World cinema is a tricky landscape to navigate. Almost every country around the world has a great movie to their name and knowing where to start is almost impossible. Here are three important movies from each region to get you started. Just know that this list is only a starting point and is not in any way definitive.
Chronicle of the Years of Embers (Algeria, 1975)
- Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, “Chronicle of the Year of Embers” follows a peasant’s migration across Algeria amidst a rebel uprising against colonial rule. Stunning in its scope, “Embers” deserves to be rediscovered.
Sankofa (Burkina Faso, 1993)
- A vain American model on a shoot in Ghana is transported back in time and becomes a house servant to brutal plantation owners. One of the starkest and most brutal portrayals of slavery on film, “Sankofa” is a must watch for everyone.
Moolaade (Senegal, 2004)
- In Colle’s village in Burkina Faso, young girls are forced to endure genital mutilation. She decides to shelter six young girls facing the ceremony. This unflinching political statement is rightfully lauded for its realism, but it isn’t for the faint of heart.
Tokyo Story (Japan, 1953)
- Often regarded as director Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece and one of the best films of all time, “Tokyo Story” follows an old couple to Tokyo as they visit their children and grandchildren, but it’s clear that their loved ones have no time for them.
Pather Panchali (Bengali, 1955)
- Apu and his sister Durga live harsh, poverty-stricken lives in the village of Nichindipur and their struggles are documented with humanity and dignity. Honest and heartbreaking, “Pather Panchali” rightfully put Indian cinema on the world map.
Raise the Red Lantern (China, 1991)
- The recently bereaved Songlian marries into a wealthy warlord’s family, becoming the third concubine to a tumultuous lineage. This meticulously composed opus is impossibly beautiful, richly colorful and emotionally devastating. It’s a feast for the eyes and the mind.
Motherland Hotel (Turkey, 1986)
- The endlessly melancholy and often shocking “Motherland Hotel” finds the lonely owner of an inn obsessing over a long departed guest, obsessions that begin tearing his life apart. Shot in near monotone colors, “Motherland” is best served on a cold, rainy day.
The Color of Paradise (Iran, 1999)
- An ashamed father picks up his son, the blind boy Mohammad, for the summer. They return to their village and, despite his blindness, Mohammad falls in love with the beauty of his hometown. Viewers might want tissues nearby for this inspirational crowd-pleaser.
The Return to Homs (Syria, 2013)
- Filmed over three years, “Homs” follows Syrian national football team goalie Basset and his friend Ossama as they navigate the Syrian Civil War in their hometown. “Homs” is heart-rending at every turn. By the end, Basset and Ossama are fighting for their freedom.
Los Olvidados (Mexico, 1950)
- Decried by the Mexican government for its frank portrayal of poverty, “Los Olvidados” documents the misfortunes of a group of children in a Mexican slum. Much like its contemporary, “The Bicycle Thieves,” “Olvidados” is unrelenting in its realism.
Nine Queens (Argentina, 2000)
- Two con artists meet almost coincidentally and decide to start a major scam together. Rightfully lauded as a classic of Argentine cinema, “Nine Queens” is a twisty deadpan caper. For a heart-pounding good time, “Queens” is one to watch.
City of God (Brazil, 2002)
- In the slums of Rio de Janeiro crime rules and the innocent are caught in the crossfire. Two young boys take wildly different paths: Rocket becomes a photographer while his brother, Goose, takes up the drug dealing life. “City of God” is an unsparing tour-de-force that moves as much as it shocks.
The Bicycle Thieves (Italy, 1948)
- After a man’s bike is stolen, he and his son go searching for it and the thieves who stole it. Initially hated by Italian critics upon its release, “The Bicycle Thieves” has gone onto be considered a masterwork of the influential Italian neorealism movement, which characterized by stories about the poor and working class.
The Seventh Seal (Sweden, 1957)
- The premise is simple: A crusader returns home amidst the Black Plague pandemic and meets death, who he challenges to a game of chess. Awash with symbolism, “The Seventh Seal” put Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman on the world stage and still today holds up as a masterpiece.
Nostalghia (Russia/Italy, 1983)
- After meeting a crazed man who imprisoned his family for seven years, a Russian poet sees the logic in the man’s act and dreams of his own homeland and wife. Working more in dreams than reality, “Nostalghia” is one of Tarkovsky’s best works and a great example of Russian cinema.