“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” – Bong Joon-ho
Netflix has a wide range of films in various languages that often go unnoticed due to our fixation with Hollywood. At times, we shy away from watching foreign-language films due to the hassle of having to look ag subtitles every second. However, cinema is an emotion for people who thoroughly enjoy and cherish the cinematic experience. They are often successful in transcending the mere language barriers as they are too involved in the scene, partaking in the character’s journey which often leaves them feeling hopeful or hopeless, broken or whole, depending on the genre.
While we wish Netflix would have more of Fellini, Tarr, Tarkovsky and Bergman, we are simultaneously grateful that the streaming platform has successfully dodged the big names to incorporate relatively newer filmmakers whose works will simply enthral the audience. Intriguing and beautiful, each of the films has a distinct voice that evokes mixed feelings in the audience. Fresh perspectives towards life which are often embedded in social realism is a common trope that makes the films that we have incorporated in this list hard-hitting and devastatingly beautiful.
Here are our picks for the 10 best foreign-language films on Netflix that you need to add to your watchlist right now.
10 best foreign-language films on Netflix:
10. Intouchables (Oliver Nakache, Eric Toledano, 2011)
Criticised as a modern and french version of Driving Miss Daisy, this film had divided detractors. However, the film does have a lot to offer. It portrays the blossoming of a platonic male friendship which is somewhat symbiotic. The performances are incredible and the subject matter has been dealt with delicately. While some jokes are extremely funny, the film abounds in certain touching moments as well. Instead of portraying the disabled with pity and empathy, they provided a fresh new perspective for them to live their lives as they please.
The movie, which was based on real-life incidents, sees a wonderful friendship being nurtured between Philippe and Driss. Philippe was left handicapped after a paragliding incident and is very lonely after his wife’s death. Driss has been appointed to be his caregiver; although Driss initially takes up the job with disinterest and disgruntlement, he soon bonds with Philippe, learning the fine joys of life. Together, they navigate through love, loss, pain, relationships and humour while continuing to support each other to the fullest.
“The pain sometimes goes away, but the thoughts are still here.”
9. Okja (Bong Joon-ho, 2017)
Bong Joon-ho’s Okja is a heart-warming action-adventure film that focuses on the life of a young South Korean girl named Mija who lives with her grandfather and a super pig named Okja. However, her idyllic life with her beloved companion is cut short when a multinational company named Mirando Corporation kidnaps Okja and takes her to New York where a self-proclaimed ‘environmentalist’ and narcissistic CEO, Lucy Mirando plans to exploit her dearest friend and use her for the superior quality of meat. Determined to rescue her friend, Mija sets out on a harrowing journey to rescue her despite not having a set plan.
A poignant commentary on environmentalism, capitalism, commercial hybridisation, greed and dwindling compassion, Okja touches hearts and breaks them at the same time. Innocent and vulnerable, Okja is the victim of consumerism. Selflessness and love reign supreme, contrasted with selfishness. The film ends on a realistic note and does not bend to audience expectations. The film mirrors the present society with a sense of hopelessness and despair looming large. The CGI effects used to create Okja were brilliant and realistic. Humans are more grotesque than ever; disturbing images of concentration camps, slaughterhouses and forced mating haunts the viewers till the very end. Incredible performances from the actors add to the success of this emotionally taxing yet endearing film.
“Shoulder blade! Loin! Spare rib! Hock! Got it? This is what will happen to her. This is Okja’s fate!”
8. I Lost My Body (Jeremy Clapin, 2019)
Naoufel records his everyday life on a tape recorder. His life has had a very rough start with him being orphaned by a car accident which prompted him to live with an ignorant uncle and somewhat cruel cousin. His life is drab and dreary as a pizza delivery guy. It is not until he hears Gabrielle’s voice while delivering a pizza that he finds purpose; he is infatuated with her during their intercom conversation. Naoufel embarks on a mission to woo Gabrielle and will go to any length to do so.
