As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has kept tinkering with the way the nominees for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film (recently renamed from Best Foreign Language Film) are selected, the initial shortlist of selections has gotten longer.
That’s a good thing for the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which has become the destination where film-goers can see the largest number of submissions for the award. This year, the festival programmed 51 of the record 93 submissions, including all 10 movies that ended up on the shortlist. The final five nominees were announced Jan. 13, on the last day of the festival.
Several of the shortlisted films were among the festival’s hottest tickets—I got stuck sitting in the front row for two of them—and there’s a general sense of excitement among attendees about seeing these movies before their big awards spotlight. Two of the shortlisted movies, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (from South Korea) and Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (from Spain), already enjoyed pretty extensive theatrical releases before the festival, garnering plenty of attention and prior awards (and deservedly so; they each made the Oscar nominee cut, too). But the other eight were all genuine discoveries, even if they’ve been making the festival rounds for several months now.
The category is still dominated by World War II and WWII-adjacent narratives, and three of this year’s selections (Russia’s Beanpole, the Czech Republic’s The Painted Bird and Hungary’s Those Who Remained) take place in the immediate aftermath of the war. Beanpole and The Painted Bird are both bleak, often-punishing stories about despair and cruelty, while Those Who Remained is warmer and more optimistic, albeit still tinged with darkness.
Beanpole features a haunting lead performance from Viktoria Miroshnichenko as the title character, a tall, pale, soft-spoken young woman working as a nurse in Leningrad after fighting in the war. Miroshnichenko’s Iya is so traumatized by the war that she suffers paralyzing seizures, one of which leads to a horrible tragedy as she cares for the 3-year-old son of her friend and wartime companion Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina). The dire future prospects of the two women are balanced a bit by their strong emotional connection, and Beanpole embeds a tender, well-acted story of queer intimacy in its exploration of postwar misery (although the misery usually wins out).
There’s nothing but misery in Václav Marhoul’s deeply unpleasant adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel The Painted Bird, which follows a young Jewish boy’s odyssey across an unnamed Eastern European country in the final days of World War II. At nearly three hours long, the movie is an unrelenting parade of grim torture, as young Joska (Petr Kotlar) drifts from one horrific ordeal to another, taken in by a series of adults who beat, rape, abuse and enslave him, without even a sliver of kindness until the very end. Rather than illuminating the inherent cruelty of human nature, The Painted Bird just wallows in sadism, and its lurid acts of violence quickly become laughable. The black-and-white cinematography is sometimes gorgeously composed, but like the periodic appearances from famous faces (including Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel and Barry Pepper), it’s just superficial gloss on deep, abiding ugliness.
The gentle Those Who Remained is almost the exact flip side of The Painted Bird. It is a sweet story about two traumatized people forging a connection after losing nearly everything. Set in Budapest in 1948, Those Who Remained walks a fine line between heartwarming and uncomfortable in its story of a teenage girl and a middle-aged doctor, both of whom lost their entire immediate families in the Holocaust, connecting with each other in what could be a surrogate father-daughter relationship … or something more. Director Barnabas Toth pulls off a tough balancing act, keeping both main characters sympathetic while subtly questioning whether their relationship is appropriate. Those Who Remained is a quiet and contemplative movie, sometimes to its detriment, when characters’ motivations are unclear. But it points to the possibility of hope in the darkest times, without coming across as treacly or disingenuous.
Moving away from World War II, other shortlisted films grapple with equally serious issues, often in stark and harrowing ways. My favorite of the entire slate is the Polish religious drama Corpus Christi, which takes a seemingly contrived premise (an ex-con poses as a Catholic priest) and uses it as a meditation on the nature of faith and forgiveness. Bartosz Bielenia (who received the festival’s FIPRESCI Prize for Best Actor in a International Feature Film) gives a fantastic performance as a genuinely devout young man whose criminal record prevents him from attending seminary. When he’s mistaken for a priest in a remote small town, he embraces the chance at a new start both for himself and for the town’s residents, who are still healing from a devastating car accident that killed multiple local teens. What could be a story about a criminal taking advantage of trusting small-town residents is instead a celebration of compassion and forgiveness. It was deservedly one of the five Oscar nominees.
That’s more optimism than you’ll find in any of the other selections, although each has its positive moments. The French drama Les Miserables, also one of the five Oscar nominees, is not yet another adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, but it does feature many Hugo references in its story of tensions between police and residents of one of Paris’ poorest neighborhoods. A thriller with elements of Training Day, Do the Right Thing and landmark French film La Haine, Les Miserables finds room for sympathy on both sides, while still depicting police power as largely destructive. It’s tense and chaotic, although a little thin on characterization and narrative structure.
Class differences are also central to the Senegalese magical-realist fable Atlantics, which is already available to a wide audience on Netflix. Mati Diop’s debut feature pits poor workers against exploitative capitalists in the form of a supernatural romance of sorts. A group of construction workers who drown on a dangerous journey across the Atlantic to Spain looking for work return as spirits to torment the rich businessmen who denied them fair wages at home. The core of the story, though, is young Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), whose longing for her drowned boyfriend grounds the political story in identifiable emotions.
Estonian historical epic Truth and Justice is the stodgiest and most old-fashioned movie on the shortlist, and the one likely to generate the least amount of interest from critics and audiences. Based on the first volume of a five-novel series that is considered Estonia’s defining national work, it’s a slow-moving period drama about rival farmers, spanning nearly 25 years of bitterness between rural neighbors in 19th-century Estonia. It’s handsomely crafted (with some sweeping vistas) but mostly dramatically inert, and while it’s become the biggest box-office success in Estonia’s history (recently toppling James Cameron’s Avatar for that position), its appeal is unlikely to transcend borders.
The biggest outlier on the list is Honeyland, a documentary from North Macedonia that also made the shortlist for documentary feature (and was nominated in both categories). Documentaries aren’t usually submitted in the foreign language/international category, although Honeyland does offer a distinctive representation of rural Macedonia in its portrait of an aging beekeeper and her clashes with a neighboring family who disrupt her time-honored honey-gathering techniques. It’s the kind of perfectly encapsulated conflict between tradition and modernity that makes you question how the filmmakers simply stumbled onto it, and it unfolds with the deliberate (and sometimes tedious) pace of a naturalistic drama, leading to an ambiguous but dramatically poignant conclusion.
Maybe it belongs on this list after all.