How to become an armchair polyglot

Film - Philip Kerr on why watching foreign films makes you feel superior

One of the main pleasures of watching a foreign-language film is listening to the dialogue and understanding everything the characters are saying. It's incredible how suddenly all this Babel chatter makes perfect sense. Because watching a foreign-language film isn't just about watching a film, it's also about reading, and probably this is why Islington prefers a foreign film to an English-language one. The process of reading a subtitle adds a usefully literate quality to the whole film experience. After all, there are some filmgoers for whom edification is, doubtless, more worthy than mere entertainment.

It seems to me, however, that subtitles subtract from the immediacy of film, and the sense of participating in the lives of the charac-ters seen on screen is often diminished. At one stage removed from being involved in the imperatives of a protagonist's life, it becomes easier for the film-goer to exercise a moral judgement on the hero's actions. Things often seem, quite literally, more black and white than they would be if one was made privy to all the nuances of speech and subtleties of expression in the original language. This, probably, is the other reason Islington prefers foreign films to English-language movies: foreign films, which are, after all full of foreigners, make it easier for the post-imperial English to play God.

For the cineaste, of course, foreign-language film is also a good way of getting power, in the Baconian sense of power being founded on knowledge. After all, it gives one a tremendous sense of superiority to know that some old foreign film was ripped off by American movie-makers: for example, Moulin Rouge is an inferior rip-off of Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis, while Altman's Gosford Park bears a great many uncomfortable resemblances to Jean Renoir's La Regle du Jeu. (Gosh, that was satisfying.)

For the rest of us, a foreign film affords a useful opportunity to indulge in a little vicarious tourism and amateur anthropology from the comfort and safety of our Pullman seats. Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita indulges our eternal appetite for Rome, just as Renoir reminds us that, despite everything we know to be true, the French are human beings after all. Sometimes movie tourism can take us through some pretty bad neighbourhoods; but I know of no safer way to visit the dark side of life in Mexico City or Havana than to watch Amores Perros and Before Night Falls. Still the best way to visit Algeria is to treat yourself to the video of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 movie The Battle of Algiers. While Sweden should never, ever be visited except in the films of Ingmar Bergman.

The Trespasser, filmed in Brazil's state capital, and largest city, Sao Paulo, is no exception to the honourable tradition of low-life tourism in movies. Sao Paulo is one of the largest urban centres in the world, with a population of 37 million people, 90 per cent of whom live on 10 per cent of the land. It's a unique, vibrant place, with an enormous ethnic and social diversity, all of which is guidebook code for keeping the doors of your car locked at all times, and not venturing out on the streets after dark without a Bren gun. Of course, if you are in a film, then things are different.

"Welcome to the rotten side of life," Gilberto tells his engineering partner, Ivan. And so it proves, for the two men have contracted AnIsio, a very nasty piece of work who seems to think he's Travis Bickle, to kill their partner, Estevao. AnIsio, played by the hatchet-faced Brazilian pop star Paulo Miklos (Christ, if he's a pop star, then one dreads to imagine what the criminals look like), carries out the murder, leaving Ivan and Gilberto to run their business the way they want to. For a couple of days, anyway, because AnIsio, a graduate of the school of Tony Montana (Al Pacino in Scarface), has decided to take advantage of his wealthy new associates to become upwardly mobile. Slowly he invades their lives (the movie's Portuguese title, O Invasor, translates better as "The Invader") and starts to blackmail them both, even embarking on a sexual relationship with the dead man's daughter, Marina.

It's a fairly standard film noir plot, largely distinguished by a walk on the wild side of Sao Paulo as AnIsio shows Marina "his home" and some interesting camerawork of the kind that Billy Wilder might have appreciated. "Johnny," he jokingly told John Seitz, the lighting cameraman on Sunset Boulevard, "keep it out of focus, I want to win the foreign picture award." In truth, The Trespasser isn't out of focus so much as grainy, and being grainy is only a short f-stop away from being gritty. And if that's the way you like your foreign films, then I can recommend it. But I've visited more interesting places in the cinema than this one.

The Trespasser (18) opens at selected cinemas on 13 September