The success of Roma should bring attention to the seriously underrated selection of foreign-language Netflix original films. Here are three other foreign films worth watching.
Roma has been quite the cinematic achievement for Netflix.
After a series of flops (think Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox), Alfonso Cuarón's film represents an exciting step forward for the platform's original content. Roma's success should also bring attention to the seriously underrated selection of fascinating and impactful foreign language Netflix originals.
Like Roma, many of these foreign language films boast compelling characters and storylines, aesthetically pleasing cinematography, and commentary on social issues in their respective cultures.
Happy as Lazzaro
Alice Rohrwacher's Happy as Lazzaro tells the story of Lazzaro, a friendly and hardworking sharecropper on the tobacco farming estate, Inviolata, in the 1970s. Lazzaro and his fellow sharecroppers live in deep poverty, always in debt and often going unpaid. He befriends the landowners' son, Tancredi, who, eager for adventure to spice up his cloistered and privileged existence, enlists Lazzaro to fake his own kidnapping. Eventually, the police come searching for Tancredi but instead discover destitute, slavery-like conditions.
As it happens, Lazzaro falls off a cliff only to miraculously wake up nearly 20 years later to discover the land and the manor are now empty. The sharecroppers have been replaced by immigrant day laborers from Africa and Eastern Europe. Lazzaro, desperately looking for Tancredi and his friends and family from Inviolata, ventures to a nearby city. He finds his former sharecropping community, still living in desperate poverty. Lazzaro eventually runs into Tancredi, who he finds in a dramatically worse state than years before.
Happy as Lazzaro is worth watching for its gorgeous cinematography alone, but its use of magical realism is the real attraction. These fantastical elements sometimes blur the line between dreams and the real world. Lazzaro is often transfixed by his imagination and dream-like visions — his method of escapism.
At its core, Happy as Lazzaro about the inescapable class divisions in Italian society. Lazzaro and the sharecropping community are constantly exploited by the wealthy landowners with no chance to escape their oppressive economic situation. The relationship between Lazzaro and Tancredi can't escape the rich-poor class dynamic, as Lazzaro understands he serves Tancredi, not the other way around. Even when years later Lazzaro discovers his family from the village in the city, they haven't progressed economically at all. They live in an empty water tower by the train tracks, surviving by scamming people on the street. Tancredi is often seen wearing a Walkman, whilst Lazzaro wears the same tattered clothes. Not only are they of a different class but seemingly from a different century.
Happy as Lazzaro makes an undeniable political point. It's an indictment of how the flow of global capital has racked the lives of the Italian working class. Lazzaro, no matter how decent, hardworking, and honest he is, will never escape the fate consigned to him by economic forces outside his control.
Directed by Mexican filmmaker Sebastian Hoffman, Time Share is the story of a couple, Pedro and Eva, and their young son, embarking on a much-needed vacation. Very quickly, what should be a week in paradise, goes from bad to worse. The resort accidentally books another family in their timeshare and, later, Pedro breaks his nose while playing tennis. Eventually, Pedro suspects the resort is plotting against his family.
Time Share is a pointed criticism and a darkly funny satire of the idea of the "dream" vacation and corporate culture. When the time share is double booked, Pedro meets with a resort manager to try to rectify the problem. Throughout, the manager repeats the same script, telling Pedro that it's the resort's job to make "your dreams come true." This just adds to the absurdity and the hopelessness of dealing with inept, out of touch customer service.
It's a takedown of corporate culture is revealed most poignantly through two resort workers, Andres and Gloria. Andres works downstairs in the laundry, usually quietly going about his business. He's a veteran at the resort, but has been slow to adjust to the culture pushed by the resort's new ownership. No longer respected by anyone, he's completely broken down by his job. Gloria, his wife, is also reeling from a recent personal tragedy. In one scene, Tom (RJ Mitte), a motivational speaker brought in by the company, implores her that she is part of the "Everfields [the resort chain] family" and they will do anything she needs. But we're left feeling that these sentiments of family are just a smokescreen to get their employees to pledge loyalty to a faceless corporation.
The film is also visually striking with an eerie neon glow in almost every scene. But what makes it so terrifyingly relatable is the devastating lampooning of the hellish vacation everyone's experienced, and corporations who try to be your "friend" just to sell you something.
And Breathe Normally
This film from Iceland follows the lives of two women facing vastly different circumstances whose lives intersect after a chance encounter. One woman, Lara, is a single mom battling unemployment and drug addiction. The other, Adja, is an asylum-seeker from Guinea-Bissau attempting to reunite with her family in Canada. While training to become a border guard Lara encounters Adja trying to pass through an airport checkpoint with a fake passport. Adja is taken into custody, and begins an arduous process through the Icelandic immigration system. One day, Lara is desperate to find her five-year-old son, Eldar, who has run off after his cat. After hours searching, she finds him with Adja who helped Eldar find the cat. Lara reluctantly offers to give her a ride back to the refugee center, and from there their relationship begins, Lara now resolved to help Adja get to Canada.
