winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, "Life is Beautiful." When American filmmakers tackle the Holocaust -- as in Spielberg's monumental "Schindler's List" -- a respectful, somber tone is expected. It took the playful genius of Italy's Roberto Benigni to demonstrate that there are other, equally valid (and equally respectful) viewpoints from which to approach this supremely serious subject. But "Life" is merely the most recent example of this principle of foreign films as a mirror of American society.

In 1947, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began bestowing special awards for foreign language films; in 1956, this award became an official Oscar category. Over the past 50 years, winners in this category have included a fair share of satires and outright comedies ("Mon Oncle," "Black and White in Color," "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs," "Mediterraneo," "Belle Epoque", pure thrillers ("Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion," "The Assault"), biographical epics ("Amarcord," "Indochine," "Antonia's Line," "Fanny and Alexander"), unabashedly romantic tales ("A Man and a Woman," "Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears"), and any number of tender adult/child bonding dramas ("Sundays and Cybele," "Madame Rosa," "Pelle the Conqueror," "Kolya").

But often where these foreign films excel is when they wrestle with the Big Themes: topics that the Hollywood entertainment machine is reluctant to touch, like Life and Death, God and Man, Human Psychology, and Political Repression. These are the films that can rise above the simple status of "best foreign language film" to be regarded as some of the finest films the world has to offer.

Below, a few examples -- every one of which can be considered essential viewing for serious foreign film fans and drama buffs, and any one of which can be considered a solid addition to a video library, as each invites repeated viewing:

  • Virgin Spring, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's stylish meditation on life and death, and God and redemption, was named Best Foreign Language Film in 1960. In 14th century Sweden, a young girl on her way to church is molested and murdered by transients; her bereaved, despondent father first seeks revenge, then questions God about what possible sense there is to be found in such senseless acts. Bergman's dark lament is not just a haunting depiction of the depths of despair, but is also an elegant allegory of sin and redemption, and the search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, all presented with breathtaking imagery and disturbingly realistic depictions of raw emotion rare in American film.

  • 8-1/2, Italian director Federico Fellini's portrait of an artist's creative impotence, was named winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1963. Marcello Mastroianni plays Fellini's cinematic alter ego, a famous film director imprisoned in a midlife crisis, who searches desperately for inspiration and understanding once he realizes that both his artistic and personal lives are hollow, hypocritical and stagnant. Fellini crafts the film as an exercise in cinematic self-analysis, interweaving memories, dreams and wish-fulfilling fantasies in his most masterful manner -- and a with a psychological insight difficult to locate in American films of any era. Despite the subject matter, however, the tone of this cinematic fantasy is far from Bergmanesque despair; "8-1/2" overflows with warmth, humor and, ultimately, a bittersweet acceptance of the imperfections of Humankind.

  • The Shop on Main Street, by Czech directors Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1965, tells a small, intimate tale set against a worldwide war. In the early days of World War II, the Nazis occupy Czechoslovakia, and appoint a local carpenter as the "Aryan controller" of a button shop run by an old, nearly deaf Jewish woman. The two develop a tentative friendship which turns tragic when he learns she is to be deported and attempts to save her. The lead performers, adding touches of tenderness and subtlety to their characters, prevent this heart-wrenching story from crossing the line between poignant sentiment and tearjerking melodrama. Thirty years before Schindler's List, this gem covered similar territory in just as masterful a fashion.

  • Z, French director Costa-Gavras' intense political tract, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1969. Walking a tightrope between fact and fiction, Costa-Gavras took a real-life fascist coup in Greece in 1963 and recast it as a gripping political thriller. Following the suspicious death of a Greek leader, a government investigator doggedly pursues the case, discovering both conspiracy and assassination before bringing the guilty to justice. In American cinema, "Z" is perhaps comparable with "All the President's Men," produced some 13 years later -- and is a film with a curious current relevance, given our own recent political scandals.

  • The Tin Drum, German director Volker Schlondorff's scathing anti-war saga, based on Gunter Grass' novel, was named winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1979. In Germany during the 1920's, little three-year-old Oskar "wills" himself to stop growing to protest the burgeoning Nazi movement, and pounds out his frustration, fear and fury on the tiny tin drum of the title. If it sounds bizarre, wait until you see it: The film's power stems not only from its superb lead performance, but also from its surreal, dreamlike (and unforgettable) imagery. Most great American anti-war films (like "MASH" and "Dr. Strangelove") use mockery to make their point rather than confronting the subject head-on; a close American equivalent to "Drum," however, might be "Johnny Got His Gun," a wrenching, disturbing fantasy filmed in 1971 ... and overlooked by all but cult film fans and the most dedicated anti-war film aficionados.

  • The Official Story, by Argentine director Luis Puenzo, is a harrowing tale of political repression in his native country which was chosen as winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1985. A middle-class woman in Argentina suspects that her adopted daughter's mother might have been one of the thousands of political prisoners "disappeared" and murdered by the fascist government in the '70s; as she searches for the truth and the facts, her family is torn apart by her discoveries. Puenzo's first feature film, a truly gut-wrenching and heart-wrenching tragedy, is also a powerful indictment of a repressive government cloaked inside a riveting story.

  • Cinema Paradiso, Italian writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore's sweetly sentimental saga of the affectionate, life-long relationship between a movie theater projectionist in a small Sicilian town and his young protege, took home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1989 -- and became one of the most popular imports of all time. Tornatore's nostalgic autobiography is by turns comic, tragic and bittersweet, but always centers on the power of film to illustrate -- and often provide us with -- our dreams.

    While other titles on this list indicate films that might not or could not be made in America, and which can thereby provide us with some objective observation of our own culture, "Cinema Paradiso" transcends this limited perspective to offer some insight into the very reason the Human Family watches movies at all, in any country, in any language. This movie about the influence of movies on our lives thus involves us, almost interactively, in its self-reflective meditations, yielding the emotional equivalent of the illusion of infinity which results when two mirrors are held up face to face.

    As a mirror for observers, "Cinema Paradiso" -- as well as many of these other films which mirror our culture, directly or by implication -- does indeed follow the dictate of French poet, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who advised that "Mirrors would do well to reflect a bit more before sending back images."

D. Scott Apel is the former video columnist for the San Jose (CA) Mercury News, and is author of the video guide Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen.

Previous features:
Buried Treasures of 1998
Lackluster Blockbusters: 1998's Turkeys
Bewitched, Bothered and Bedeviled
Happy Trails: Goodbye Roy and Shari
Albert Brooks: The Funniest Man in Film?
Mother's Day: Sons and Mothers
Will We Remember Them? Oscar Winners From the Past
Oscar's Cinema Lineage
Love Makes the World Go 'Round
Buried Treasures of 1997
It's a Wonderful Film: Frank Capra's Christmas gift to the world.
Intelligent alien connections with "Contact" ... and other benign close encounters.
Die Laughing: 13 flicks guaranteed to rattle your funny bones.
Film Noir: Build a library of some classic B-pictures.
Thanksgiving turkeys: A giblet-eye view of the worst of 1997.

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May 1, 1999