Beware The Perils Of Seeing Films Abroad

After a long day in Paris last year, I rewarded myself with a screening of the Woody Allen movie "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," because when you want to get off your feet, there is no finer way to do it than watching a movie.

All was well until the dialogue, in splendid English with French subtitles, diverged into Spanish with French subtitles. My Spanish is fair at best, and my French nonexistent. The scenes in Spanish flew past me. With no dialogue to busy my brain with, I sat in the dark castigating myself for being an idiot. Of course there were scenes in Spanish! The movie takes place in Spain and stars two native Spanish speakers. I vowed never to make such a mistake again.

Fast forward to a rainy Monday afternoon recently in Gothenburg, Sweden. Weary from 10 days of traversing Scandinavia, my traveling partner and I happened by a theater, perused our options and agreed that "District 9," the well-reviewed tale of an alien spaceship stranded above Johannesburg, would make for fine relief.

Before we bought tickets, we asked whether the movie was, by chance, dubbed from English to Swedish. Reassured that the movie was in English, with Swedish subtitles, we plunked down our 90 Swedish kronor each (about $13 U.S.), bought a Plopp candy bar and settled into an outstandingly clean theater (with assigned seating—those Scandinavians are so organized).

The movie was promising for a bit: intriguing premise, taut and well-enough acted. Best of all, the dialogue was in English. But then the aliens began conversing in a language of their own, some gobbledygook that sounds like the slow gooey rumble you might hear in your stomach with a stethoscope after eating. Whatever it was, I didn't speak it, and the Swedish subtitles didn't help. They just mocked me.

For a second time, there wasn't much to do but listen to the inflections, watch the hand gestures and assume something funny was said when the locals laughed. This time I also made a new and improved vow: only see the most wholly American movies while abroad. Like "Footloose." Or "Field of Dreams." Or some Miley Cyrus thing.

They don't have to be good. They just need to be in English.