Emmanuele Riva, left, portrays a French actress and Eiji Okada plays an architect in Alain Resnais' 1959 <I>Hiroshima Mon Amour</I>, a story of love in postwar Japan.
As defensive as this will sound: Is it possible anymore to like a foreign film and not come off sounding unbearably pretentious? Have John Ashcroft and Ann Coulter suggested we call them “freedom films” yet? Has it come to that? Not to stereotype or anything, but Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Alain Resnais and Vittorio De Sica have the kind of names many Americans don't read so much as skim across and never even try to pronounce. (I'm guilty of it myself.)
Arguably this is the biggest frustration when writing about movies: knowing a majority of the audience tunes out the moment you mention a film made nowhere near Sunset and Vine.
In short: Fassbinder is a German director who died young and made a lot of smart movies in less than a decade - and already I feel eyes jumping to the next story. Resnais is a French legend. De Sica, who was Italian of course, made a few of cinema's most humanist pictures.
Some of their movies are difficult, some quite accessible. A few sort of fit the long outdated and insular but still potent American image of foreign films as all berets and smoke and despair. Most don't come close. But for those longing for a change this summer, there is good news: The foreign film market is so underserved in this country, particularly this summer, a number of video distributors have turned the season into a veritable Around the World in a Dozen Movies.
Here's a quick wrap-up:
First to Germany. Don't miss Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Criterion, $39.95), Fassbinder's 1974 breakthrough - and just try not thinking of Far From Heaven. Fassbinder and Heaven director Todd Haynes (who provides an insightful introduction on this two-disc set) were inspired by Douglas Sirk's 1955 melodrama, All That Heaven Allows. Fassbinder's take finds a Moroccan immigrant in love with a Hamburg cleaning woman; it's timeless, and Criterion includes a BBC documentary about the history of German film. But if Fassbinder proves opaque, there's the new edition of Wim Wenders' classic Wings of Desire (MGM/UA, $24.98), a lovely 1988 meditation on existence and angels with Peter Falk - yes, Peter Falk, who with Wenders, provides a commentary track. It was later remade as City of Angels with Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage.
Off to Japan. Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Home Vision, $29.95) is an overly dense, but strangely funny 2001 Shohei Imamura bit of magical realism about a businessman and a baffling treasure. It's a kind of fairy tale for adults. More grounded is the new edition of Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (Criterion, $39.95). It starts as an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth and gradually becomes very Japanese, incorporating bits of the stylized Noh Theater. The disc's booklet includes two fascinating essays on the difficulty of translating the dialogue into subtitles that capture both Japanese phrasing and Shakespearean English.
Back in France. Resnais' 1959 Hiroshima Mon Amour (Criterion, $39.95) has been described as the “first modern picture of sound cinema.” In an included essay, critic Kent Jones is more precise: This story of love in postwar Japan “liberated moviemakers from linear construction.” Any film, from Out of Sight to Memento, for two recent examples, that shatters time is in its debt. Likewise Resnais' Night and Fog (Criterion, $14.95) is arguably the first important Holocaust documentary; the director went back to abandoned concentration camps 10 years later, and Criterion smartly lays off the extras and lets the film speak for itself.
Speaking of vanguards, Jean-Luc Godard's latest, In Praise of Love (New Yorker, $29.95), a bitter, yet fascinating swipe at American cultural domination, is new to video.
Finally, stopping in Italy. Anyone looking for a quick lesson in Italian film could do worse than starting here: De Sica's Umberto D (Criterion, $29.95) will sound familiar to anyone who didn't prosper from the tech boom of the late 1990s; its story of an elderly pensioner struggling in postwar Italy could make an interesting double feature with About Schmidt.
Federico Fellini's first film, The White Sheik (Criterion, $29.95), the comic story of a newlywed daydreaming on her flaccid honeymoon, is not quite as definitive viewing, but it is a touchstone for his later fever dreams like La Dolce Vita. Less known to American audiences is the director Ermanno Olmi: His two greatest movies, 1961's Il Posto (Criterion, $29.95) and 1962's Il Fidanzati (Criterion, $29.95), are warm, light tales of work and romance that do spectacularly what Italian films often do best, portray the every-day working class.
As for a director American audiences might want to start forgetting about now: Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, $29.95) arrives in a two-disc set that includes the original Italian version and Miramax's dubbed Christmastime dud. What I can't quite get around is the disturbing image of a 50-year old man dressed in jammies and acting 6 - I'm not sure any number of translators can smooth over that one.
NEW ON VIDEO: Gods and Generals (Four hours you will never get back, a Civil War epic from Ted Turner told through inane speechifying and maudlin sentiment, without a single drip of humanity); Shanghai Knights (Much the way Godfather Part II improves on the original, and Godzilla vs. Megalon is clearly superior to Godzilla on Monster Island, this Jackie Chan-Owen Wilson action comedy improves on Shanghai Noon for b.h.p.m. - blows-to-the-head per minute).
NEW ON VIDEO, NEVER PLAYED TOLEDO: Laurel Canyon (A nice sleeper of a drama: Frances McDormand stars as a hard-living Los Angeles record producer forced to reconnect with her son, a physician played by Christian Bale; it's not entirely believable, but it's good-hearted).