Fri. Oct 30th, 2020

REVIEW: Foreign Language Film Oscar Winners 1952-1957


After the first five foreign film winners coming from Italy, France, and Japan, the Academy decided to change it up a bit with their next five and gave them to France, Japan, and Italy. I guess I’m getting a big lucky finding some similarities in these batches of winners, I’m sure that won’t always be the case with the future entries. With the first set of films, they mainly focused on the less fortunate and living in poverty, but with these five films they all dwell on the emotional transformation of the main characters over the course of the storyline.

Forbidden Games, Gate of Hell, Samurai: Musashi Miyamoto, La Strada, and The Nights of Cabiria

Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games is a sad tale of two children trying to cope with death in their own way. While not in the trenches, Forbidden Games is the first foreign film winner to have World War II as a backdrop. It opens with the aerial Nazis firing on a French village. Among the villagers fleeing are a husband and wife with their five year old daughter Paulette. When their dog runs off, Paulette goes to rescue it resulting in her parents and the dog dying. She is picked up by a young boy, Michel who takes her to his farm home where she is taken in by the new family.

Getting used to the new atmosphere, Paulette still can’t seem to let go of her dog and asks Michel to help her find a place to bury it. Using the old windmill as a gravesite, the two decide to turn it into a burial ground for a variety of animals. And as the site gets bigger, they decide to make their own crosses for the departed and eventually start stealing real crosses from the church and from cemeteries.

I think what I like most about the film is the change of the two children. Paulette, still a very young girl, experiences the death of both her mother and father, the death of her pet, and eventually almost makes death a routine. It’s as though she’s in denial of her parents’ death and instead she decides to mourn elsewhere, with animals. And with Michel, who begins merely playing the role of an honorary older brother and calming Paulette by creating the animal cemetery to ease her pain, after the death of his own brother he also has to understand the concept of death. What began merely as a little project for Michel to help Paulette turned into a goal that he too had to complete, no matter what the cost.

It’s a very moving film, I really like the small details and the minor characters. The feud between Michel’s family and the neighboring family is a nice touch which helps provide key moments in the plot and even a bit of comedy. And the final act is very moving and tragic, the parental figures acting like everything is being done for the better good of the children when in fact they are taking away so much from them. Like Shoeshine, though not as literal a statement, it is clear that these two young protagonists who grew to love one another will never see each other again.
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In 1953 the Academy grazed over the Foreign Film award until the next year. Gate of Hell is the first of only a handful of films to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and then go on and win the Foreign Film Oscars. And with its vibrant colors showing off the costumes and sets, the film is also the first foreign film to win multiple Oscars, winning Best Costume Design. This Japanese tale starts slowly and builds up to a near Greek tragedy.

What I enjoy most about this is the way the story plays out. With the opening act, it seems as though this is going to be an epic war film. In the beginning, a city is being invaded by rebels and the Lord and his sister must be evacuated. With a plan to fool the rebels by having someone pose as the sister, the court lady Kesa volunteers to be the decoy and the samurai Morito agrees to lead Kesa out of the castle. After a successful escape and a victory against the rebels, the story switches gears and the rest of the film involves Mortio’s obsession with Kesa and his determination to have her.

There is a great moment later in the story, shortly after Morito discovers Kesa is already married, he decides to participate in a horse race that her husband Wataru is known to be excelled in. At the beginning of the film, Morito was a heroic samurai with loyalty to his emperor, but gradually he descends into madness, determined to shame Wataru and win Kesa. The horse race segment is perfectly presented, showing both samurais’ participation in it, before, during, and after it.

As the film goes along it becomes a bit predictable where the story is headed, but the presentation is still extremely well done. The finale at night is haunting, with the darkness, the silence only being broken by Kesa’s koto, and Morito off in the distance waiting to pounce. It’s a beautiful scenery and the final scene is a great ending to the story.

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Another Japanese film won the next year, the epic Samurai: Musashi Miyamoto. The first part of a trilogy, the story tells of Musashi Miyamoto, a man who began as a failed soldier and went on to become a legendary samurai. Coincidentally, just like Gate of Hell, Samurai begins as though it will be a grand war film, but after only a brief battle at the beginning of the film, the rest is about the title character on the run and eventually becoming a changed man. And, just like Gate of Hell, this film is in color which shows off the costumes and sets, and also has a great use of lighting and shadows during the nighttime scenes.

The protagonist of the film, Takezo, who will later adopt the name Musashi Miyamoto, is played by Toshiro Mifune. Here, his character starts out as a soldier hoping to gain fame as the hero of the civil war currently taking place. Unfortunately, after fighting on the losing side, he and his best friend flee and try to find shelter while hoping to return home. But soon after a few mishaps and his friend abandoning him, Takezo has become a sort of fugitive.

The thing with Samurai is that it’s the first chapter of a trilogy, so it’s a little hard to review, especially since it ends with a cliffhanger. With most tales involving people hoping to be masters in fighting, they search for a teacher to train them in the arts of the combat, but this is not the case with Samurai. In the trilogy, Takezo is always seeking to obtain the knowledge of being a samurai, but he never really has a master to give him the power, the story is all about self-discovery. In fact, the man who you think is going to teach him about enlightenment ends up captures him when he’s on the run, ties him up, and dangles him upside from a tree for the whole village to see. The point is that Takezo must learn everything on his own, he must seek out the knowledge, and it must be learned through experience.

