One of the great debates for international film is why movies so rarely trouble the box office beyond their national boundaries. For all the talk of cultural diversity, the blockage generally comes down to the simple fact of language. Dubbing and subtitles remain a big obstacle.

Finding ways to break through linguistic barriers is generally seen as an issue of marketing and distribution. Less attention is given to the cinematic elements that unite rather than divide. A good example is music.

While music cannot live up to the cliche of being a universal language, with big divides between East and West, there is no question that music is both a vital part of film and one that has no need for subtitles.

It is hard to think of The Third Man without the zither, 2001 without Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra or innumerable melodic strains that are inseparable from the images of Fellini, Leone, Lawrence Of Arabia and The Godfather. And we'll always have Paris and As Time Goes By.

Somehow all these pieces and 80 years of movies that sing seemed to coalesce at a recent screening of La Vie En Rose, (aka La Mome). The film biography of Edith Piaf has grossed close to $50m in a handful of European countries since its premiere last month at the Berlin Film Festival.

Hollywood template

In broad strokes, La Vie En Rose is not unlike dozens of Hollywood movies that have dug beneath the vinyl to reveal how the talent and perspicacity of an individual singer helped them to overcome personal challenges, foibles and adversity.

At the same time it does not feel like some hoary retread, eschewing a conventional linear narrative for an emotional through-line that ping pongs rhythmically across five decades.

In recent years, we have seen similar efforts on the lives of Johnny Cash and Ray Charles that travelled perhaps even better than the singer-songwriters' global tours. In those two instances as well as the Piaf film, the biggest asset is that the songs already form part of our musical vocabulary. Nonetheless, it is hardly a prerequisite.

Music itself does not carry a passport, nor does it suffer the impediment of an impenetrable accent. In the past decade, the Academy Award for best musical score has gone to an American only twice. The other winners were Argentinian, Chinese, British, Italian, Dutch and Canadian. This past year, the shortlist included an Argentinian, Spaniard and Frenchman.

The art and craftsmanship of La Vie En Rose are certainly worthy of recognition and success, but those attributes are not necessarily commercial guarantees. The film's success is in large part likely to be due to the way it exploits classic music that is known around the world, using today's musical talents.

Crowds and violence

In an interview many years ago, Harry Secombe was asked about the early days of The Goon Show with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. He talked about the hinterland tours, rowdy crowds and the threat of physical violence. Sometimes the provincials simply did not get their brand of humour.

There was, however, always one sure way to quell the most threatening situations: push Harry onto the stage and let him sing an old standard.

A little of that philosophy may now be impacting the world's box offices.

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