Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Moving pictures


CIOL volunteers review the films that have inspired and touched them along their journey with languages and crosscultural expression.

Central do Brasil

Keith Moffitt, ED&I Committee

The central character of Walter Salles’s Bafta-winning Central do Brasil (Central Station; 1998) is brilliantly played by Fernanda Montenegro, who is something of a national institution in Brazil. Dora writes letters for illiterate customers from a stand in the eponymous train station. She is befriended by a boy (Vincius de Oliveira) whose mother had used Dora to write to her missing husband before dying in an accident.

This is by no means a heartwarming tale of a woman trying to help a sad orphan find his missing father. Dora is initially hard-edged and cynical, often destroying letters dictated to her, but Montenegro portrays the character’s subtle, almost imperceptible, transition to a kinder person.

I particularly enjoyed this film for its depiction of many aspects of modern Brazil, which is very different from the country’s tourist image, and its warts-and-all portrayal of the harshness of life in the interior of the north of this sprawling country.

Todo Sobre Mi Madre

Jennifer Radford, Translating Division

I love this film (1999) for its comedy, language and underlying theme of female empowerment. Culture, humour and emotion are central to the plot, which deals with director Pedro Almodóvar‘s recurring themes of sexuality, womanhood, companionship, and life’s joys and misfortunes.

Manuela’s son Esteban is knocked down and killed on his 17th birthday as he attempts to get the autograph of actor Huma Rojo. In her grief, she travels to Barcelona to tell Esteban’s father – now a transgender woman called Lola – about the son she never knew she had. Along the way, Manuela meets various women, each with their own story that is connected to her own in some way, who accompany her in her grief.

Known in English as All About My Mother, the film is full of Spanish cultural references. Almodóvar uses wordplay, humour, and the juxtaposition of suffering and sadness alongside the ridiculous, to create a funny and moving reflection on love, life and tragedy.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Reza Navaei, Membership Committee

Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay for this 1990 movie based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name. It follows Offred (Natasha Richardson), the ‘handmaid’ assigned to produce a baby for a commander and his wife in the Christian extremist state of Gilead. What strikes me most about the film, beyond the overtones of suppression and subjugation of women, is its vivid portrayal of the aftermath of “purification in the name of God” designed to restore “respect, reverence and values” (as the commander puts it), thereby normalising the dehumanisation of others in society. This struck a chord with me, growing up in the Middle East, where the repetition of meaningless mantras, gender segregation, and use of force and surveillance were played out in the name of the nation’s salvation.

The feeling of walking in a place that you used to know but don’t know anymore was familiar. Capturing a sense of change ‘for the better’ that leads to despair, the film feels as relevant today as it did when it first came out.

The King's Speech

Judith Gabler, Chair of Council

The King’s Speech (2010) opens with the Duke of York (Colin Firth) climbing an endless flight of steps into Wembley Stadium. The crushing weight of addressing the crowd is captured by a heavy silence of expectation. As he stutters his opening words, the viewer is drawn into a suffocating world dominated by fear of failure and the burden of a king who doesn’t want to be a king.

The imperatives of clear and persuasive communication prevail. The interplay of the duke’s wife (Helena Bonham Carter) and unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) reveals how class distinction is reflected in language and expression. Logue’s technique, interspersed with disarming and brilliant colloquialisms, leads to a shift of dependency between king and subject, culminating in a riveting climax with the live broadcast of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. This film exemplifies courage, persistence and the triumph of language and communication. A must-view!


Jane Martin, Midlands Network

There are not many films that put language and translators at centre stage, but Arrival (2016) does just that. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics expert, is called in to try to communicate with aliens who have arrived on Earth. Their language is unlike any known before and she succeeds in gaining a basic understanding of the complicated circular symbols that form the written language.

The world is teetering on the edge of global war as Louise and her team race to find a way of speaking with the aliens and discovering why they are here. As she starts to think in a language that has no beginning or end, her perception of time shifts from linear to circular.

I love this film because, as well as being a gripping, edge-of-your-seat story, it is also philosophical and thought-provoking. It tackles big questions, such as how linguistics shapes our perception, the power of communication and the dangers of misunderstanding. I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the role language plays in our lives.

The Farewell

Saihong Li, Council

The Farewell (2019) is a tragi-comedy “based on an actual lie” from the life of its American-Chinese writer and director, Lulu Wang. Switching between Chinese and English, the story aligns viewers closely with an American-Chinese girl, Billi, living in the US. The plot centres around a family decision not to tell Billi’s grandma that she is dying of cancer. Instead, they plan a hasty wedding to give her one last enjoyable event. They see this act as a kindness, and a cultural norm, but it is hard for Billi to imagine concealing the painful truth.

The film explores the emotional conflict of second-generation migrants when their limited language skills prevent them from fully engaging with their family culture. Wang shows how different cultures deal with responsibility, happiness and grief. For most Americans, their life is their own; for most Chinese, their life is part of a whole which belongs to their family and to society. The Farewell is a timely meditation on individuals whose successful assimilation into new countries is vitiated by hidden sadness and a disconnection with their cultural origins.