When terrorists struck Paris and Nice, we in the U.S. knew about it within minutes. Ditto that for foreign airline disasters, train crashes and tsunamis that have killed tens-or-hundreds-of-thousands of people in distant lands like Japan and Indonesia. We’re tethered to the rest of the world, like it or not, so why aren’t more of us watching foreign films? Viewership is trending down, and not only at the Box Office. Even Video-On-Demand powerhouse Netflix has been cutting back on inventory.
I’ve been a fan for many years, although, as with American films, I’m selective in what I choose to watch. Time grows more precious with every passing year and wasting two hours +/- on a movie that doesn’t engage my strongest emotions and enlighten me about some aspect of the human condition is verboten.
Verboten, the German word for “forbidden!” seems like an appropriate way to begin talking about the recently released foreign-language film The Innocents, which is set in 1945 Poland six months after the end of World War II. Young doctor Mathilde Beaulieu is working for the French Red Cross treating survivors of the German camps when a distraught young nun appears, asking for her help. The story is based on the journal notes of a real woman doctor in just those circumstances.
As WWII recedes further into the past, it’s easy to forget that some atrocities–despite Hitler’s demise–were just beginning. The German invasion of Poland started the war, and from 1939-1945, Poland lost almost one-fifth of its population–six million total, including three million Jews. Then the Communists took charge under the cold-blooded gaze of the Russian Army and the Soviet Secret Police, and the Polish peoples’ new normal became a different kind of hard.
Imagine a group of Catholic nuns, cloistered away in a convent in a country where Communism rules and Catholicism has lost its clout, forced to deal with the fact seven of them are pregnant–and that doesn’t include the nuns or young novices who were raped but not impregnated by the Russian soldiers who repeatedly swept through their convent. If the innocents’ secret is discovered, disgrace will follow. The Mother Abbess describes for Mathilde their likely future: the convent will be closed and the pregnant nuns reviled and perhaps left to starve.
I was initially drawn to the film by its passing resemblance in subject matter to Ida, which won the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Ida, a Polish orphan, is a young Catholic novice a few months away from taking her vows. Ordered by her Mother Superior to visit her only known relative, Ida is told, “You’re a Jew,” by Aunt Wanda, a former Communist state prosecutor who drowns her sorrows in cigarettes, booze and men. Set in 1962, the horrors of the Holocaust are buried but still being unearthed. The film is only 80 minutes long, it’s shot entirely in black & white, and it’s one of the most moving, powerful stories I’ve ever seen and that would include the American masterpiece Schindler’s List, even though Ida is much smaller in scope. I first saw it at the Dallas Film Festival, and I cried real tears thinking it might never find a wider audience. Happily I was proven wrong. Critics praised it, word-of-mouth made it a hit, and then it won the Oscar. But only a handful of good foreign films succeed in this way. The U.S. market is overcrowded with movies–many of them mediocre or just plain bad. Even if they do poorly at the Box Office, filmmakers hope to make their money through video distribution. That means less room for foreign-language films. The most recent stats I could find are from 2014, and in this case I suspect that no news isn’t good news. The U.S. Box Office for the top five foreign films had dropped by 61% in seven years. In 2007, they earned a combined $38 million, but in 2013 it was only $15 million. This is for subtitled films, not mega-hits like Slum Dog Millionaire in which the Indian characters speak English for most of the movie. What if they’d spoken all Hindu (with subtitles)? I’ll bet most Americans would have missed out on this wonderful movie.
Entertainment is one of our largest exports, and U.S. films earned $31 billion overseas in 2014. The big budget action films are the biggest money makers; indie and art-house films are far less popular. Which means Americans aren’t the only nationality missing out. Summing up the film Ida, film critic David Denby in New Yorker magazine said it perfectly: “Ida asks the question, what do you do with the past once you’ve rediscovered it? Does it enable you, redeem you, kill you, leave you longing for life, longing for escape? The answers are startling.” As for The Innocents, that film explores questions of faith and how it’s tested. Not only religious, but faith in our fellow man.
Yes, we can follow the news of the latest terrorist attacks around the globe, but isn’t there more to life than dying?