Top-Ten Non-English Language Films Featuring Classical Music (with links to full reviews)


Mar 11, 2005 (Updated Apr 9, 2006)


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The Bottom Line If you love classical music, check out these excellent non-English language films that feature classical music in significant ways.

To qualify for this list, a film must be (a) non-English language; (b) an excellent film; and (c) incorporate classical music into its soundtrack and/or storyline in a meaningful way. Filmed versions of operas are excluded from consideration. Films in which the music actually figures into the story are given higher priority than those in which the music merely helps to convey an emotional context. The films are rated relative to one another based on how important the music is to the film, not on the overall worth as works of art. There's a total of eight different countries represented here, with France (24 entries), Italy (eight entries), and the U.S.S.R. (four entries) leading the way. I make no claim that this list is comprehensive. There are many other non-English language films that feature classical music. Amadeus (1984) would head my list were it not in English.

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1. Alexander Nevsky (1938)   Country: U.S.S.R.   Director: Sergei Eisenstein   Featured Composer: Prokofiev    Rating: * * * *
There is no other film for which the musical score is so much an equal partner to the images. Eisenstein provided Prokofiev with film scenes as quickly as each was completed. Prokofiev then drafted settings, which the two men discussed, and then Prokofiev made whatever adjustments were required. For some scenes, Eisenstein edited the film to fit music already composed by Prokofiev, rather than the other way around.

2. Ivan the Terrible, Pts. I/II (1945/58) (See Eisenstein: The Sound Years.)   Country: U.S.S.R.   Director: Sergei Eisenstein   Featured Composer: Prokofiev    Rating: * * * * *
Prokofiev teamed with Eisenstein once again for the film director's masterful depiction of the life of Ivan the Terrible. Though only the first two parts of an anticipated trilogy were completed, the combination of Eisenstein's lavishly stylized mise-en-scene and Prokofiev's beautiful choral and orchestral music make this pair of films among the finest ever.

3. Death in Venice (1971)   Country: Italy   Director: Luchino Visconti   Featured Composer: Mahler    Rating: * * * *
Mahler's music is such a major part of this film that some have suggested that the film could qualify as a visual accompaniment for two of Mahler's symphonies. The featured works are the Third Symphony and the Fifth Symphony. There's also bits and pieces from a Franz Lehár opera, Beethoven's Für Elise, and some Mussorgsky strains.

4. Un Coeur en Hiver (1992)   Country: France   Director: Claude Sautet   Featured Composer: Ravel    Rating: * * * * *
The musical segments of this film are integral to the story, which involves a burgeoning romance between a violinist, Camille, and an expert instrument maker, Stephane. Stephane’s exquisite sensitivity to Camille's instrument and the nuances of her performances is what sparks her interest in him. The featured works are Ravel's Piano Trio and Violin Sonatas. The actress Emmanuelle Béart, who plays the violinist, projects the gestures and emotional expressiveness of a violinist with remarkable effectiveness, considering that she had never played the violin. Concert violinist Jean-Jacques Kantorow provided the actual violin performances.

5. Bleu (1993) (See Three Colors.)   Country: France   Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski   Featured Composer: Preisner    Rating: * * * * *
Juliette Binoche plays the distraught widow of a composer who died suddenly in a car accident, along with their only child, with his last choral masterpiece unfinished. Binoche's character, who worked closely with her husband in his compositional work, has to struggle between her enormous grief and the immortality of her husband's music. All the while, the great final chorus of the unfinished piece reverberates through her mind, as her husband had begun to conceive it. Zbigniew Preisner wrote the actual music for the film.

6. Diva (1981)   Country: France   Director: Jean-Jacques Beineix   Featured Composers: Catalani and Gounod    Rating: * * * * *
This film's protagonist, Jules, is an adoring fan of a talented black American opera star, but she has never permitted a recording to be made of her voice – either live or in the studio. Jules surreptitiously makes a high quality tape during one of the diva's performances in Paris, for his personal enjoyment, but must keep it out of the hands of two thugs from an Asian recording company who hope to blackmail the diva into an exclusive recording contract. The music performed includes Gounod's Ave Maria, the Overture from Gounod's Faust, and an aria from Catalani’s La Wally. Wilhemenia Fernandez, who plays the diva, is a real life opera star and actually performed the arias for the film.

