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May 23, 2017

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Damn Foreigners
by Angelina Malhotra-Singh
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 5.1

Foreign Films have Important Directors who speak Perfectly Accented English, Beautiful Actors who Inhabit Their Roles and Award Winning Original Score(s) by the Vienna Philharmonic or Tonino Delli Colli. Foreign Films have big budgets and big posters and are the subject of cocktail party chatter. After winning their token Oscar, they can be found (more than one copy, mind you) at your local Blockbuster. France produces a lot of Foreign Films, as do Britain and Italy. China's vaulted into the capitalized category - despite budget constraints - thanks to Zhang Yimou and Gong Li.

foreign films, on the other hand, don't shout - they whisper. They're directed by quiet visionaries with unpronounceable names and feature obscure actors who'll never make the cover of Vanity Fair. foreign films come from countries you've never visited: Iran, Macedonia, Poland. They're gorgeous and gritty and uplifting and devastating...truly "independent" films. It takes some digging to find foreign films, but you have no choice: this mountain is not coming to Mohammed. So head for that tiny corner video store (not the one with the neon breast in the window, the other one) and begin searching while whispering your new mantra, "Merchant Ivory is the spawn of Satan."

I R A N

Granted, filmmaking in the Middle East skews toward themes of religion and wrath-of-Allah, but there's some brilliant secular cinema as well. Introduce yourself to director Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian filmmaker whose lovely, tonal films have always reminded me of Satyajit Ray. Watch Kiarostami's (non-sequential) trilogy, Where Is My Friend's House?, Life and Nothing More, and Through The Olive Trees. Olive Trees is a gem. It's a film about a filmmaker, and the execution is ingenious. (If you ignored my previous plug for Kiarostami's The Taste of Cherry, add that to the mix.) Finally, pick up Mohsen Makhmalbaf's joint venture film Gabbeh. Gabbeh is both the name of the film's heroine (Shagayegh Djodat) and the name of the finely embroidered woolen rugs woven by the nomadic Ghashgai tribe. (Do you see the allegories coming?) It's a bit slow, and it's in Farsi, but the landscape is lush and the human drama convincing.

I've never come across an Iranian wine. (It's probably related to the whole thou-shalt-not-drink bit in the Koran.) When I was a teenager living in Cairo, and Beirut was still the Paris of the Middle East, upper-class Francophile Muslims played loosey-goosey with the holy book and sometimes drank big, fruity wines from the Bekka Valley of Lebanon. In the United States, you can order up a bottle of Chateau Musar online. Don't contemplate going to the Bekka Valley for it: the Hezbollah is the neighborhood unwelcoming committee.

C Z E C H
R E P U B L I C

Back in the late seventies, before the country was cleaved, there was some very hot filmmaking going on in this Eastern European nation. Then (in a nutshell) there was strife, war and division. Recently, the Czech Film Festival gave Howard Stern's biopic Private Parts an award. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that, but it's quite a leap, eh? In any case, I recommend you shake the dust off several films: Jiri Menzel's Academy Award-winning 1966 black comedy Closely Watched Trains (train dispatcher attempts to get laid in German-occupied Czechoslovakia); Menzel's Seclusion Near A Forest (proof that people have always hated their landlords); and Juraj Herz's Day For My Love (young couple copes with death of endearing four-year-old). Furthermore, I urge you to buy a copy of Oldrich Lipsky's Dinner For Adele (aka Adele Hasn't Had Her Supper Yet). It's sort of a cross between Rocky Horror Picture Show and Mars Attacks! and better than both. Man-eating plants, crazy (and sane) scientists, strawberry dumplings and machines that fly lamely about. Good for a big belly laugh.

No one bothered to ask Adele what she'd like to drink with dinner, due to the fact that she was a plant. Based on her desire to eat men, I think she might like a bottle of red Burgundy because of its Frenchy, femme fatale quality. I'd serve her a glass of 1995 Antonin Guyon Gevrey-Chambertin, a creamy, cherry-raspberry treat, and keep the rest for myself. Hey, how much can a fern drink?