And Breathe Normally illustrates the dehumanizing bureaucracy surrounding the immigration process and shows the desperate measures migrants will take to get to their destination. Adja pays a smuggler to bring her to Canada on a cargo ship but declines at the last minute. It also starkly reveals the tremendous difficulties placed upon people by the vicious cycles of unemployment, addiction, evictions and custody battles. Lara's only way out is to take a job she soon finds ethically problematic. In a film of bleak circumstances set to the backdrop of a drab Icelandic landscape, Eldar stands out. His innocence and curiosity are especially endearing. He too develops a relationship with Adja, despite the language barrier.
In the end, it asks a crucial question of the viewer: What lengths are you willing to go when your values and someone else's life is on the line?
These three films contain themes and stories strongly connected to the countries from where they come, but are also extremely relevant to American audiences. They are stories of poverty and exploitation, of vacations gone terribly wrong, of migration and refugees, of unemployment and drug addiction, of unlikely relationships. They are stories of characters we can identify and empathize with. They are stories of our common humanity.
Dan is a writer and occasional optimist in this chaotic, stupid world. You can follow him on Twitter @danescalona77.
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Plus celebrities react to Nigerian protests.
Young people across Nigeria have been pouring into the streets for the last two weeks to protest police brutality, specifically the controversial special police force known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
Tension came to a head on Tuesday when armed forces fired on protestors in Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria, who were out past the state-mandated curfew. According to AP News, "Police also fired tear gas at one point, and smoke could be seen billowing from several areas in the city's center. Two private TV stations were forced off the air at least temporarily as their offices were burned."
Not all non-binary people prefer gender-neutral pronouns.
October 21, 2020 marks the third annual International Pronouns Day.
Created by an independent board and first observed in 2018, it's one of those small commemorative holidays that trends on Twitter in hopes of drawing attention to a pressing social issue, like International Women's Day (March 8th) or the ever so serious National Taco Day (October 4).
But Pronouns Day in particular "seeks to make respecting, sharing, and educating about personal pronouns commonplace." The organization's website further describes, "Referring to people by the pronouns they determine for themselves is basic to human dignity. Being referred to by the wrong pronouns particularly affects transgender and gender nonconforming people. Together, we can transform society to celebrate people's multiple, intersecting identities."
But in the words of nonbinary activist and Trevor Project's Head of Advocacy and Government Afairs, Sam Brenton, "Pronouns are hard." Never before have pronouns been scrutinized as closely as they are in 2019 for their power to (in)validate or accurately describe something as fluid as gender identity. In fact, it was only this year that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary expanded the definition of "they" "to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary" (thus codifying a long history in English language of using "they" to refer to a singular non-gendered entity).
‘Everyone has the responsibility to be respectful.’ — The @TrevorProject’s Sam Brinton is explaining why pronouns a… https://t.co/pMMO8KRvBR— NowThis (@NowThis)1571253180.0
But throwing an additional wrench in the works is the fact that not all non-binary people prefer gender-neutral pronouns.
Take me, for instance: Despite having female biology, I couldn't pass a lie detector test saying I'm a "woman." But my pragmatic, Puritan family is still endearingly confused by the idea of "liberal arts," let alone the notion of gender fluidity. And I'd rather share a communal language with them than do the emotional and mental labor of re-orienting their worldview for them. Plus, I have the privilege of passing as female without feeling too, too, terribly dysphoric (which non-binary people can definitely suffer from, despite not identifying as trans).
But enough about me, look at Queer Eye's beloved Jonathan Van Ness. While he's been outspoken about being genderqueer, gay, and HIV positive, he prefers he/him pronouns. "The older I get, the more I think that I'm nonbinary," Van Ness said. "I'm gender nonconforming. Like, some days I feel like a man, but then other days I feel like a woman." As he told Out magazine, he doesn't identify as a man, but he does prefer "he/him/his" pronouns. In his view, those pronouns don't detract from or contradict his non-binary identity, because gender is not about simple binaries between masculine and feminine identifiers. "Any opportunity I have to break down stereotypes of the binary, I am down for it, I'm here for it," he said. "I think that a lot of times gender is used to separate and divide. It's this social construct that I don't really feel like I fit into the way I used to."
On the other hand, last month non-binary singer Sam Smith announced that their preferred pronouns are "they/them." Smith posted to Instagram, "I've decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM ❤ after a lifetime of being at war with my gender I've decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out." People like Smith and Trevor Project's Sam Brenton simply feel more validated, seen, heard, and true to themselves with gender-neutral pronouns. Smith wrote, "I'm so excited and privileged to be surrounded by people that support me in this decision but I've been very nervous about announcing this because I care too much about what people think but f*ck it!"
Most importantly, as pretty much every non-binary person and activist is aware, changing cultural norms is hard. While LGBTQ+ activism is inspired and passionate and dedicated to expanding human rights to all gender identities, we all know that changing society's entire understanding of gender and pronoun usage is about slowly opening minds. As Smith wrote, "I understand there will be many mistakes and mis gendering but all I ask is you please please try. I hope you can see me like I see myself now. Thank you." Happy Pronouns Day to you/him/her/they/(f)aer/zim.