7. Farinelli: Il Castrato (1994)   Country: Belgium   Director: Gérard Corbiau   Featured Composers: Broschi, Hasse, Händel, Pergolesi, Porpora    Rating: * * * *
One of the principal thematic issues in this film is music as art versus music as showpieces for virtuosi. On the one side, we have the great Georg Friedrich Händel, composing music of elevated artistic sensitivity, and, on the other side, Riccardo Broschi, writing artistically pedestrian music designed to showcase the magnificent voice of his castrato brother, Farinelli. The film features music by five contemporary Baroque composers. The Händel excerpts are taken from Rinaldo. The castrato voice, which doesn't exist today, was synthesized electronically.

8. A Sunday in the Country (1984)   Country: France   Director: Bertrand Tavernier   Featured Composer: Fauré    Rating: * * * * *
This film is about an aging artist who regrets not having explored impressionism as he developed his style as a painter. As complement to his theme, Tavernier has shot his film as though it were itself an impressionist painting. The soundtrack, featuring chamber works by the French impressionist composer Gabriel Fauré, beautifully matches the lyrical quality of the images. The works heard in the soundtrack include portions of the Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 115, the Quartet for Piano and Strings, Op. 121, and the Trio for Piano and Strings, Op. 126.

9. The Spider's Stratagem (1970)   Country: Italy   Director: Bernardo Bertolucci   Featured Composer: Verdi    Rating: * * * * *
This mystery film relates to a murder that occurred decades earlier during the rise of the Fascists in Italy, when the village's foremost anti-Fascist was shot down during a performance of Verdi's Rigoletto. Bertolucci deftly uses that reference to deepen the intellectual puzzle that his film presents. When an Italian director includes a scene from an opera in his film, you can rest assured that the plot of that opera bears some parallels to the plot of the film.

10. Senso (1954)   Country: Italy   Director: Luchino Visconti   Featured Composers: Bruckner and Verdi    Rating: * * *
The story of this film takes place during the Austrian occupation of northern Italy in the 1860's, in and around Venice. The music couldn't be any more appropriate, using Il Trovatore as a stand-in for the Italians and Anton Bruckner's Seventh Symphony as emblematic of the Austrians. It's a nice bit of musical allusion.

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Some Other Worthy Non-English Language Films with Classical Music in their Scores: (Alphabetically):

L’Age D’Or (1930)   Country: Spain   Director: Luis Buñuel   Featured Composers: Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner    Rating: * * * * *

Ariel (1988)   Country: Finland   Director: Aki Kaurismäki   Featured Composers: Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky    Rating: * * * * *

Au Revoir les Enfants (1987)   Country: France   Director: Louis Malle   Featured Composers: Saint-Saëns and Schubert    Rating: * * * *

Babette's Feast (1987)   Country: Denmark   Director: Gabriel Axel   Featured Composers: Brahms and Mozart    Rating: * * * * *

La Belle et la Bête (1946)   Country: France   Director: Jean Cocteau   Featured Composer: Auric    Rating: * * * * *

La Belle Noiseuse (1991)   Country: France   Director: Jacques Rivette   Featured Composer: Stravinsky    Rating: * * *

A Bout de Souffle (1960)   Country: France   Director: Jean-Luc Godard   Featured Composer: Mozart    Rating: * * * *

La Cérémonie (1995)   Country: France   Director: Claude Chabrol   Featured Composer: Mozart    Rating: * * * * *

Les Cousins (1959)   Country: France   Director: Claude Chabrol   Featured Composers: Mozart and Wagner    Rating: * * * *

La Dolce Vita (1960)   Country: Italy   Director: Federico Fellini    Featured Composer: J.S. Bach    Rating: * * *

