A good proportion of my film-watching and indeed my own collection is made up of movies 'not in the English language'. I would hate to live somewhere like Germany where the vast majority of films get dubbed before they are deemed suitable for local consumption and I have never found subtitles any sort of distraction to my viewing pleasure -- although I know there is a vast world of filmgoers out there who avoid subtitles like the plague. However I have long been puzzled as to why some foreign-language films win a cinema release, however limited, out of the presumably hundreds made each year. Most of these are only seen by audiences in their own countries or regions; at best they may get festival exposure or at worst they may eventually appear direct to disc or disappear completely. So how do a ragbag of foreign films scrape into our cinemas?
I've posed a question to which I really do not know the answer, although I am grateful for all comers. However it would appear that local critics are prepared to give non-English language flicks the benefit of the doubt, far more than they are willing to do for many mainstream movies (granted many of these are pretty dire anyhow!). To illustrate this point, let me examine two films I've viewed within the last week, both of which from memory received glowing critical reviews: "Miss Bala" (2011) from Mexico and "The Maid" (2009) from Chile. While I was happy to watch both movies, I remain puzzled as to why either should have made the distributors' cut whilst other contenders languish unseen and I was also puzzled as to why their reviewers were so positive.
The Mexican film, like Warner Brothers used to boast in the 1930s was 'ripped from the headlines', and was apparently inspired by an actual instance of a local beauty queen being arrested with an assortment of drug-war villains. Stephanie Sigman plays Laura a young Tijuana lass, who together with her best friend wants to enter and win a local beauty pageant to become "Miss Baja California" as an escape from their drab existence. The night before the contest the pair are caught up in a shoot-out in a local nightclub and when Laura tries to find her pal the next day, the friendly local (corrupt of course) cop hands her over to the mob From there things go from bad to worse for her as she is used as a drug mule and sexual toy. However although she has missed the deadline for the contest's heats, she is allowed back into the competition and is eventually the actual winner, despite her being far from the best looking or most vocal contestant. It is quite clear that her win is the product of the mob's pressure on the organisers, rather than any particular talent on her part. However she is still too involved with the local crims to relish her win and rather passively I felt continues to go along with their demands. Part of this is her genuine fright and her understandable desire to protect her younger brother, but she is too willing a dupe to become a sympathetic character.
When she is asked to prostitute herself to a local bigwig whom the mob want to murder, she avoids being raped by telling him that there is a plot against his life. For her trouble she gets beaten to a pulp by his aides and ultimately arrested with the rest of the villains. Perhaps this is a true picture of the current Mexican scene just south of the border, where no one can be trusted and where no one really cares for those lives blighted in passage, but it was hardly the kind of entertainment that the average cinema-goer would choose for a good night out. In the end Laura is turned loose, still handcuffed, to await whatever new fate might befall her.
The Chilean film was somewhat more involving with a strong central performance from Catalina Saavedra as the plain fortyish frump Raquel who has worked for the same upper-class family for the past twenty odd years. She has no life whatsoever outside the family home and truly believes that they could not manage without her and that their large brood of children, whom she has raised and whom she continues to look after, love her like a mother. However she is not one of them -- she eats her meals alone in the kitchen, is too shy to join them at table when they want to celebrate her birthday, and has become more and more estranged from the eldest daughter. In addition her health is not what it was -- she has fierce headaches and fainting spells, and while her mistress would not dream of sacking her, she is keen to bring a second maid into the household to lighten Raquel's workload.
This is unthinkable to our heroine. When a young Peruvian lass is hired, she makes her life a misery by grumping at her non-stop and by making her feel like a dirty intruder, disinfecting the bathroom whenever she has a shower! She soon departs and is replaced by an older dragon, recommended by the wife's mother. This one is subjected to the same cold shoulder, but fights for her place -- so the maid just locks her out of the house. When she climbs back in via the roof, fists begin to fly as the two come to blows, managing to trample the model ship that the man of the house has spent the last year creating. Bye-bye helper number two. The next to arrive is plain but vivacious and capable Lucy who, when the locking-out-of-the house technique fails, chooses to sunbathe topless on the front lawn until our grumpy heroine lets her back in. Slowly the newcomer breaks through Raquel's cool reserve and defenses and they become friends; she even invites the lonely woman to join her boisterous family at Christmas -- the first time the maid has spent the holiday apart from the household. On their return there is a sea-change in the sour old Raquel and she gets the family to help her plan a surprise birthday party for Lucy. However Lucy announces her intention to leave as her Christmas visit home reminded her just how much she misses her own family -- and Raquel is devastated. However the last scene shows her going out for an evening jog, just as Lucy used to do, perhaps leading us to believe that at long last she realises that there is more to life than waiting hand and foot on a family that is not one's own.
The writer-director Sebastian Silva has created a well-drawn portrait of the maid's empty existence, but it is frankly a far less well-rounded and less entertaining picture than the recent American film "The Help". This takes me back to where I started. Why were these two films given their chances amongst recent releases? Why in their potential appeal to the art-house crowd were they given a green light while others, probably equally as good or possibly even better have fallen down between the cracks unlikely to ever see the light of day outside their home markets?