Thu. Jun 4th, 2020

REVIEW: Foreign Language Film Oscar Winners 1947-1951


As the deadline for 2015 entries for the Foreign Language Film Oscar approaches (October 1st), AwardsWatch contributor Jeff Beachnau (Worst Picture/Best Picture Series) delves into the history of the Foreign Language Film Oscar with reviews of every film. Here is the first in the series.

In 1947 the Academy Awards began awarding special Oscars to Foreign Films, and by 1956 they eventually created an official category. Since then, there have been dozens of innovative and masterful films from around the world nominated and awarded. I’m gonna revisit all of the Foreign Film winners and talk about them in a series of reviews.

Shoeshine, Monsieur Vincent, Bicycle Thieves, The Walls of Malapaga, and Rashomon

It’s only fitting that the very first Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film was Vittorio de Sica. Along with Federico Fellini, he won the most Oscars in this category with four films. His first winning film, Shoeshine, is a wonderful beginning to this illustrious category.

Shoeshine follows two young boys in Italy who are down on their luck. Giuseppe and Pasquale are best friends who shine shoes to get a little bit of money and spend some of it from time to time to ride a horse that they love. Pasquale’s parents are both dead, so until recently he’s been sleeping in an elevator at the nearby building. Luckily, Giuseppe still has a family, even if they too are pretty penniless, so they are nice enough to give him shelter and feed him. However, Giuseppe’s older brother is a troublemaker and involved with the local gangsters, and after tricking the two kids into committing a crime, the two boys are arrested and sent to juvenile prison.

The premise is rather simple, two lower class children living together on the streets being forced to live together and survive in prison. But it’s quite a powerful film, the two leads are non-professional actors making their debuts and they both give touching and believable performances. All the supporting children are excellent as well. While some of the supporting roles are a bit predictable, they do a nice job and lead to a memorable finale. The final act, particularly the scene on the bridge, is both sad and quite powerful.

Though it was made in the 1940s and there have been numerous prison films before and since, I think what makes Shoeshine so special is the honesty in youth. While Giuseppe and Pasquale know the basics of how to act in prison as criminals, not to say anything and not to rat on their friends, they’re still children. Lying awake at night in a lonely cell, one of the main things they think about is the horse they bought and if it’s okay. They think about their friendship with each other and they think about whether the other is safe.

De Sica is considered one of the founders of Italian neorealism and Shoeshine is considered one of the most important films in the genre. And it can be debated that the film movement is also the reason the Best Foreign Film category was created. After all, the first films (while not all Italian) deal with the poor and working class trying to survive in a tough society. Shoeshine is unfortunately a little seen film, but it’s well made with a great story and an unforgettable ending.
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Maurice Cloche’s Monsieur Vincent is a French film set in the 17th century and based on the true story of Saint Vincent de Paul. It begins with Vincent traveling to a new French town he was assigned to as the new priest. After calming the town down from their fear of the plague, he makes a discovery that impacts the rest of his life. Rescuing a young girl from the home the villagers feared contained the plague, Vincent proved to the town that both he and the girl are uninfected, and that the young girl is in need of a home. Fearing nobody would speak up, finally, the poorest family in the village comes forward and offers to take her in. With this act of goodness, he decides to devote the rest of his life to help the poor.

Pierre Fresnay, star of Grand Illusion, plays the title character and gives an excellent performance. The story spans most of his adult life, from when he began his dedication to the helpless until his death. There is a great moment in the film, shortly after the earlier scene mentioned above. Reassigned by the King to be the pastor to the galleys, Vincent is aboard the ship, watching as the prisoners are forced to move the oars so quickly that they can barely take it. While the captain of the ship and the nobles on board watch in amusement as the drum beats faster and faster, Vincent can no longer stand by watching the punishment, and, seeing a prisoner pass out, Vincent jumps down and takes his place.

