I’m a big fan of film and television, I don’t mind admitting it. It has to be the best shows though. If it is anything vaguely classed as reality or celebrity than it’s not for me. Really it my television shows have to either have the best actors, best production values or tell a story that is genuinely interesting or gripping.
Living in the U.K. I’m fortunate that there is normally something that meets my criteria which this week is Sherlock or other break-out shows like first season Homeland or Game of Thrones. However, some of the best shows or movies are not in English at all and I have more than a few that are in subtitles. I don’t really like watching dubbed shows, I much prefer to hear the actors voices which match the characters better than voice-overs do.
Subtitles aren’t really a pain and often in foreign films, the stories are more reflective and there isn’t the endless and often pointless dialogue in British and American shows. Really, I’d rather have a brilliant foreign show than an average one in English.
I first got into non-English films and television in the 1990’s when I’d watch various Italian or Scandinavian classics and then later on more main stream films such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Life is Beautiful”. Within minutes of starting to watch one, I instantly forget the language problems and instead get immersed in stories and landscapes I wouldn’t otherwise get to see.
Perhaps surprisingly, probably my favourite non-English films come from Iran. Yes there is no swearing, fighting or anything vaguely immoral but the restrictions the film makers have to work within can often bring about the most amazing films. There is one about a man going round the country wanting to commit suicide and trying to find someone who will bury him. Another of a poor family who children lose one of their only pair of shoes and the two of them conspire to hide it from their parents and school until the little boy can enter and win a running contest and claim his prize, a pair of shoes naturally.
My favourite though is undoubtedly “The Colour of Paradise” about a blind boy who spends all term time in a special school and whose father is ashamed and embarrassed of especially as his wife has died and he is worried the little boy will be seen as a burden by any future wife. The little boy has wonderful hearing though and can hear things that no-one else can and he loves the world more than most sighted people. He loves his sisters and particularly his Grandma with whom he is inseparable until his father takes him away.
There are numerous heart-breaking scenes including one when the boy cries that his father hates him and even God hates him. He is told that God particularly loves children and especially the blind. The boy then asks if that is the case, why has God made him blind so that he cannot seem him? He is told that God is invisible and that the boy can see God by the boys sense of touch and acute hearing. As someone with a visual impairment, this scene is always special to me.
When the boy is sent away against his Grandmothers wishes, the Grandma gives chase through a terrible rain storm which makes her terribly ill. Her sons wedding is cancelled as this tragedy is seen as a bad omen. The father then goes back to retrieve his blind boy that everyone else loves so much and there is an accident that see the pair and their horse fall into a fast flowing river.
Seemingly the boy has died and the film closes with his father clutching his son only now realising what he has lost. The final scene has the boys hand glowing bright, the question as to whether he has gone to heaven or been brought back to life left unanswered. Such ambiguity is common in Iranian films. If you want to try something different, I can’t recommend this heart-wrenching film enough and it seems neither can all the 5-star reviews on Amazon.
When it comes to foreign television shows, it seems I like police and detective shows best but maybe this is because they are shown more often. BBC4 has long run its Saturday night schedule around hit foreign TV shows, mostly dark and brooding Scandinavian series such as The Killing, and Borgen which I never really got into and Wallander which I did. For a nice change of pace I am a big fan of Inspector Montalbano. Set in Sicily, with its picturesque villages, sunny skies and larger than life characters it is a programme which I am a big fan of. Only once or twice is there any shooting or car chases, mostly it is old fashioned murder mystery with some very loud Italian heated discussions. Montalbano himself is quite a character though how the station officer Caterella keeps himself in a job is beyond me.
Another show I have watched for a few years now is Braquo. Braquo is a French cop show but it isn’t at all how you’d imagine it to be. Set in and around Paris, it is all about a dodgy police unit. One of them does something bad and his team try to solve the problem by doing something worse and from then on, it pretty much gets worse with every episode. It’s as violent as any American show and as gritty as any London based police drama. Anything can happen and despite them being the most unethical police ever, I kind of like them.
My favourite of them all though has to be The Bridge which is a joint Swedish/Danish series. Events take place around the Øresund Bridge where a body is found right in the middle between Sweden and Denmark. The body is cut in two and the two halfs are from different people. It has some of the best plot twists going but what makes it a great show are the characters and actors. The Danish police officer Martin starts off being the perfect affable professional and his life gradually falls apart. For most people the star of the show is Saga Noren played by Sofia Helin. It is presumed her character is autistic which gives her a certain blunt and honest style which at times can be amusing and other times shocking. Think a Mr. Spock but with long blonde hair, leather trousers and 1980’s Porsche sports car.
The actors obviously get on really well together and are really entertaining to watch which is good as some of the crimes they uncover are quite bad. I particularly like Saga, who has no time for niceties and frequently gets changed in the office in front of colleagues and inadvertently show little compassion to victims or perps alike. It’s just how she is. Following the shocking ending of the first series, the second series which has just started in the U.K. takes place 13 months later and another heinous crime gives the opportunity for them to work together. Martin is tougher and rougher than last time and he now appreciates Saga more for not treading lightly around the death of a family member as everyone else does. Saga has a boyfriend who moved in a week ago but typically of her, she doesn’t know his occupation and nor does she care.
The unsung star of the show is the actual bridge itself. Long and slender and wonderful to look at. The show is shot almost entirely in greys and very muted pale colours even when it is sunny. There are no warm colours at all and has one of the most haunting theme tunes I can remember. By the end of the last series I could differentiate between Swedish and Danish and also catch words that are very similar to English and for a few weeks my wife and I would speak a few words of Swedish and Danish to each other, most of them polite.
Whether the second series can live up to the first is hard to say but certainly Saturdays double-feature started off well. I love the Bridge, its familiar enough to feel at home and “strange” enough to keep me on edge. It’s as bleak as a windswept rainy February afternoon at Whitley Bay and I like it as it is the opposite in every way of Inspector Montalbano however they are both great foreign dramas that beat 99% of English speaking shows.
Next time there’s nothing good on TV, or just fancy a change then I’d really recommend watching any of the shows above on DVD or Bluray.