Palm Springs Film Fest: The Best Of The Rest Of The World
The Palm Springs International Film Festival, recently concluded, presented 212 films from 66 countries, and as is its strength, there were screenings of 55 of the 63 entries for the Academy Award for Foreign Films.
The 19th incarnation of this top tier film festival ran January 3-14 and either this was a particularly strong past year for world cinema or this writer simply picked better during the four or five movies seen each day.
The Counterfeiters (Austria/Germany, dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky)
Based on the book by Slovakian Holocaust survivor Adolf Burger, The Devil’s Workshop, writer-director Ruzowitzky has made what has to be one of the most powerful feature films on the topic, ranking with Europa, Europa and Schindler’s List for its effectiveness. At Germany’s Sachsenhausen camp, Operation Bernhard was implemented, using Jewish internees to create the largest counterfeiting operation in history. In exchange for more food and better living conditions, they are obliged to create phony English pounds and then, with their lives still hanging in the balance, a replica of the American dollar that may change the direction of World War II.
Pistoleros (Denmark, dir. Shaky Gonzalez)
The laugh-out-loud funniest film at the Fest is an utterly loopy Danish version of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, but multicultural and set in modern day Denmark. A documentary director and producer interview a man about the infamous Frank Lowies (Erik Holmey, looking like a stockier version of Clint Eastwood by way of Arnold Schwarzenegger). The debate about hidden loot from a train robbery—whether it exists, where it is and how much is hidden—gets more complicated as other members of the underworld enter the bar and give their versions of the story. The gunplay is wild and cartoonish, and the bad guys are all sweaty, psycho, unkempt and have bad teeth. An unceasingly delightful sendup from the steady hand of director-writer Shaky Gonzalez.
Red Like the Sky (Italy. Dir. Cristiano Bortone)
Mirco Mencacci is one of Italy’s top sound editors in film and this feature captures his childhood in a beautifully wrought and moving way. Mirco (the talented, young Luca Capriotti) loses his eyesight in an accident and his parents must send him to a school for blind boys in Genoa. There, he becomes fascinated with sound and with the help of a sighted girl, he secretly records an audio fable, utilizing other boys as characters and sound effects technicians. A sympathetic priest-instructor helps him battle entrenched teaching methods and a final, triumphant live performance of Marco’s play will move many to tears.
Conversations with My Gardener (France, dir. Jean Becker)
The redoubtable Daniel Auteuil plays a supportive lead to Jean-Pierre Darroussin in this character study of a successful painter who grows close to his gardener, who is dying. Their onscreen chemistry works miracles and Darroussin’s astounding performance as the titular gardener, with a glowing humanity, reminds one of Massimo Troisi, who died after making the lush and lovely Il Postino. With gorgeous French countryside as a backdrop, these two actors steal our hearts with their nuanced and deeply affecting work.
Mister Foe (United Kingdom, dir. David Mackenzie)
Also known as Hallam Foe, played by Jamie Bell, a 17-year-old who suspects his father of killing his mother, sleeps with his stepmother, runs off to Edinburgh and lives on the street and rooftops, until he spots a woman who is the spitting image of his mother in her late 20s. Kate (Sophia Myles) hires him at the hotel where she is in charge of human resources and finds herself drawn to him, even as she is involved with a married man. Mackenzie’s script captures a young man’s obsession, charm and, inevitably, a surprising twist on his sexuality to boot. Add a terrific indie soundtrack that shifts perfectly with the moods of the film—and won an award at Berlin—and you have a coming-of-age story that breaks new ground…and one’s heart.
Jellyfish (Israel/France, dir. Etgar Kerret, Shira Geffen)
Winner of the Camera d’Or for Best First Feature at Cannes, Jellyfish can be described as Jewish magical realism. A young waitress who lives in a leaky, substandard Tel Aviv building is haunted by an adorable, red-haired little girl who she saw at the beach. Whether in fact the child really exists, even after she is found again, is part of symbolic power of the work, as the lead character struggles with a romantic breakup, a distant, self-empowerment guru mother and chance encounters with a female photographer who gives her strength. Alienation and spiritual generosity co-exist side by side in this marvelous work.
The Rebel (Vietnam, dir. Charlie Nguyen)
An epic, martial arts period piece, The Rebel has broken all box office records in Vietnam. It is set in 1922, when Cuong (co-writer Johnny Tri Nguyen), a French-educated Vietnamese secret agent, falls in love with the beautiful daughter (Ngo Thanh Van) of a rebel leader fighting the French occupation. The dialogue is surprisingly effective, and the flying scissor kicks and action sequences, including a terrific final battle on a train, are nicely interspersed with the political background.
A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman (Canada, dir. Peter Raymont)
Chilean playwright and author Ariel Dorfman (Death and the Maiden) was a cultural advisor to Salvador Allende. He fled the country during the US-assisted coup that destroyed so many lives and ruined Chile’s chances for a socialist democracy in the 70s. Dorfman returns to exorcise demons, to revisit friends and locations, some that emotionally recall the death and torture that followed during the regime of Pinochet. Dorfman’s brilliance and poetic language make him an ideal narrator for this elegiac documentary feature.
Gone with the Woman (Norway, dir. Petter Naess)
A wonderfully unpredictable and offbeat romantic comedy from the director of the 2002 Festival favorite Elling. Here, a sweet but wimpy man (Trond Fausa Aurvag) is swept off his feet by a bubbly, aggressive but controlling young woman, who drives him to the brink of mental collapse, especially after a Paris trip that tests their fidelity. Marvelous cinematography by Marius Johansen-Hansen and an occasionally outrageous visual sense on the part of director Naess make this much more than a rom-com.
Heartbeat Detector (France, dir. Nicolas Klotz)
One of the most challenging films of this or any previous festival, Heartbeat Detector is almost beyond description, as a hallucinogenic, psychologically existential corporate thriller. No, really. Mathieu Amalric, impressive in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is simply tremendous as Simon, a corporate psychologist in a German petrochemical firm in Paris. He is asked to secretly study the CEO, who is suspected of undergoing a gradual mental collapse, but Simon suspects he himself is being used by another employee for his own reasons. Simon’s simultaneous affair with two women simultaneously, his use of drugs and a disturbing clue that suggests employees have connections to Nazis in their past increase the tension, and if one can get through the first hour of laconic pacing, the film becomes hypnotic. Elisabeth Percival has adapted Francois Emmanuel’s book La Question Humaine, creating with Klotz a film that is the reason to the go a film festival: to see work that tests not only one’s attention but one’s pre-conceived notions of what film is.
Palm Springs International Film Festival: www.psfilmfest.org