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16 Jan 2019

PSIFF: Palm Springs' Film Fest Is Especially Good at Spotlighting Foreign Films on the Oscars Short List

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Jakob Cedergren in The Guilty. Jakob Cedergren in The Guilty.

As more and more countries submit official selections to the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category, the showcase for those submissions at the Palm Springs International Film Festival has taken on greater prominence within the festival.

This year’s recently concluded event featured 43 of the 87 submissions, including all nine movies that have progressed to the shortlist for nominations. (Five films will be ultimately be nominated; nominations will be revealed Tuesday, Jan. 22.)

Some of those shortlisted movies have enjoyed relatively widespread release in advance of their potential nominations, including Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (the submission from Mexico), which is available to anyone with a Netflix subscription and has played in theaters across the country. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War (from Poland), Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (from Japan) and Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning (from South Korea) have also been making their way to audiences, at least in art-house movie theaters, over the last few months.

Eight of the nine filmmakers (all but Pawlikowksi) appeared at the PSIFF: Cuaron and Kore-eda were both on-hand for in-depth discussions of their films, and Kore-eda joined the other six filmmakers for the panel “Eyes on the Prize: Foreign Language Oscar Directors in Discussion.” Audiences probably didn’t need to be prodded to see Roma, but the festival still performed an important service by playing Cuaron’s expansive family drama on the big screen, where its lovely black-and-white cinematography, meticulous shot composition and immersive sound design can be most effectively appreciated.

Cold War also features lovely black-and-white cinematography and meticulous shot composition, but its constrained, boxy Academy ratio provides a contrast to Roma’s enveloping wide-screen images. Both movies tell deeply personal stories inspired by their directors’ family backgrounds, and both are clearly delivered with passion and care.

Veteran directors Kore-eda and Lee returned to familiar themes with their latest films, with Kore-eda once again tenderly exploring the idea of makeshift families in his affecting drama Shoplifters, and Lee delving into the darkness of human relationships in his Haruki Murakami adaptation Burning. Shoplifters follows an extended family of grifters who turn out to have dark secrets in their past, but it’s mostly about how people neglected by the system can come together to support each other. Burning is a bit more inscrutable, with its ominous love triangle among young people in Seoul, but it also highlights the way that lonely people latch onto each other for support (in this case, with disastrous results).

The other five movies on the Oscar shortlist have yet to reach American audiences as extensively, but some of them will be worth seeking out when they do. The Danish selection The Guilty and the Colombian selection Birds of Passage, both unconventional crime dramas, are the best of the lower-profile movies on the shortlist, with fresh approaches to familiar genre material.

Made on a shoestring budget, Gustav Möller’s The Guilty is set entirely in a small office and focuses almost exclusively on star Jakob Cedergren, who plays a police officer recently demoted to working as an emergency-services operator. When he gets a call from a woman who says she’s been kidnapped, he takes increasingly dangerous risks to do what he believes is necessary to help her. What at first seems like the story of a man determined to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences, eventually reveals itself as a character study of someone who is so desperate to prove himself that he’s willing to put other people in danger. Möller manages to build consistent tension via nothing more than a series of phone calls, and Cedergren, who’s onscreen for nearly every second of the movie, is captivating as the morally compromised cop.

Birds of Passage, co-directed by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, also offers a fresh perspective on a familiar crime narrative, with its real-life-inspired story of indigenous Wayuu families who get involved in Colombia’s drug trade in the 1960s and ’70s. Structurally, the movie hits nearly every beat of the well-worn rise-and-fall crime-lord story, as the ambitious Rapayet (José Acosta) builds an empire selling marijuana, first to Colombians and later to Americans. There are the clothes and houses and cars that get fancier and fancier; there’s the long-suffering wife whose function is mainly to bear children and worry; there’s the escalating bloodshed leading to inevitable tragedy; there’s even the screw-up brother-in-law whose idiotic actions get people killed. What makes Birds of Passage stand out is the way it combines a naturalistic study of indigenous culture with the grittiness of something like Goodfellas, highlighting universal human tendencies toward greed and pride, as well as the unique qualities of Wayuu life that influence their building of a criminal enterprise.

Both Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Ayka (from Kazakhstan) and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (from Lebanon) are less successful at portraying marginalized people in a way that draws in the audience. Instead, both movies are essentially unrelenting parades of misery, putting their destitute main characters through an endless string of misfortune.

In Ayka, the title character (Samal Yeslyamova) is an immigrant from Kyrgyzstan living illegally in Moscow, and the movie opens with her abandoning her newborn baby at the hospital. Things only get bleaker from there, as Ayka attempts to secure meager employment, runs from a loan shark’s enforcers, suffers the health consequences of leaving the hospital too early, and tries to stay one step ahead of immigration authorities. Shot in a series of often nauseating hand-held close-ups, Ayka is thoroughly unpleasant without being illuminating or transcendent, and its treatment of its lead character feels more sadistic than sympathetic.

Capernaum has more visual beauty, and even moments of levity, but it too spends most of its running time torturing an innocent protagonist. In this case, that’s 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), who runs away from his abusive home only to end up facing more poverty, starvation and mistreatment. In an absurd framing device, Zain is in court suing his parents for giving birth to him, with an argument that comes dangerously close to advocating for sterilizing the poor. Labaki relies on the cuteness of her lead actor (as well as an even cuter baby that Zain sort of adopts in the movie’s second half) to elicit cheap sympathy, and throws in a stream of plot developments that get more melodramatic as the movie lurches forward to its overwrought present-day courtroom showdown.

The final movie on the shortlist is the most old-fashioned, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s three-hour-plus German historical epic Never Look Away, loosely inspired by the life of renowned artist Gerhard Richter. The film fictionalizes Richter as Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), and he’s a bit of a cipher as his life and career parallel the development of Germany from just before World War II through the erection of the Berlin Wall. Von Donnersmarck, who also directed the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, seems more interested in the evolution of German politics than he is in art, using Kurt as a point-of-view character to explore Nazi atrocities, Communist repression and capitalist decadence, as the character moves from one regime to another. The filmmaker also invents a rather cartoonish villain, a Nazi-affiliated doctor played by The Lives of Others’ Sebastian Koch, who torments Kurt in every phase of his life, as a sort of avatar for the darkness of the German character. The stately, slow-moving film is the opposite of the daring art produced by its main character.

It’s also unlikely to take home an Oscar, as one of the higher-profile movies on the shortlist is all but guaranteed to be the winner. (Really, Roma is pretty much impossible to beat.) But there’s more to foreign cinema than lavish productions from major directors financed by huge corporations—and the PSIFF does a great job of letting audiences discover that.

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