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Oscar Showdown: Who WIll Win the Battle of the Subtitled Foreign Films?

Film buffs who love subtitles were in heaven this month. National Geographic’s Global Glimpses program showed all five of the movies vying for the Oscar for best foreign film. Here’s a look at the stories behind the subtitles.

Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)

What it’s about: Didier and Elise live out a bluegrass-tinged love story outside the city of Ghent, complete with a picturesque farmhouse and an adorable small daughter, Maybelle. But as Maybelle’s health starts to fail the family’s sense of security is shattered, and Didier and Elise find it harder to hold onto each other. The story is told non-chronologically—one minute Didier and Elise are hearing the doctor’s prognosis for their child, the next they’re carousing in a truck back when they were a childless couple.

What the title means:
It’s a reference to the gospel song “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” performed by Didier’s bluegrass band several times during the film. Viewers might also connect the title and the circular method of storytelling—or the spiraling breakdowns in this increasingly tragic tale.

Belgian flavor:

a) Five-part harmonies with a Flemish accent.
b) Chocolate spread on bread presented as a balanced breakfast.
c) Self-reliant characters with a rebellious, non-conformist bent (Fun fact: Belgium holds the record for the longest time a democracy has gone without a government).

Oscar-worthy moment:
As Didier and Elise carry Maybelle home after a round of chemotherapy, her bald head wrapped up in a floral scarf, they pause. Elise tells Maybelle to enter the house first. Inside, Didier’s rugged, toothy bandmates serenade the six-year-old with a beautifully harmonized rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

Who’d star in Hollywood’s remake?
Charlize Theron’s beauty and grit fit the part of Elise.

-Sharon Jacobs

Great Beauty (Italy)


What it’s about: The Great Beauty is La Dolce Vita 50 years on. Journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), charming, seductive, witty, intelligent has floated through the swirl of Rome’s lavish and decadent nightlife for decades. But when his 65th birthday hits, he is jolted into taking stock of his life. Rome the Eternal—in all its grandeur and rococo beauty is the other protagonist, the counterweight to the transience of human life.

What the title means: The Great Beauty is Rome—the film’s center of gravity.

Italian flavor: Impeccably tailored men’s suits to swoon over. But then, this is Italy, which has “too much style to be hell, but is too unruly to be heaven,” real journalist Beppe Severgnini explains in his book, La Bella Figura.

Oscar-worthy moment: A Fellini-esque scene when a doctor sets up a Botox dispensing kiosk in what looks like a church and performs the rites of age erasing.

Who’d star in Hollywood’s remake? Peter O’Toole (RIP) could play Jep, if resurrected; O’Toole had just the right mix of stylishness and ennui. Otherwise, perhaps Sean Penn, if he spruced up a bit. No substitute for Rome, however. No other city or stage set could stand in for that magnificence.
-Cathy Newman

The Hunt (Denmark)


What it’s about: Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a kindergarten teacher and well-liked member of his small Danish town, struggles to gain custody of his son after a recent divorce. Things seem to be headed in the right direction for him until a vicious rumor spreads hysteria through the town, turning the community against Lucas.

What the Title Means: Lucas is the victim of a modern-day witch hunt.

Danish Flavor:
A. Danes walk everywhere.
B. Danes drink coffee at all hours of the day.
C. A rite of passage for men: induction in a hunt club.

Oscar-worthy moment:
When shopkeepers hurl insults and soup cans at Lucas, he reacts in stunned disbelief. Violence ensues, and he’s left broken, bloody, and alone. Even Lucas’ best friend, arriving at the store as Lucas is leaving, does not come to his aid, standing idly by as his friend limps off into the night covered in blood.

Who’d star in the Hollywood remake? No need to recast. Mads Mikkleson has already made it to Hollywood in films like Casino Royale and currently fills the title role in NBC’s Hannibal series.
-Emily Tye

The Missing Picture (Cambodia)


What it’s about:
Director Rithy Panh uses clay figurines and historical footage to tell the story of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. From 1975 to 1979, an estimated one million people died. Some were executed by the government; others perished from starvation or exhaustion. Panh and his family were imprisoned in a labor camp and lost his parents during the genocide. (Read more about the Cambodian filmmaker.)

What the title means:
The Khmer Rouge broadcast videos of their so-called successes to the rest of the world: Cambodian people planting rice, for example, and party leaders supervising the transport of large sacks of rice across the country. But part of the picture is missing: Panh couldn’t find footage of life in the labor camps, of government executions, of people starving to death.

Cambodian flavor:

a) Archival footage of a woman dancing in traditional Cambodian garb
b) Sacks of rice used as a symbol of wealth, communism, and abundance

Oscar-worthy moment:
Starving and exhausted, a clay figurine of Pahn sits in a field and drinks a handful of muddy water. He’s wearing black, the attire he is forced to wear by the Khmer Rogue, and he feels himself slowly disappearing into the muddy fields.

Who’d star in Hollywood’s remake
? The film is so unusual that Hollywood simply couldn’t handle it.
-Angie McPherson

Omar (Palestine)


What it’s about:
Omar works in a pita bakery, is in love with Nadia, and is part of the “Jerusalem Brigade,” which uses violence to protest Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

What the title means: What’s in a name? Omar is a twenty-something mashup: dashing and darkly funny, a baker and an aspiring writer, a lover and a fighter. Above all, he’s a guy who yearns for an ordinary life and yet can’t escape from the politics of the Middle East.

Palestinian flavor:

a) The choice of beverage at lunch: Glass of hot tea.
b) The wall built by Israel to keep West Bank terrorists out is a looming, graffiti-covered character in the movie.
c) The fastest way to get to the other side of the wall is, as Omar deftly shows, to climb up and rappel down (and hope Israeli soldiers don’t see him).

Oscar-worthy moment: Omar leads Israeli soldiers on a heart-stopping chase through the narrow alleyways of his village, is captured, winds up in prison, dangling by his wrists and bloodied by blows from his captor. “Your nose,” Omar says. “Wipe your nose.”

Who’d star in Hollywood’s remake?
Ian Somerhalder of Vampire Diaries has the dark good looks and lithe body to portray Omar. Kristen Stewart would be fine as his strong-browed and -jawed girlfriend. And Mandy Pantinkin would bring a touch of Homeland to the role of the seemingly kindhearted Israeli agent who convinces Omar to be a double agent for Israel in exchange for freedom from prison.
-Marc Silver