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One of the most fascinating things about foreign films is how they quickly can spirit the audience into a culture, place or time that is so . . . well . . . foreign.

I suppose the reason I enjoy Japanese and European films so much is that I know something about the history and culture of those countries. But whenever films come to town from places less familiar, I feel a bit daunted.This, despite my frequent lectures to others that subtitles should not make audience-members hesitate about going to foreign-language movies. Invariably these films - and especially the best of them - relate universal experiences the audience can identify with. And they do so in a way that is unique among mainstream moviegoing, simply by virtue of the foreign culture they represent.

So it is with "Journey of Hope," which won the Oscar last year as best foreign-language film.

Despite the urgency of the film's themes, and their reflection of current news headlines, I don't really know a lot about Turkey and its culture. So, I approached this film with a slight amount of trepidation.

And yet, this story of family love and devotion, and the urgency with which the father yearns to make a better life for himself and his family, could not be more universal.

The film's early moments set the stage for what is to come as we meet this poor Turkish farming family - Haydar, the father; his wife Meryem; their seven children and Haydar's aging parents - living in poverty, but not unhappily. Except for Haydar, that is.

Having been influenced by the experiences of friends, neighbors and cousins, Haydar dreams of selling all his possessions to buy illegal passports, stealing into Europe, sneaking across the borders and making a new, rich life in Switzerland - "the land of chocolate."

Meryem doesn't want to leave, however, recognizing that they cannot possibly raise enough money to take the children - and she won't leave them. Haydar convinces her they will send for them later, but she is still reluctant.

Ultimately, when Haydar sells everything they own and agrees to let their youngest son tag along, Meryem agrees. But not happily.

This is really just the beginning. The journey itself and what they encounter along he way - from those who exploit them for money to harsh physical trials and, ultimately, to tragedy, will change their lives forever.

There is an obvious sentimental route that could be taken here, but director Xavier Koller steers clear of it, telling his story in a tough, matter-of-fact manner, filled with little day-to-day details, which results in the film being more realistic, harrowing and heartfelt than it might otherwise be.

Some critics have carped that "Journey of Hope" didn't deserve the Oscar it received, considering that its competition included the inventive, darkly comic "The Nasty Girl," the stunning, rich "Ju Dou" and the wonderfully epic "Cyrano de Bergerac." That criticism is understandable - those films are high, artistic achievements.

But they are no more emotionally affecting than "Journey of Hope," a deeply moving, occasionally shattering moviegoing experience. And certainly a film that deserves to be seen by a wide audience.

It is rated PG for some violence and a few profanities.