With decades of international cinema at my disposal, picking nine favorite foreign film scores feels like a foolish and pointless gesture at best. And yet I’m giving it a shot.
Because so much of my foreign film viewing over the years has been relegated to Oscar-nominated films (once again, never an indication of quality), I readily admit that I’m severely deficient in this area. I originally thought of making the list country by country (i.e., French film scores one month, Italian the next, etc.), with separate monthly posts devoted to each. But then I realized I simply didn’t have enough knowledge of the scores from any specific country to do that. So, although this list is by no means complete, it’s a start. Hopefully there will be later installments in the future. Until then, here are nine film scores from around the globe that I can wholeheartedly recommend.
9. WAR AND PEACE (1966)
This past weekend, in preparation for this post, I re-watched this 7-hour Russian epic of Tolstoy’s masterpiece. The first time I saw it years ago, I watched it all in one day, long before I’d read the book. I was hopelessly confused by the numerous characters and didn’t know enough about Russian history to appreciate it. Since then I’ve read the book and plenty of other Russian books so I was able to follow it much easier…and splitting up the viewing over two days didn’t hurt either. This 1968 Oscar winner for Foreign Language Film shows its age but its sumptuous to look at and the logistics of filming it are staggering. Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov was still in his 20’s when he was tapped to compose and conduct the massive score. While it’s not synced as smoothly as many modern film scores (cues sometimes just drop in or out), there are some marvelous music set pieces–dances in a classical Tchaikovskian style, a capella male chorus, intense action music for the battle sequences and a haunting, lyrical intermezzo that serves as the love theme. The overall score is not as cohesive as it could be, but it’s a bold effort from a young composer who is basically unknown outside of the motherland. This is one score I’d love to see released on CD someday, though I can’t even imagine the licensing logistics nightmare. Beware of the LP (the only release of the score that I know of) which is full of annoying battle sound effects.
8. CHARACTER (1997)
This Oscar winner is a Dutch thriller about a young man who fights against his rich father, who will have nothing to do with him, and his poverty to become the lawyer he wants to be. I can’t do justice to the plot, but it’s a marvelous, ahem, character study, rich in Dickensian details of the Netherlands of the ’30s, featuring taut direction and superb acting. Adding to the excitement of the film is the score by the collective Paleis van Boem, aka Martin Vonk and Jaap de Weijer. The score impresses from the dramatic main titles as the camera skims the cramped Dutch canals and swirls around the bustling activity on the docks. While the music is minimal within the film, it makes a definite impact. This is another title I’d love to see released someday.
7. BURNT BY THE SUN (1994)
Another Russian Oscar winner, this time set during the time of Stalin’s purges in 1936, in which the arrival of Cousin Dmitri upsets the idyllic summer for revolutionary hero Colonel Kotov and his family. Like WAR AND PEACE, the more you know of Russian history, the more depth the film has. But the family drama remains universal and the final goodbye between Kotov and his 6-year-old daughter is heartbreaking. Through it all Edward Artemyev provides a score that conveys period atmosphere, dramatic military might and genuine emotion. I can do without the electronic elements, but considering Artemyev’s pioneering work in the area in film music and its popularity during the ’80s, it’s to be expected. The score is only available on an out-of-print French pressing with its French name, SOLEIL TROMPEUR.
6. JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965)
Nino Rota’s music for Fellini’s films define Italian cinema in the 1960’s. With his blend of quirky orchestrations and melodic invention, plus a charming circus-like atmosphere, Rota’s music spawned countless lesser imitators over the years. But no one can match the maestro’s unique sound of throbbing sentimentality whose period datedness somehow still keeps it sound fresh decades later. Out of this list, this is the only film I have yet to see, starring the great Giulietta Masina as a woman struggling to leave her cheating husband. While other films like 8 1/2 and AMARCORD might have more recognizable themes, this Rota gem is more consistently entertaining, at least on album. And its delightful combination of period organ and vocals can’t help but put a smile on your face.
5. BREATHLESS (1960)
When I was writing my series of Jazz Score articles for FSM Online a couple of years ago, BREATHLESS was one of the big discoveries out of the numerous films I watched. Godard’s film is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and its improvisatory lack of pretension seems just as fresh as it did 50 years ago when it helped usher in the French New Wave. Martial Solal‘s legendary jazz score backs up this breezy crime caper with energy, wit and a tender love theme that captures the chemistry between Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg with ease. One of those unforgettable international classics in which every element is every bit as good as its reputation.
4. THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964)
Through-sung musicals are rare and Jacque Demy’s cinematic experiment must have been quite shocking in its day. It remains an odd film, but the combination of Demy’s candy-colored visuals, the lovely performances of Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo, and Michel Legrand‘s jazz score is unbeatable. Yes, it’s strange to hear people singing about carburetors, but the real human emotions and the simplicity of the story shine through. This is a musical treat that breaks your heart.
3. CINEMA PARADISO (1988)
A love letter to films, Giuseppe Tornatorre’s Oscar-winner was a huge art house hit, even severely trimmed by almost an hour for ADD American audiences. The magic of cinema on a small Italian town is heartwarming and often very amusing, but it’s the relationship between Philippe Noiret’s humble projectionist and Salvatore Cascio’s little scamp that provides the emotional heart of the film, and Ennio Morricone‘s score brings out all of these qualities in spades. Morricone’s music goes from humor to heartbreak and succeeds on every level. If the final kiss montage doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.
2. UN HOMME ET SON CHIEN (2009)
Philippe Rombi‘s beautiful score topped my list of favorite scores of 2009. Since then I’ve seen the film which stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as a lonely old man and his dog who find themselves suddenly living on the streets. The film isn’t much in the way of plot, character development or anything else for that matter, but Rombi’s score still generates heart-tugging emotion. Obviously he was inspired by something beyond what shows on the screen. With its heartbreaking main theme and an emotional pull that won’t let go, the score is still just as powerful as it was when I first heard it a year ago.
1. BALLAD OF A SOLDIER (1959)
For a country so far removed for most of us, there is something universally human that Russians capture in their filmmaking. And few stories are more human than this simple tale of a young hero during World War II who, instead of a medal, gets leave to visit his mother and fix their roof, traveling the vast breadth of Russia by train and falling in love. The visuals are haunting, the performances by the two beautiful young leads are affecting, and the finale is gut-wrenching. Mikhail Ziv‘s poignant score captures war, home and love in music that overflows with emotion. The film and the score haunted me for years before I ever found a performance of the music. A 20-minute concert suite conducted by Sergei Skripka with the Russian State Symphony Cinema Orchestra can be downloaded at ClassicalArchives.com for under $6! Both film and score are highly recommended.