CVIndependent

Mon02182019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Josh Bell

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.

One of the highlights of the Palm Springs International Film Festival is its extensive program of films submitted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar—giving audiences a taste of the best movies from around the world (or, well, at least what government agencies around the world have decided are the best movies).

This year’s festival featured 43 of the more than 80 Best Foreign Language submissions for the upcoming Oscars—including eight of the nine movies on the Academy’s shortlist. The five nominees, as well as the nominees in all the rest of the categories, will be announced tomorrow, Tuesday, Jan. 24.

The nominees in the category generally tend toward the middlebrow, with serious historical dramas—often focusing on World War II—reliably taking up a few spots each year.

Such is the case this year—three of the eight shortlisted movies shown at the PSIFF deal with World War II and its aftermath: Denmark’s Land of Mine, about young German POWs forced to clear land mines in Denmark after the war; Norway’s The King’s Choice, about the first days of Germany’s invasion of Norway in 1940; and Russia’s Paradise, about a Russian resistance member in Nazi-occupied France.

Of these three, Paradise is the most artistically successful, doing more than just dramatizing sections from a history textbook. Shooting in black and white, in the constrained Academy ratio, director Andrey Konchalovskiy combines dreamlike imagery and magical-realist plotting with stark, clear-eyed depictions of life in a concentration camp, and the balance of power between Nazi officers and prisoners. The movie’s conceit of “interviews” with three main characters after their deaths is sometimes a bit heavy-handed, but it allows for poetic moments and quiet reflection that more straightforward historical dramas often lack.

Both Land of Mine and The King’s Choice take a more straightforward historical approach, and while they tell stories that have been underrepresented in historical accounts (at least outside their native countries), they only intermittently bring those stories to life. In Land of Mine, a group of young (most appearing to be in their early teens) German soldiers are kept as POWs in Denmark following the war, and are forced to clear the tens of thousands of land mines along the Danish coast. The movie offers a welcome perspective in which the Germans are sympathetic, scared young men who don’t necessarily understand the consequences of their actions; it’s the often vindictive Danish military personnel are the villains. But the young characters are nearly interchangeable; their eventual emotional connection with their Danish commander is predictable; and the suspense built around periodically exploding kids seems a bit exploitative.

The King’s Choice doesn’t have any exploding kids, and it’s a bit dry in its ploddingly procedural account of the few days between the time when Germany invaded Norway, and when the country’s King Haakon VII made an historic break with Parliament and refused to surrender to Germany. As director Erik Poppe explained before the screening, the king’s actions are an important part of Norwegian history, taught in schools—but without that inherent Norwegian pride, it’s hard to get worked up over this fairly minor military aspect of the war, or to get invested in the principled stands of a pampered (if likable) royal family.

After war movies, the next most-popular genre for the Foreign Language Oscar is possibly the intense domestic drama, represented by Canada’s It’s Only the End of the World and Iran’s The Salesman, both from acclaimed international auteurs. It’s Only the End of the World was adapted from Jean-Luc Lagarce’s stage play by prolific filmmaker Xavier Dolan, and despite its cast of French superstars (Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Nathalie Baye), it remains stagebound and claustrophobic, with the characters tediously talking in circles during a tense family gathering over the course of a single day. Dolan is known for bold, visually inventive films, but here, he sticks mostly to uncomfortable close-ups and stands back as his actors chew the scenery.

The Salesman, from A Separation Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi, is more restrained, even as its subject matter is darker. It’s a slow burn about a married couple whose relationship is strained when the wife is attacked in their apartment, and her husband becomes consumed with finding the perpetrator. But this isn’t some action-packed revenge thriller; it’s a contemplative story about responsibility and empathy, a rumination on the value of vengeance and a look at how seemingly strong relationships can be destroyed in a moment. The lead performances from previous Farhadi collaborators Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti are very good, and while the connection to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (a production of which the couple star in during the events of the movie) is a bit tenuous, both are thematically rich family dramas with satisfyingly downbeat endings.

Thanks to the creation of an additional executive committee several years ago, the selections for the Foreign Language Film Oscar category have gotten a little more diverse, and a few of this year’s shortlisted films fit less neatly into familiar genres. Sweden’s A Man Called Ove, Germany’s Toni Erdmann and Switzerland’s My Life as a Zucchini are all lighter than their fellow shortlist selections, with more emphasis on unique artistic visions. Ove is the most conventional, a feel-good dramedy about a grumpy old man who comes to appreciate life thanks to the efforts of his friendly neighbors. It’s the kind of crowd-pleasing, gentle movie that could star Tom Hanks if it came from Hollywood, and while star Rolf Lassgård makes for an appealing curmudgeon, the flashbacks slowly illuminating his tragedy-filled past eventually tug way too hard on the heartstrings. But Academy voters seemingly love to have their heartstrings tugged, and with its mix of the heavy and the heartwarming, Ove comes across as typical Oscar bait.

The most critically acclaimed movie on the shortlist, Toni Erdmann, is the frontrunner to win the Oscar, and it’s certainly the strangest and most challenging film of the eight shown at the festival. Running nearly three hours, Maren Ade’s film is a combination of cringe comedy, family drama and sociopolitical commentary, with plenty of strange detours along the way. The title character is the alter ego of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an eccentric, lonely old man who wants to reconnect with his corporate go-getter daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). It takes almost an hour for Toni to emerge, as Winfried follows his daughter to her work assignment in Romania, and the movie unfolds at a meandering pace, with dry corporate meetings next to uncomfortable scenes of Winfried’s attempts to insert himself into his daughter’s life. Many have found the film moving, funny and profound, but for me, it was like listening to a long, rambling joke with no punchline.

The best of the eight shortlisted movies I saw at the festival is also the unlikeliest selection, the Swiss stop-motion animated movie My Life as a Zucchini. It’s also eligible for the Best Animated Feature award, but it’s a bit of a dark horse in both categories. That’s a shame, because director Claude Barras’ film is utterly charming, beautiful to look at and sweetly affecting. It’s the story of a young orphan (who goes by the name Zucchini) adjusting to life in a group home and eventually finding a makeshift family. The material isn’t groundbreaking, but the hand-crafted animation gives it a wonderfully skewed perspective, while the dialogue is funny and realistic, and the characters are very likable.

It was the last movie I saw at the festival—and it ended my experience on a high note. Hopefully Oscar voters will feel the same way.