Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Foreign Film Oscars from the 1950s

This is the first in a series of five blog posts dedicated to the 2013 '31 Days of Oscar Blogathon' hosted by the blogging divas Kellee (of Outspoken and Freckled), Paula (of Paula's Cinema Club) and Aurora (of Once Upon a Screen).

(For a complete summary of what I'm writing about, check out this post.)

In this first post, I'm going to focus on four films from the 1950s that were awarded an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film:

It's important to note that an award for foreign language film was not introduced until 1947 (some 18 years after the awards began in 1929), and between 1947 and 1955 the academy simply chose one film for the award.  Beginning in 1956, there were nominated films and the academy selected one from the pool of nominations.

So, let's dive right in shall we?!

Bruno and Antonio

This film is the prime example of the film-making movement in Italy known as Italian Neorealism.  If you want know more about this film movement, please watch the four hour documentary 'My Voyage to Italy' made be Martin Scorsese.  I've provided a's on YouTube in its entirety.  If you don't want to watch the documentary, simply put, it was a new realistic way of making films.  After World War II, Italian filmmakers had severely reduced resources and so they shot in the streets and used non-professional actors.  This realism made for gripping and heartfelt story-telling...along with a dose of social criticism.

Basic plot:
A young father (Antonio) is desperately looking for a job...finally he finds one hanging posters, but he needs a bicycle and his has already been pawned.  He takes the family's best bed-sheets (a wedding gift) to get the bicycle back.  The bicycle is stolen while he's on a ladder hanging posters and he and his son (Bruno) spend the rest of the film combing the city for the thief and the stolen bicycle.  They come close to catching the thief but he always alludes them.  Finally, in an act of desperation he sees another unattended bicycle and tries to steal it, but is caught by an angry group of people.

Great scenes:

  • At the pawn shop when he pawns the bedding.  We see the hundreds of other bedding sets that have been pawned, you immediately get a sense of the desperate situation.
  • When Antonio and Bruno are eating at a restaurant and they can only get a small plate of food.  Bruno sees a wealthy family nearby eating heartily and Antonio is reminded that he needs to provide for this family.
  • When the mob catches Antonio on the stolen bicycle at the end and Bruno is crying in shame for his father.

Why it's a great film:
The bicycle thief--maybe more than any other film--tells the simple story of a father wanting to provide for his family.  It does so in a heartbreaking way.  He is failing to provide for his family and his son sees him do some unmentionable things.  This is a tough film to watch, but a great film that I want you to watch.

If you like this film, also consider:

A priest, a woodcutter and a commoner walk into a temple...

Simply put, Rashomon introduced Japanese cinema to the western world.  This is one of the finest films made by director Akira Kurosawa and in my opinion one of the finest films ever made.

Basic plot:
A woodcutter, priest and commoner take refuge from a rain storm and the woodcutter tells the story of a samurai and his wife who were attacked by a bandit (Toshiro Mifune in arguably his best role) in a grove.  The man is killed and the woman is raped.  We hear four different people recount the story in four very different ways, pointing out the subjective nature of truth.

Great scenes:

  • When the medium tells the story from the dead samurai's viewpoint, you know you're watching a different kind of film!
  • Toshiro Mifune in almost every scene commands your attention with his forceful delivery. He is, in a word, awesome.
  • The final scene when the threesome taking refuge in the ramshackled temple find a baby.

Why it's a great film:
As well as introducing Japanese cinema to the West, this film is also a great technical film.  It has great editing, cinematography and acting.

If you like this film, also consider:

Gelsomina and Zampano

LA STRADA (1954)
This film is essentially a painful account of loneliness. Directed by Federico Fellini, it introduces his wife Giulietta Masina in her first major role.

Basic Plot:
The wandering, brutish circus performer Zampano (Anthony Quinn) purchases for a few lire the simple-minded Gelsomina (Masina) and makes her travel and perform with him in his circus routine.  She cares for him and he is in equal parts cruel and ambivalent towards her.  Gelsomina becomes friends with a tightrope-walker (Richard Basehart) who continually makes fun of Zampano.  One day Zampano comes across the the tightroap-walker fixing a flat tire.  Zampano, still enraged, fights and kills him.  Gelsomina becomes despondent at the death of her friend and Zampano abandons her one day as she naps.  Some years later, Zampano overhears a woman singing a tune Gelsomina often played. He learns that the woman's father had found Gelsomina on the beach and kindly taken her in.  However, she had wasted away and died. Zampano gets drunk and wanders to the beach, where he breaks down and cries uncontrollably.