While there is nothing terribly innovative about this film, it’s a compelling story and it’s amazing that 400 years later, Vincent’s works are still being practiced today, one could say he even is the creator of the soup kitchen and the homeless shelter. I think my favorite moment in the film is probably when the Ladies of Charity is formed. Seeing Vincent’s good deeds, the local female aristocrats want to help, so they form a group where they give their money to build hospitals and shelters and supply food. But all of their charity is done behind the scenes in their wealthy homes where they hold their meetings, they mainly send their own maids to carry out the actual work.

The final scene of Monsieur Vincent is quite well done, mainly because of Fresnay’s performance. Decades have passed and wars have been fought, and Vincent is at the end of his life. Sitting by a fire with the Queen of France, Vincent knows he is about to die and wonders whether he has done enough. Finally, rather than spending his final moments with Queen, he wishes to see the newest nurse joining Daughters of Charity. He tells her to treat the poor as your master, that some may be demanding, insensitive, ugly, and dirty, but those are the ones who need the most love. Even when he’s taking his last breaths, he thinks of the helpless.
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Back on the scene is Vittorio de Sica, with probably his most well-known film, Bicycle Thieves. The film opens with Antonio, a man who, among so many others in post WWII-Rome, is in desperate need of work. Finding out there’s an opening that requires a bicycle, he manages to pawn some of his belongings and purchase a bike. Of course, shortly after getting the bike and riding along doing his job, it gets stole. The rest of the film involves Antonio traveling around Rome with his son Bruno hoping to retrieve the stole bicycle.

What I love about Bicycle Thieves is the way the characters unravel. At first the protagonist seems like a poor man who has some buddies around the area and some female friends. Soon we see that the local dame is actually his wife. And then we see that they have a young son together who looks to be following in his father’s shoes wearing his own mini workman’s uniform. Then we see there’s even a little baby to complete the family. And even though it’s clear they’re poor, they seems happy together.

I think my favorite part is after the scene at the church. The father Antonio had been trying to get an old man, who may know the thief, to tell him where he is. After yelling at him to stop nagging him, the old man runs and Antonio chases after him. The son straddles behind him and Antonio gets upset and slaps him. The son cries and runs away and Antonio yells at him to come back, stop whining, and wait for him at the bridge while he looks for the old man. Shortly after he hears a crowd yell that a boy is drowning and he immediately rushes to the cries, fearing his son is the drowned boy. Seeing that it was a different boy who is safely revived, he sees his son nearby at the top of the bridge. He walks over to him and pretends to have not worried, telling him to put on his jacket and not catch a cold. It’s a great moment of a father trying not to reveal to his son that he was terrified that he nearly lost his son.

It’s interesting, sometimes the film is referred to as “The Bicycle Thief”, I always prefer it as “Bicycle Thieves” but either title would suit the story. For who is the true thief in the film, and is it just a continuing cycle? A key moment I noticed in the film is when Antonio first files the theft and someone comes up to the man at the desk and asks “Anything serious?” and the man simply replies “Just a bicycle.” That’s pretty much the entire summary of this film. What’s simply “just a bicycle” to one man is a source of living for another. During one scene in the film when he treats his son Bruno to a fancy meal which he obviously shouldn’t be paying for, he shows him what that bicycle meant to the family and why they need it so much. Without the bicycle, the family is basically hopeless, yet he still treats his son to a special meal, showing him that all is not lost, somehow, in the end, they’ll survive.
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After two Italian winners and a French winner, next is Rene Clement’s The Walls of Malapaga, which was a joint film from both France and Italy. Jean Gabin (of Pepe le Moko and Grand Illusion) stars as Pierre, a wanted criminal fleeing from France who successfully docked to the shores of Genoa, Italy. With an extremely painful toothache, he is willing to get caught and arrested, just so long as he can find a dentist to pull his tooth. But luckily he meets a young girl Cecchina who takes a liking to him and helps him out in both finding a dentist and showing him around the area.