8 ½ (1963)   Country: Italy   Director: Federico Fellini   Featured Composers: Tchaikovsky and Wagner    Rating: * * * * *

Fanny and Alexander (1982)   Country: Sweden   Director: Ingmar Bergman   Featured Composers: Britten, Chopin and Schumann    Rating: * * * *

Gervaise (1956)   Country: France   Director: René Clément   Featured Composer: Auric    Rating: * * * *

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978)   Country: France   Director: Bertrand Blier   Featured Composers: Mozart and Schubert    Rating: * * *

Harvest (1937)   Country: France   Director: Marcel Pagnol   Featured Composer: Honegger    Rating: * * * * *

Jean de Florette/Manon (1986)   Country: France   Director: Claude Berri   Featured Composer: Verdi    Rating: * * * * *

Lieutenant Kije (1934)   Country: U.S.S.R.   Director: Aleksandr Fajintsimmer   Featured Composer: Prokofiev    Rating: * * *

Lola Montès (1955)   Country: France   Director: Max Ophüls   Featured Composer: Auric    Rating: * * * *

Masculine-Feminine (1966)   Country: France   Director: Jean-Luc Godard   Featured Composer: Mozart    Rating: * * *

Mayerling (1936)   Country: France   Director: Anatole Litvak   Featured Composer: Honegger    Rating: * * * *

Nights of Cabiria (1957)   Country: Italy   Director: Federico Fellini   Featured Composer: Beethoven    Rating: * * * *

1900 (1976)   Country: France   Director: Bernardo Bertolucci   Featured Composer: Verdi    Rating: * * *

Nostalghia (1983)   Country: Russia   Director: Andrei Tarkovsky   Featured Composers: Beethoven and Verdi    Rating: * * * * *

Ossessione (1943)   Country: Italy   Director: Luchino Visconti   Featured Composers: Bizet and Verdi    Rating: * * * *

Les Parents Terribles (1949)   Country: France   Director: Jean Cocteau   Featured Composer: Auric    Rating: * * * *

Pierrot le Fou (1965)   Country: France   Director: Jean-Luc Godard    Featured Composers: Beethoven, Lully and Vivaldi    Rating: * * * *

The Rules of the Game (1939)   Country: France   Director: Jean Renoir    Featured Composers: Chopin, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, and Johan Strauß    Rating: * * * * *

Symphonie Pastorale (1946)   Country: France   Director: Jean Delannoy   Featured Composer: Auric    Rating: * * * *

Teorema (1968)   Country: Italy   Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini   Featured Composer: Mozart    Rating: * * * * *

Testament of Orpheus (1960)   Country: France   Director: Jean Cocteau   Featured Composers: J.S. Bach, Gluck, Händel and Wagner    Rating: * * * *

Viridiana (1961)   Country: Spain   Director: Luis Buñuel   Featured Composers: Beethoven, Händel and Mozart    Rating: * * * * *

Weekend (1967)   Country: France   Director: Jean-Luc Godard   Featured Composer: Mozart    Rating: * *

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You might enjoy my other genre lists of non-English language films as well.

Top-Twelve Film Versions of Operas
Ten Excellent Spanish-Language Films
Ten More Excellent Spanish-Language Films
Coming-of-age – Outside the USA!
Top Ten Foreign Language Psychodramas
Top Ten Non-English Language Political Movies
My Top Ten Non-English Language Tragedies
Top Non-English Language Comedies
Top-Ten Non-English Language Film Biographies
Top-Ten Non-English Language Action/Adventure Films
Ten Best Non-English Language War Movies!!
Top-Ten Non-English Language Mystery Films
Top-Ten Non-English Language ~Horror~ Films
Top-Ten English-Language ~Horror~ Films from Outside the USA
Ten Excellent Films Featuring Royalty
Ten Excellent Non-English Language Thrillers
Ten Non-English Language High-Yield Tearjerkers
Ten Excellent Non-English Language Senior Films
The Top Non-English Language Epics
The 10 Best Foreign Language Romance Movies!!
The Ten Best Non-English Language Love Story Movies!!


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