It’s a commonly accepted belief that Americans hate subtitles. Whether this is out of stupidity, laziness, or a belief in our own cultural supremacy is up for dispute, but the box office numbers seem to back it up: Only a handful of foreign films have grossed over $20 million in the American market; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the winner of the 2000 Oscar for best foreign film, reigns supreme as the highest-grossing foreign film at $128 million.
None of the five foreign film nominees at this year’s Academy Awards will come anywhere near that record, but thanks to Netflix and other streaming services, foreign films are more accessible than ever. Ida, which won Poland its first Oscar last year, was available on Netflix before it was nominated, and Netflix’s recommendation algorithms keep movies like Denmark’s 2012 nominee A Royal Affair in seemingly endless recirculation.
It’s been television, cinema’s long-shunted sibling, which has made greater strides in normalizing subtitles for Americans in recent years. Around 80 percent of the dialogue in Netflix’s most popular show, Narcos, is in Spanish, and FX’s hit spy thriller The Americans features a sizable amount of Russian. (The showrunners have strict rules about when characters should speak Russian instead of English.) Last year, Deutschland 83 became the first German-language series to run on an American network, its eight episodes entirely subtitled, to critical acclaim. The popularity of these shows suggests that Americans may finally be ready to embrace the foreign, to view the languages of other countries as a sign of authenticity rather than a reason to snooze.
Hoping that’s true, we’ll be taking a look over the next week at the five movies nominated for Best Film in a Foreign Language: A War, Denmark’s powerful reckoning with its participation in the war in Afghanistan; Embrace of the Serpent, Colombia’s first-ever nominee, which follows a Colombian shaman and two Western scientists deep into the Amazonian wilderness; Mustang, France’s Turkish-language entry about the sexual awakening of five sisters imprisoned by their family; Theeb, Jordan’s first-ever nominee, the story of a young Bedouin boy caught up in the Arab struggle for independence from the Ottomans; and Hungary’s Son of Saul, in which a Jewish prisoner forced to work in the Auschwitz gas chambers embarks on a quixotic quest to bury a young boy.