Great Scenes:

  • Many of Masina's scenes are terrific.  Since she doesn't have a lot of dialog, she has to convey a lot through her facial expressions and body language (something she's very adept at.) 
  • The final scene where Zampano realizes all that he's lost in Gelsomina is gut-wrenching.

Why it's a great film:
It's a bridge between Italian Neorealism and Fellini's more dream-centric (Felliniesque) films.  It's one of Fellini's more 'accessible' films...the more mystic stuff will come later in his career.  Thematically, it's a wonderful film: the major characters represent mind (The Fool), body (Zampano) and spirit (Gelsomina.)  Existing without one of these components is tenuous.

If you like this film, also consider:

Cabiria on the job

I saw this film for the first time sometime in the spring on 2012.  I was absolutely floored by what I saw.  Fellini again collaborates with Masina to bring a heartbreaking tale of hope and survival to the screen. I won't be able to adequately express here how this film affected me.  It's one of Fellini's lesser known films (although it did win an Oscar and Masina won for best actress at the Cannes Film Festival) and I simply fell in love with it.

Basic plot:
A prostitute, Cabiria (Masina) is jilted by a boyfriend at the very beginning of the film (he shoves her into a river and steals her purse...she can't swim and nearly drowns.)  Most of the film then focuses on Cabiria working, trying to make a better life for herself and the friendship with her neighbor Wanda.  Then she meets soft-spoken accountant Oscar.  At first she's cautious and suspicious, but over the course of a couple of weeks, she opens up to Oscar and falls in love with him.  He eventually asks her to marry him.

Carlos convinces her to sell her house so that he can purchase a store where they both can work.  They go for a picnic in a wooded area, and he wants to show her a high cliff overlooking a lake. He is acting nervous and eventually Cabiria realizes he means to kill her and steal her money.  Cabiria breaks down to the point of exhaustion.  Oscar takes the money and flees.  Cabiria comes to at night, gets up and slowly walks back to the road where she is met by a group of kids playing music and having a good time.  She slowly begins to smile again amidst her tears.

Great scenes:

  • Certainly the big payoff scene in this film is the final seven minutes.  What we see is someone who goes from being completely crushed to someone who has hope in the future.  An absolutely stunning performance by Ms. Masina.  As she's walking down the road with the kids playing music...she begins to smile a little, her eyes filled with tears.  Then something unusual happens, she looks directly into the camera (breaking the fourth wall) and smiles at *us*.

Why it's a great film:
This is a film about hope.  Cabiria is a prostitute and lives in the gutter of Rome.  But she has dreams of a better life.  I think we can all identify with that no matter what we do or how we live.  This is a film about human resilience.  Cabiria not once, but twice is jilted by a lover...and still we see her begin to smile at the end.  When I see her start to smile...and then when she looks at me and nods, I have a sense that "she's going to be alright."

Masina hits it out of the park.  She's so beautiful and expressive in this film (and many other films.) There is almost no dialog in the final scene and yet it's one of the most deeply moving scenes I've seen in all my life.

If you like this film, also consider:

  • 8 1/2
  • Juliet of the Spirits
  • La Strada

Well that's a wrap on the first post, I hope you get a chance to watch some (or all) of these great films from the 50s.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

31 Days of Oscar - Best Foreign Language Film

As many of you know I'm kind of a foreign film nut.  (Those who didn't know may find yourself running, screaming from the building.)  When Paula, Kellee and Aurora announced a blogathon related to the topic of the Oscars (and more specifically related to TCM's annual '31 Days of Oscar' film event in February), I figured this would be my chance to bore you all endlessly with my write-ups on films that have been nominated for the Oscar for best foreign language film.

My methodology for determining what to write about was simple:  I looked at the complete history of foreign films awarded or nominated and pulled from that list the films that I've actually watched.  This turned out to be 15 films.  So I'm going divide these up into separate blog posts based on rough time ranges:

So that's what's coming up in the month of February...I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I know I'll enjoy writing them!