FESTIVALS: Park City Alternative; Palm Springs Spotlights Foreign Nominees
by Peter Brunette
(indieWIRE/ 01.24.02) -- You know that the Palm Springs International Film Festival is the UnSundance the moment you arrive at the airport, which sports a putting green and is partly exposed to the elements. This year's festival exactly (and uncharacteristically) overlapped its more famous and more frigid rival in Utah, and was graced with sunny skies and highs in the 60s and 70s. It also hosted some 160 films -- many of them superb -- from more than 50 countries.
After a number of rudderless years, Palm Springs has, in its 13th edition, happily settled into its true vocation, that of a sorely needed venue for the exaltation of foreign films. Toward that end, the festival focuses specifically on obtaining as many of the titles nominated for the foreign-language Oscar as possible, and, amazingly, some 44 out of 51 nominees made an appearance this year. This is mostly a good idea, allowing deprived locals to see such worthy, recently-released contenders as "Amélie," "Kandahar," "No Man's Land" and some soon-to-open goodies like "Baran," "Monsoon Wedding," "The Piano Teacher" and "The Son's Room." (The downside, of course, is that just because a film is the official nominee from Latvia, or even Australia or France, doesn't mean it's any good.) For a festival-hound like myself, Palm Springs is a great place to catch up on some smaller films missed at earlier, bigger fests like Berlin, Cannes and Toronto.
In terms of star power, Palm Springs seems curiously bipolar. On the one hand, given its close proximity to Hollywood, the fest is studded with award ceremonies for the likes of Andy Garcia, Irwin Winkler, Arthur Hiller, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Hans Zimmer -- all of whom receive their prizes from other celebrities. But these figures seem destined to be admired from afar by the all-important festival patrons, and they rarely take part in the festival per se. But there are plenty people who do, like the ebullient Mira Nair (on hand to discuss "Monsoon Wedding," which opened the fest), a surprisingly accessible Alan Bates (honored with a retrospective), Baz Luhrmann, who discussed "Moulin Rouge" with an enthusiastic audience.
The social high-point was a classic starry-night Southern California pool party hosted by Dr. David Kaminsky, the festival's benefactor/programmer. It was attended by such notables as the painter David Hockney (fresh from a stimulating discussion about a BBC documentary featuring his unconventional views on technology's role in the history of art), Nanni Moretti (at the fest with his Cannes winner "The Son's Room," along with his gorgeous co-star Laura Morante) and Italian veteran actor Giancarlo Giannini, still blindingly handsome after all these years. Amazingly, the party was small and relaxed enough to actually chat with these talented folks.
And yes, I did see some films as well. One group of selections revolved, more or less accidentally, around a bevy of strong girl figures. Robert Glinksi's "Hi, Tereska," the film nominated by Poland, had been touted to me by NPR's David D'Arcy at Toronto, and I was finally able to catch up with it five months later. It's a powerful film shot in black-and-white, strongly reminiscent of the Belgian film "Rosetta," that could have been shot in the fifties or sixties (that's a compliment). As it follows the innocent sexual explorations and downward spiral of a working-class girl from the projects named Tereska (played by the riveting newcomer Aleksandra Gietner, who was found in a facility for delinquent girls), the film never forgets the miserable social context of its characters. More strong girls show up in "Sisters," Sergei Bodrov Jr.'s first feature about two teenage half-sisters on the run from some gangsters. Bodrov shows an incredible ease and mastery in this excellent film that is in equal measures thriller, art film and social critique. Yet one more tough adolescent shows up in Magdy Ahmed Ali's intense if uneven Egyptian film, "A Girl's Secret," which sympathetically takes up the taboo subjects of teen pregnancy and female genital mutilation. Given the current climate of fundamentalism that reigns over much of the Muslim world, the courage demonstrated by this film more than makes up for its faults (a terrible music track and inconsistent plotting).
Some older female characters were featured in a couple of other films I saw, which otherwise couldn't have been more different. "Cet Amour-la" is an intense study of the May-December love affair between the brilliant French novelist and filmmaker Marguérite Duras and the twentysomething Yann Andrea, her lover and companion of 16 years, through Duras' alcoholism and abuse, until her death at age 81. The film is a tour-de-force for Jeanne Moreau, who in her portrayal of Duras thrillingly hogs the camera, uttering poetic bons mots that provide a steady stream of frissons to those, like me, who are susceptible to them. Yet the claustrophobic interiors that focus solely on the lovers eventually tire the viewer, and director Josée Dayan's lazy collapsing of 16 years into what seems more like two weeks makes all the histrionics ultimately less than convincing.
At the other end of the spectrum was "Faat-Kiné," a penetrating social comedy from the dean of African cinema, Senegal's Ousmane Sembene. The title refers to a spirited, independent-minded middle-aged woman with two illegitimate kids who is in no rush to find a husband, despite the pressure everyone puts on her to do so. Those viewers not accustomed to the purposely stilted acting and intentionally rhetorical nature of African cinema will think the movie completely amateurish, but it's a long way from that. By the end of this hilarious and often raunchy story, Sembene has fashioned Kiné's story into a symbolic portrait of Senegalese society, successfully puncturing the illusions of its patriarchal figures who claim sole responsibility for Senegal's independence from colonialist oppression.
Denis Chouinard "Tar Angel" (L'Ange de Goudron) is a Canadian film and proof that having one's heart in the right place is not always enough. Set in Montreal, the film focuses on an immigrant Algerian family desperate to be accepted as Canadian citizens. When the son becomes involved in a radical eco-terrorist group, the hard-working, servile father must decide whether to continue to bow and scrape or to fight back. The film's weak script, unclear character motivations, and TV-style dilemmas do serious damage to a film that was obviously made with conviction. I had heard a lot about the 225 minute "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India" (mostly from the hard-charging director, Ashutosh Gowariker, who had accosted me and some other critics at Toronto), but this period piece about a high stakes game of cricket is a handsomely-mounted extravaganza. But it remains, despite cross-over aspirations, hard-core Bollywood. My impression is that the filmmakers are hoping for another "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" here, but the broadly stereotyped characters and the song-and-dance routines endemic to commercial Indian films will keep most Westerners away.
I was intrigued and impressed by Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Das Experiment," an extremely intense German thriller made in the now de rigueur headlong manner of "Run, Lola, Run." The film is based on a study undertaken some years ago at Stanford University, in which a group of volunteers were divided into prison guards and prison inmates to see how they would interact. That experiment was stopped before anyone got hurt, but in "Das Experiment," the filmmakers let things develop toward their logical, horrifying conclusion.
Speaking of Germans, I also finally got to see Istvan Szabo's "Taking Sides." The film is based on a play about the encounter between Hitler's favorite conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellen Skarsgard) and Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel), the man responsible for the conductor's de-Nazification hearing. The confrontation is often riveting, but there's little arc to the narrative, which, after raising many fascinating questions about the relation between politics and art, ends abruptly.
Let me end my survey on the one true surprise of the festival, a delightful Italian film from Maurizio Sciarra called "Off to the Revolution by 2 CV" (Alla Rivoluzione Sulla Due Cavalli). Set in 1974 during the collapse of the fascist dictatorship in Portugal, it's a road movie about a young Portuguese exile and his Italian roommate, both students in Paris, who take off for Lisbon with a French woman friend in tow. While much of the film's charm depends upon the audience's understanding of the cultural and political meanings of the Citroen Deux Chevaux (the equivalent of a 60s Volkswagen Beetle), the film is quite good and deserves American distribution. Alas, as for so many of the good foreign films at a festival like this, that