Beautiful animation along with a subtle and unique plot that reeks of disappointment and anguish, this film is a moving take on love and loss. Poetic and enchanting, the premise of the film gives it an otherworldly touch. The ending might leave the audience a little broken while continually alluding to it from the beginning of the film. Some people cannot find happiness and Naoufel is just one of them. He could have been whole again had he found his severed hand.
“Do you believe in fate?”
7. The Platform (Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, 2019)
This Spanish sci-fi horror film is set in a huge “Vertical Self-Management Centre” where the residents are switched at the interval of 30 days between the many floors. The film begins with Goreng who gains consciousness to find himself on the 48th floor with another ‘convict’, wise and reserved Trimiagi, for company, who explains their predicament. Food is delivered through a platform that is initially filled with delicacies. As it descends from the top floor to the bottom, the amount keeps dwindling, and the prisoners at the bottom levels get to eat leftovers. This leads to an inevitable conflict that fishes out the destructive and wild, cannibalistic side of the prisoners.
This film mirrors the current society; the levels being the ladder of social hierarchy. As one descends, poverty and deprivation loom large along with a growing resentment for the ones at the top. The film forces the audience to introspect. It is a gruesome and realistic portrayal of issues that plague society. Diving deep into the desperation, madness and depravity of the human psyche, the film is jarring and disgusts as well as terrifies the viewers. The dystopian aesthetic with pervasive darkness provides a perfect setting for the crisis that threatens humanity. The actors are vivid in the portrayal of murderous, violent urges, and the anguish and distress of the human mind at the brink of catastrophe and class conflict.
“Hunger unleashes that madman in us. It’s better to eat than be eaten.”
6. First They Killed My Father (Angelina Jolie, 2017)
The film is set in Cambodia during the time of the Vietnam War where violence had induced the Cambodian Civil War. Young Loung Ung and her family are forced into hiding as they might all be killed if their father Pa’s identity as a government official is discovered. One by one, her family keeps depleting and soon her father is taken away for the impending doom. Urged by her mother, she flees with her two siblings and under the pretext of being a child orphan is empanelled as a child soldier which leads her to set bombs and other such traps.
Grappled by violence and war, the film views the impact on the lives of civilians with compassion and empathy. It laments the lives lost and the families torn apart by war. A heartfelt commentary on war and childhood as well as the trauma and devastation it wreaks on young minds is splendidly captured in the film. As a director, Jolie is successful in evoking the correct magnitude of emotions which help the audience connect more with the characters.
“I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it. ”
5. Atlantics (Mati Diop, 2019)
A supernatural story embedded in social realism, the film sees a group of construction workers who have not received payment, embarking on a journey towards Spain for a better future. However, it is later understood that they have all perished. Among these workers was a young Souleiman who loved Ada, a girl who was engaged to the wealthy Omar. after Omar’s mysterious death as well as other supernatural events, the detective assigned to the case realises that there is more than meets the eye and perhaps he himself has a lot to contribute to the strange occurrences.
It is very difficult to fit Atlantics in a specific genre. It exposes the dark reality of belonging to economically under-privileged backgrounds and is a political commentary on the hierarchical oppression which often pushes the marginalised to the fringes, compelling them to take steps that might eventually be detrimental for them. It is also the story of undying love showing how a man wants to be with his beloved even beyond death. It is a rebellion of the suppressed that transcends the barriers of life and death. The revenge is nearly sweet and Diop’s shying away from steeping the film too deep into magic realism is what makes the film special. The overall aura of the film is teasing and seductive. It is an extremely poetic story of love, longing, loss, revenge and oppression- themes that are delicate yet powerful.
“I knew you’d be back. It could only be you.”
4. My Happy Family (Nana Ekvtiimishvili, Simon Groß, 2017)
At 50, Manana suddenly leaves her home and family behind without giving them any explanation. She wants to rebel against the religious expectations bestowed on the women in her community as well as the myth of a happy family. As she lives alone, she stumbles upon various devastating secrets and ghosts of the past which prompts her to return and reevaluate her life while seeking answers from close ones who have seemingly betrayed her in various ways.