After getting his tooth pulled, Pierre goes to get something to eat and meets Marta, a waitress at the nearby restaurant who also happens to be Cecchina’s mother. Pierre spoils himself with an expensive meal and buying drinks for everyone and flowers for the patrons, it’s as though he knows he’s about to be caught and sent away and just wants to have one last treat. Unfortunately, a local who offered to exchange his French bills for Italian bills, gave Pierre forged money. However, like her daughter, Marta decides to help out Pierre and pretends to not notice the fake money and afterwards even offers to let him sleep at her house.

What’s interesting about this story is the inevitable tragedy which will take place, Pierre knows it, Marta knows it, and the audience knows it. Marta’s estranged husband is constantly stalking her and Cecchina, at one point he even attempts to kidnap Cecchina from school, unsuccessfully. Later, Pierre reveals to Marta that he is on the run for having murdered his wife because he discovered she was sleeping around. Pierre and Marta are both lonesome and feel like perhaps they can comfort each other because they can relate to the other’s sorrow. Perhaps they’re not falling in love, they’re merely searching for someone who can keep them company for however brief the moment.

While the film is rather short and the ending is quite abrupt, I did enjoy the finale in which the cops are slowly closing in on Pierre. Though the film is directed by a Frenchman and starring a Frenchman, it could be considered another addition to the neorealism genre. Once again, like the previous films mentioned, these struggling working class people are desperate for a better life amidst a troubled time. Through much of the film, Pierre is on the verge of turning himself in, it’s as though he knows how it will all end but wants to stick around just to please Cecchina and act as a father figure she yearns to have. The film is quite good, but I feel it was a bit too short and needed a few more moments between the three characters. Still, along with the Foreign Film Oscar, it did manage to win Best Director and Best Actress for Isa Miranda at Cannes.
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Leave it to Akira Kurosawa to liven up the depressing Foreign Film winners with Rashomon. When a man seeks shelter from a downpour, he meets a woodcutter and a priest who tell him of an odd event that had just taken place. A couple days ago, the woodcutter found a dead body of a samurai and reported it to the local authorities. Meanwhile, the priest had seen the samurai earlier alive and traveling with his wife. Shortly after, the woodcutter and the priest testified at the trial of the bandit who confessed to killing the samurai. What takes place the rest of the film is different retellings of the event as told by the bandit, the wife, oddly enough the dead samurai, and the woodcutter.

You know a film has made an impact on society when a term is created based on the title, “Rashomon Effect” means multiple versions of the same story as told by different eyewitnesses. So one could say this is sort of an anthology film compiled of four different short films with a wraparound tale to complete it. What’s so clever about the writing and editing of the film is that it begins with a person telling a story which then cuts to people who in turn are telling a story, and yet it all plays out smoothly and swiftly.

The whole ensemble is excellent, particularly Toshiro Mifune as the bandit, in one of his earlier collaborations with Kurosawa. I think my favorite part in the film, or rather, favorite multiple moments, is the fight between the bandit and the samurai. In the bandit’s version of the story, their sword fight was epic and masterful, two experts dueling together with the bandit just barely besting the samurai. But with the Woodcutter, who actually witnessed it all from the distance, the bandit and the samurai fought rather clumsily, making a bunch of mistakes, dropping their swords and wrestling in the dirt, with the bandit eventually winning just by dumb luck.

Even though this type of storytelling is very familiar today in film and television, one mustn’t forget that Rashomon was one of the earlier examples of the formula, and Kurosawa’s presentation of it is flawless. Not too many directors could find a clever way to tell the version of the murdered samurai through the eyes of the murdered samurai, but he found a way. It’s an entertaining and clever film that takes a simple tale with only a few characters and minimal sets and manages to be a timeless classic.

[author title=”Jeff Beachnau” image=”″]Jeff spends too much time watching movies, but when he’s not watching them, he helps make them by working in the grip and electric department. Some would say he chose this profession because of the thrill of being on set and helping create art, but the real reason is most G&E don’t need to wear pants. Along with being a film nerd, Jeff enjoys riding his bike everywhere around the Southern California and watching his friends perform improv.[/author]

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