David Ansen: Foreign Films Worth Watching

When was the last time a movie caught you totally by surprise? It's a phenomenon that happens less and less often, because Hollywood spends many millions of marketing dollars to ensure there are no surprises—to see that you know as much as possible about the film before you go to see it. The studio's real product is the hype itself. If the movie's actually good, all the better, but that's not really the point.

Foreign films, on the other hand, because they have little or no marketing budget, slink across our borders like illegal aliens, hiding in plain sight. Unheralded by TV spots, full-page ads, magazine covers or gossip columns, they barely stand a chance commercially. But for the moviegoer, there's an upside to this obscurity: a foreign film, being terra incognita, can startle you with the unexpected. For a critic, the thrill of discovery is even rarer. But it hit me, in all its glory, the other day at a screening of Jean-Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows." I've seen a lot of the late director's films, but this one I knew almost nothing about. Made in 1969, late in his career—he died in 1973—this superb, unflinching movie about the French Resistance was never released in the United States. Now, thanks to Rialto Pictures, a beautifully restored version will finally open: first in New York on April 28, followed by May and June rollouts planned for Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco and San Diego. It's a revelation, and every bit the equal of Melville's best films, which range from his exquisite Cocteau adaptation, "Les Enfants Terrible" to the severely stylish gangster movies that made his name: "Bob le Flambeur," "Le Samourai" and "Le Cercle Rouge," which Rialto re-released a couple of years ago. "Army of Shadows" was a project Melville dreamed about for years, ever since reading the 1943 novel by Joseph Kessel (who also wrote "Belle de Jour"). Like Kessel, Melville had first-hand memories of the Resistance, having served in the Underground in his 20s. This is his hardbitten, ruthlessly unsentimental tribute to a cadre of freedom fighters, all composites of real people, who were willing to sacrifice everything—including, at times, their humanity—for their cause. Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Meurisse, Claude Mann and Felix Barbier form the core of the cast. We first meet Ventura's Philippe Gerbier in a Vichy detention camp, where he's been arrested for "Gaullist sympathies"; later, he will oversee the murder of the young man who betrayed him. His colleagues are not used to killing: they don't have the skills or, it turns out, the right equipment—one of them forgets to bring a silencer, so they'll have to resort to their hands. This brilliantly discomfiting sequence calls to mind the famous killing in Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain" in which the Master wanted to show the audience just how hard it actually is to dispose of another human being. Melville takes this notion up a notch. "Army of Shadows" is infused with the austere, bleak romanticism we recognize from his gangster movies, but there's a new depth of feeling here. A classicist and a perfectionist, Melville composes his sequences with a rigorous formality that heightens the tension by keeping a cool distance. Young filmmakers could learn volumes from studying the way he builds his set pieces: few directors use silence so eloquently, or have such an unerring instinct for where to place a camera, and the nerve to keep it planted there. Close-ups are used as sparingly as music, and when they come, they count. The acting is similarly clamped down: a glance can be as potent as a scream. Seeing this lost classic is like stumbling across a buried treasure. Who knew it was there? Very little has been written about this film, and it met with mixed feelings in France—no surprise, given how touchy a subject the Resistance is, even now. American distributors must have found it too uncompromising back in '69, when America's ideal French movie was "A Man and a Woman." Morally, Melville takes no prisoners. You don't know what tough love can mean until you see the devastating conclusion of this elegant, elegiac epic. Tales of Triumph, Unfamiliar Terrain

A second happy surprise: the brutally beautiful Chinese movie "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili." I'd seen a trailer for Lu Chuan's film, and it did the movie no favors: I feared it was going to be an earnest eco-drama about an endangered species. It is, admittedly, about the threat to the Tibetan antelope, whose fur is used to make the highly coveted shahtoosh scarves. In the 1990s poachers had almost killed off the species; in response, Tibetans volunteered to man the patrols to stop poachers. As the movie begins, this work results in the murder of one of the team. Writer-director Lu recreates the hunt for the killers, and the result is a Himalayan action movie that unfolds in bold, often savage images—the landscapes alone are worth the price of admission. Known as "the rooftop of the world," the Kekexili region has a harsh, lunar emptiness, and Lu's epic images capture its forbidding beauty. Nature poses as many threats as the armed poachers do: at this altitude, to run can be fatal, and as the chase goes further into the wilderness, supplies and food begin to run out. In one horrifically vivid episode, we watch one member of the team get slowly swallowed by quicksand. "Mountain Patrol" pays tribute to these men, who risk their lives for little recompense, but there are times when we are startled by their methods, which can seem as brutal as those of the criminals they pursue. And Lu shows us the other side of the coin: the impoverished peasants who get involved in the slaughter of a species in order to put food on the family table. This is a one-of-a-kind action flick: a tale of triumph tinged at every moment with tragedy. "The Syrian Bride" also takes us into unfamiliar and fascinating terrain. It's set among the Druze community—Israeli Arabs—in the Golan Heights, on the border between Israel and Syria. The bride in question is about to be married to a Syrian television star she's never met—and when she crosses into Syria in her wedding gown, she will never be allowed to return home. Such are the politics of this fractured, fractious region, where the Druze, who have no official national identity, are caught in a legal no-man's-land. Mona (Clara Khoury) may never again see her father, just released from jail for his anti-Israeli politics; he's even forbidden to see her off. (It's an order he defies.) This may also be her last day spent with her beloved older sister Amal (Hiam Abbas from " Paradise Now "). Amal is the movie's true heroine: a smart, angry, sophisticated woman, trapped in a bad marriage to a traditional man who fears he will lose face if she pursues a career. She doesn't want Mona to make the same mistakes she has. And the tensions inside this large family get more complicated with the arrival from overseas of their two brothers, one a womanizing "businessman" bearing gifts and too much jewelry. The other, who has not been back for eight years, broke his traditionalist father's heart by marrying a Russian doctor; the religious elders forbid his presence at the wedding. "The Syrian Bride" would be an out-and-out comedy were it set anywhere but in the Middle East. Israeli director Eran Riklis (who wrote the deft, feminist-spirited script with Suha Arraf) sees the absurdist humor, but has no interest in disguising the pain. (And the bureaucratic grotesqueries of Arab/Israeli politics must be seen to be believed.) As befits its subject, the film is performed in Arabic, English and Hebrew, with a smattering of French and Russian. This jam-packed, touching, fleet-footed film has lots to tell us about the clash between tradition and modernity, men and women, Arab and Jew, the individual and the community. Riklis, an accomplished juggler, keeps all these balls spinning in the air at once without missing a beat. And one final gem: a Romanian film called "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu." The winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year, it's a movie that cineastes at film festivals around the world have fervently embraced, though it sounds forbiddingly depressing. Yes, it's about a heavy-set 60-year-old Bucharest widower who lives alone with his cats in a bleak apartment building. The movie takes places on a single night: he falls ill and finds himself transported, with a matter-of-factly beatific nurse as his guide, from one hospital to another towards the ending that the title gives away. Director Cristi Puiu has an extraordinary eye for the telling gesture, and every person who crosses Mr. Lazarescu's path has a flawed yet moving humanity. Puiu's is the art of the seemingly artless: he takes a story that's utterly unglamorous and mundane, and transforms it into something mythic. I won't pretend this movie is for everybody; but if you open yourself to its leisurely rhythm, you may find it a mysteriously mesmerizing voyage.