I always brace for the bit of intellectual judgment when someone suggests a foreign film, and my face gets a little squinted and I have to admit “yeah, I’m just don’t have the attention span to read for the next two hours.” But it’s more than that—foreign films have always presented a problem for me. It’s a similar problem to why I don’t jump on the 240 Shakespeare productions presented in New York each season—my mind has trouble working that way. I am stimulated aurally and visually, which is why theatre and film work so well for me, words on a page often don’t evoke anything in my brain—I’m just too distracted by everything around me. Not to say I don’t read—I read lots in short form, that doesn’t require so much concentration; and every now and then I’m at a place of mental zen and relaxation to pick up a book or pop in a foreign film. This week’s Oscar catch-ups are two acclaimed Mexican films from the early aughts that had passed me by, but have been recommended time and time again. My mental blocks with foreign film were heavily on mind whilst thinking about these.
Amores Perros (2000) Directed by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, Written by Guillermo Arriaga
Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Emilio Echevarria, Goya Toldeo, Alvaro Guerrero, Vanessa Bauche, Jorge Salinas, and Marco Perez
Nominated for 1 Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film
Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002) Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, Written by Alfonso Cuaron & Carlos Cuaron
Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna and Ana Lopez Mercado
Nominated for 1 Oscar: Best Original Screenplay
Amores Perros reminded me about a certain level of emotional disconnect that inherently comes when you aren’t speaking the same language as the characters. There is a mental distance that keeps you a step removed—constantly reminds you in every second that you are watching a film. Sometimes it makes me get real bored real easily (A Prophet, The Secret in Their Eyes) and sometimes it really works for me—it makes something that could become cloyingly emotional suddenly palatable (Tsotsi, Pan’s Labyrinth). The latter definitely worked in Amores Perros’ favor. I could see the symbolism of the brutal relations of these humans being juxtaposed against the brutal world of dog fighting being too heavy handed in English. In this case it just seemed ingeniously realized, shot after shot. All of the performances here are incredibly strong, and the cinematography too. Inarritu likes to wallow in the bleak and miserable. In Babel, he was able to be ultimately uplifting in the doom and gloom. In Biutiful, he made you want to put a gun in your mouth. Here, like 21 Grams, there is no uplift, but he at least restrains from complete miserablism.
Y Tu Mama Tambien represents another trend I’ve noticed toward my reactions to foreign film—annoyance that something incredibly mediocre is being over-hyped when the exact same material wouldn’t receive a second glance as an English-language film in an American market. Last year this was true with the psychological torture porn Dogtooth. Y Tu Mama Tambien was critically claimed and launched Alfonso Cuaron’s career into Hollywood—it’s not much more than a buddy sex comedy that isn’t funny. It desperately wants to be profound, but comes off as adolescent instead. A very striking performance by Ana Lopez Mercado is its saving grace, this nomination for the screenplay is baffling as the dialogue (at least as translated—which I guess is how the Academy was nominating it) reads as uninspired and meandering.
With my mixed record this week, what foreign movie do I need to watch next?