Foreign Films: Good for the Brain & the Heart

By OGT Blog Squad Member Elizabeth Knutson

If you enjoy foreign films and languages, subtitles are familiar territory. If you don’t understand the foreign language of the film, you can simply absorb it as atmosphere while reading the English language subtitles. If you do understand the foreign language, you might go back and forth, listening to the spoken dialogue and reading the subtitles at the same time, enjoying the intersection of two worlds or even evaluating the quality of the translation.

I remember once watching Annie Hall in France in its original English language version. There is a clever scene on a New York rooftop in which Alvy, Woody Allen’s character, and Annie, played by Diane Keaton, who are just getting to know each other, have two conversations – one they actually speak out loud in dialogue, and another – subtitled — which conveys the very different thoughts in their head (“Listen to me. What a jerk!”). The contrast between the spoken and unspoken conversations made for great fun. But the scene was even more complicated in the movie shown in Paris: three sets of subtitles filled the bottom half of the screen, the first in English, from the original English language film, capturing the characters thoughts, followed by two more sets of titles in French – the spoken conversation and unspoken thoughts – translated for the French audience. It really kept a viewer busy!

Three award-winning foreign films recently shown at OGT make interesting use of subtitles. In Roma, the story of a Mexican maid, Cleo, and the family she works for, most of the dialogue is in Spanish with English subtitles, but occasionally a second set of English titles in brackets signals the use of a Mixtec indigenous language, when Cleo talks with her friend, the household cook. In another scene, audible background dialogue is not translated at all, but rather marked simply as “indigenous language” in bracketed subtitles. And in the haunting forest fire scene, a man sings a slow and fairly long lament in Spanish while the surrounding woods burn down. No translation of the song is provided; we are on our own with the music and its emotion.

Pawell Pawlikowski’s multilingual Cold War offers an even more complicated scenario. The major languages of the movie are Polish and French, but we also hear Russian, German, Italian, Croatian, and Lemko mountain dialect. In many cases, we know which language is being used because of place; the scene is situated in Berlin or Croatia, for example. But the language of songs or dialogue is not always clear in other scenes, and the non-Polish viewer may be left to wonder.


In Kore-eda’s Shoplifters the untranslated Japanese signage in some street scenes constitutes
a striking and complicated visual background “noise.” The opacity of language in this movie, for an American viewer, is ironically offset by two presumably shoplifted tee-shirts with English language slogans: Take It Easy, worn by Yuri, the abused child adopted by the working class family, and Freedom Is Never Voluntary, worn by the mother Nobuya.

Because subtitles usually represent a distillation of message, they make us think about what might be different or even lost in translation, and lead us to focus perhaps more than we usually would on non-verbal signs, images, and sounds. We are absorbed into a foreign environment, and get a bit more used to not understanding everything we hear. Then again, not everything we hear in our native language in either real life or movies is intelligible, because of accents, speed of talk, whispering, overlap among multiple speakers, or surrounding noise. Spoken speech often goes by fast and demands close attention. In movies, subtitles give us more time to take in the message.

The complexity just has to be good for the brain, and probably the heart too.


Movies and movie going have always been one of Elizabeth’s favorite pastimes. Her early memories include going to NYC Radio City Music Hall to see Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in “Silk Stockings” after an exciting Rockettes performance, and TV Million Dollar Movie showings of old films like “Mighty Joe Young” or the very spooky “Spiral Staircase”. In high school Elizabeth organized a foreign film festival at school and on weekends went with friends to the Bleecker Street Cinema in NYC to see double features of mysterious French New Wave films. For many years now Elizabeth’s favorite date night with her husband has been dinner at the New Deal Café followed by a movie and best popcorn ever at the OGT.

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