M A C E D O N I A

Gather some very close friends - more than two, less than five - for your Macedonian Film Festival. (It's actually just one movie, but it's terrific, and you should share it with those you love.) Director Milcho Manchevsky, a New York-based emigre, went back to Macedonia - just as the war in the Balkans was brewing - to shoot Before The Rain, a haunting film about a photographer (Rade Serbedzija) who leaves Macedonia to live and work in London, and subsequently returns home as a war correspondent (parallels, parallels). The film is divided into three parts: "Words," which focuses on the reactions of a monk when a woman seeks refuge in the monastery; "Faces," which follows Serbedzija's relationship with his pregnant photo editor; and "Pictures," about the war-ravaged landscape. This two-hour drama is all about man's inhumanity to man without any of the standard cliches. It puts blockbuster American war movies to shame.

Go ahead and gasp in horror, but I feel more in sync with war-themed movies if I'm drinking German wine. (If I don't share, I really nail the inhumanity bit.) I'm over my anti-riesling period and now heartily recommend the 1996 Dr Burklin-Wolf Wachenheimer Gerompel Riesling Spatlese (Pfalz). It's like $20 of apple orchard, and it's sturdy enough for the dinner table.

H U N G A R Y

Films by the superb writer-director Marta Meszaros serve as an excellent introduction to Hungarian film. I mean, if you actually want an introduction. Otherwise, they're just great, watchable movies. Adoption (1975) is a chick flick without too much saccharine. Nine Months (1977) is a disturbing love story set in Budapest. (Only in a Meszaros film can the Hungarian capital, as studiously drab as the average Chinese city, look pretty.) Another must-see is 25 Fireman's Street, directed by Istvan Szabo. This gorgeous, disturbing film focuses on the tenants of a building slated for demolition. The camera follows various apartment dwellers in their surreal lives: A woman swims in the air of her room, a grandfather munches on shards of glass. Every moment is sculpted and life-shattering, and actress Lucina Winnicka is a wonder.

Something sweet, I think, to take the edge off the harsh realities of life and relocation. Robert Pecota's 1997 Napa Valley Muscat Canelli is on the light side, all honey and sunflowers waving in the breeze; Joseph Phelps Vineyards Eisrebe 1995 has darker tones, almonds and toasted sugar. Put out some cashews if you don't have nuggets of glass on hand.

P O L A N D

I can already hear the protests. "I've watched not one, not two, but THREE Polish films! I'm a regular connoisseur!" You can call Krzysztof Kieslowski's trilogy, Trois Couleurs: Blanc, Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Trois Couleurs: Rouge "Polish films" if you'd like. I still say they're French (proof: Juliette Binoche in all three films) and thus Foreign Films (proof: awards galore). I'm not saying they're not worth watching, mind you - Bleu was wonderful - I'm just debating their ethnic background.

Back in the fifties, there was a Polish actor by the name Zbigniew Cybulski - a medium-to-good actor with occasional flashes of brilliance set off by cool tinted glasses. He died young, in a sort of James Dean-ish manner (train accident), but he made several terrific films that get the occasional art house run and are easily available on video: 1958's Ashes and Diamonds (men in times of war), 1960's Innocent Sorcerers (cynicism, naggy girlfriends) and 1965's The Saragossa Manuscript (snagging the sexy princesses). They're all fascinating films. Krzysztof Zanussi's 1975 film The Balance is achingly well acted. Maja Komorowska stars as a woman who puts her life and work on the line and then tries to figure out why. Finally, a more recent film, The Interrogation, was released in 1990 after an eight-year ban. Tonia (Krystyna Janda) plays a nightclub performer who's picked up by the police for questioning and winds up with a five-year prison sentence. It's a non-prison prison film - no Green Mile stereotypes here.

You say Poland, I think icewine. (And ex-President Walesa.) Not that I've ever had a Polish icewine, but it seems like something that ought to be bottled there. I just don't picture leaders of the Solidarity sitting down with a sunny little Chianti, do you? I don't buy much icewine - the good stuff, the noble rot-affected stuff, is pretty pricey - but I've purchased Bonny Doon's Vin de Glaciere, and someone gifted me a bottle of Canadian icewine: a 1998 Inniskillin riesling, Niagara Peninsula (Web price: $65 for 375ml). It was very sexy, completely mango-headed and so thick you could chew on it. A great dessert.

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