With a feminist overtone, the film explores a woman breaking away from the patriarchal shackles to explore her own self. The concept of a traditional family is challenged as soon as Manana leaves without an explanation. The ending is pretty open-ended and leaves us wondering if she got her desired answers. While on the surface level Manana’s actions of shouldering away her loved ones might seem foolish, it is a tragic yet essential saga of a fearless woman, stifled in a family, trying to find her place in the world, supported by an incredibly talented cast as well as talented filmmakers who transform it into a piece of art.
“I won’t explain it to anyone.”
3. On Body and Soul (Ildiko Enyedi, 2017)
The film seems almost like a Yorgos Lanthimos direction. Eccentric and awkward, it deals with the pangs of rejection and love while slowly and painfully exploring the omniscient themes of loneliness rooted in love. Delicate and vulnerable performances help add a certain tenderness to the story which makes it seem nearly dream-like and effervescent. Although the love story unfurls in a slaughterhouse, it is beautiful and serene and worthy of the Oscar nomination it received at the 90th Academy Awards.
At the slaughterhouse, Endre and Maria meet each other. Although Maria initially rebuffs Endre’s attempts at forging a friendship, she is later drawn to him due to their shared interests and loneliness. They try finding solace in each other’s arms but constantly fail which frustrates Endre. Unbeknownst to them, both dream the same repetitive dream of being a pair of deer in the forest.
“Is it possible that two people dream the same thing? I mean that they meet in their dreams?”
2. Shéhérazade (Jean-Bernard Marlin, 2018)
How would you feel if you were to pimp out someone whom you love fiercely? A love story set in the dangerous crime-ridden streets of Marseilles, this film revolves around a juvenile Zach and Shera, a sex worker, whom he pimps out. Their professional relationship is complicated by his feelings for her which is a concoction of love, jealousy, protection and care. After having a pretty rough life and a mother who barely cares about him, Shera becomes his escape route, the one person who gives him a reason to love.
Realistic and painful, the film flaunts flawed characters who, caught in a stifling urban setting, are desperately vying for love. The amateur cast is a revelation with the leads delivering incredibly soulful performances. The character development of Zach from boyhood to that of a mature adult is wholesome. He evokes sympathy in our hearts and one cannot help but root for him despite Zach making irredeemable mistakes that have consequent repercussions. Tense and tender, the overall misery and loneliness of the film are constantly interrupted by the immense love Zach harbours for Shera which subsequently leads to a winning and courageous ending.
1. Roma (Alfonso Cuaron, 2018)
The first Mexican entry to win Best Foreign Language Film, as well as the Best Cinematography and Best Director awards at the 91st Academy Awards, Alfonso Cuaron’s slow, artistic and emotionally resonating masterpiece, employs intimacy and clever use of shadow and light to affect the viewers deeply. Set in 1970-71 Mexico, ridden with the horrors and hardships of a student massacre, the film chronicles the life of an indigenous housekeeper, Cleo, who lives a simple life, caught between her duties as a devoted nanny and anxieties of impending motherhood.
Roma is an intricate combination of slapstick comedy and personal hardships. The camera pans leisurely as it captures Cleo and her surroundings via an intimate lens. Cleo is content with her humbled existence; she has pure love and affection for the children she tends to. Tragedy strikes in her own life when her daughter is stillborn; it is interesting to note how nobody can save Cleo’s daughter, however, Cleo risks her lives to save the kids from drowning. A poignant commentary on the class and power dynamics that existed in the society, the film focuses on the humble acceptance of fate and disempowerment by the indigenous people. Cleo is the epitome of grace; she adds to the emotional atmosphere of the film that makes it a wonderful cinematic experience. Shot in a stunning monochrome, it reflects on the artistic mood, memory and monotone of a 1970s Roma.
“We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”