There are a lot of great fight scenes in the film, but unlike a typical sword fight, in this film (as well as the sequels), it’s all about the technique and the preparing to make the fatal blow. Most of the duels only last with one swing of the sword, but it’s great to see the choreography. After watching all three films together, it’s difficult to separate the films by themselves, especially because in the second film a key character is introduced who become both an idol and an inevitable foe of Musashi. Director Hiroshi Inagaki did make an impressive epic with these three films, filled with excellent fights and duels and emotions.

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Finally in 1956, after nearly a decade of awarding it with only Special Oscars, the Academy made Best Foreign Film a competitive category. And of course Federico Fellini, who would eventually go on to tie Vittorio de Sica with the most wins in the category, was the first to receive a competitive award for his film La Strada. Starring his wife Guilietta Massina and Anthony Quinn, it follows Gelsomina, a young woman who is basically bought by a travelling strong man Zampano who wants her to be part of his act which involves breaking a chain that’s tied around his chest.

The relationship between Gelsomina and Zampano is very interesting. Through much of the film, Gelsomina is a childlike figure, always listening to authority and never really able to think for herself. And Massina, who is often compared to Charlie Chaplin, gives a wonderful performance, expressing so much with her eyes, it’s almost like a silent film character. To contrast it, Quinn is a stone figure who never really shows much emotion other than anger. Over the course of the film the two characters manage to discover new sides of themselves they otherwise never would have found if they hadn’t met each other.

There is a wonderful moment when Gelsomina and Zampano are performing at a wedding. While on break from entertaining the crowd, the children rush to Gelsomina and ask her to follow them inside the house. Taking her upstairs, they ask her to make their sick friend lying in bed laugh. It’s a quick and simple scene but it’s also very touching, Gelsomina is finally given her first chance to perform on her own without Zampano and she gives it her all.

There is of course a key moment later in the film between Gelsomina and a fellow carnival performer, the Fool. Earlier in the story, after one of Zampano’s typical punishments toward Gelsomina, she decides to run away from him for a brief period. But later in the film, after a big fight between Zampano and the Fool, Zampano is put in jail for a short time and Gelsomina is given the chance to leave him for good. Talking with the Fool, she breaks down, asking what the point is, she’s not good at anything. “I’m of no use to anybody and I’m sick of living”. But the Fool responds saying that everything in life has a purpose, even the random pebble on the ground. It’s a brief but though provoking moment that gives Gelsomina a sense of being, and even ignites some emotion she never really had before.

I love the final act of the film and the drastic change of Zampano. At the beginning of the film we see his chain act and the energy he puts into, whereas now he seems completely out of it, it’s surprising he even manages to break the chain. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if the suit he’s wearing is the same suit he was given at the wedding party from years ago. He’s a broken down man who looks as though he’s lost everything. Compared to Gelsomina, who decided to stay with him after the quarrel with the Fool, Zampano didn’t realize that he needed to stay with her. Without Gelsomina it’s as though Zampano has become even less than a mere pebble.

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Italy won consecutive Oscars, with another Fellini film in 1957, The Nights of Cabiria. Once again starring Guilietta Massina, she plays the title character, a prostitute who dreams of finding true love. Though the concept seems pretty basic, it is a deep film with a lot of memorable and powerful moments.

As the film opens, Cabiria’s pimp and lover steals her purse, pushes her in the river, and runs away. And that pretty much sums up her whole love life. Soon we see how her daily life is, or rather, her nightlife, hanging out with her fellow hookers on the street corners and even socializing with the fellow locals who are friends and most likely occasional clients.

One night, while deciding to explore a different street corner, a famous actor picks her up and shows her a night on the town. It’s a very great scene, Cabiria clearly not fitting in with the rich crowd at the club but still having a great time dancing where we see Massina bringing out some of her Chaplinesque qualities. There’s a depressing moment at the end of the scene when the actor’s former lover comes to visit him and he makes Cabiria stay in the bathroom for the rest of the night. Her reaction seems like it’s happened before and she knows the drill. She had the chance to say it was a perfect evening, but then she is reminded who she is and what she does for a living.

The best part in the film comes when Cabiria visits a magic show and is asked to take part in an act and be hypnotized. She reluctantly agrees and goes up on stage, assuming it’s going to be like a typical scene where she’s made to do silly things just to please the audience. Instead, the hypnotist makes her act out her dream of living the perfect life, having a husband and being in love. It’s a touching moment where we see the real side of Cabiria’s dreams, walking in a field with her soulmate and being truly happy. Broken from her trance, the audience laughs at her and she is furious for having been made fun of for just having a dream that anyone would want.

The final scene in the film is beautiful and heartbreaking. Once again, having been rejected and shamed by another love, she walks alone at night, crying, which almost causes her makeup to look like a permanent tear. Soon a group of street performers surround her and play music. Even though she has lost everything and may soon become one of the homeless prostitutes she encountered earlier in the film, she still manages to give a smile and carry on. It really is an excellent film with another amazing performance from Massina.

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[author title=”About the Author – 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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