Palm Springs may be famous as a desert resort, but I’m writing this as I wait in line at the city’s annual film festival, huddled under an awning while rain pours down around me. Not that I mind; I’m enjoying the Southern California deluge this year and it enshrouds the surrounding mountains in a beautiful mist–it also keeps the rush lines shorter than usual.
Summarizing my Friday night and Saturday viewing (with more to come this week):
Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, Germany)
Despite the fact that this has swept German awards, I found it to be a fairly average ensemble piece suffering from an aura of self-congratulatory prestige. It’s being lauded as the first German feature to center on Hitler since G.W. Pabst’s The Last Act (1956), recreating the last days of Hitler’s life in his crowded bunker with the Russian army blasting into Berlin. But part of the problem is that the film opens and closes with clips from Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, a 2002 documentary shot with a video camera that did nothing more than record Traudl Junge’s first-person recollections; yet I found the documentary revealed more contradictory impulses, confessions, and rationalizations than anything in this straightforward dramatization, which resembles a German variant of a Spielbergian historical exercise–a lavishly-mounted spectacle with star cameos, overt emotional cues, graphic violence, and dramatic moments designed to emphasize the importance of the project rather than offer any new or challenging perspectives.
Strings (Anders R¯nnow Klarlund, Denmark)
I doubt I’ll see a more visually impressive film this year; an epic adventure tale of a king’s tragic suicide and his scheming underlings who attempt to thrust his kingdom into war–performed entirely with marionettes. The figures inhabit richly-detailed sets infused with Rembrandt lighting, immersive sound effects, and textured atmospheric elements (rain, wind, snow, etc). With refreshingly subtle digital makeover, the film is not only a fully-realized creative fantasy on the level of Miyazaki or last year’s The Triplets of Belleville, but a wonderfully physical film with all of its strings proudly showing. (The movie even incorporates the strings into the world of the story, inflecting them with metaphysical implications.) The plot is standard adventure fare and contains a few minor flaws (a bizarre pet character, sporadically awkward dialogue, an overactive score) but overall, this is a supremely imaginative film that deserves a very wide audience, especially given its polished British dubbing. One of a kind.
Exiles (Tony Gatlif, France)
Although Gatlif has a body of work celebrating Gypsy culture this film concentrates more on the other half of his Gypsy-Algerian cultural heritage. The film won the best director’s award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and it’s easy to see why: it maintains a beautiful tension between its reckless, free-wheeling plot (involving two young european lovers returning to their Algerian birthplace) and its thoughtful cinemascope compositions, framing the evolving landscape with a deep sense of enthusiastic discovery. Energized with techno and flamenco music, among other genres, the characters propel themselves through an inner and outer journey, seeking to find themselves in their roots. Gatlif allows the mystery of this process to remain closed to explanation, and the film builds to a visual frenzy with a scene of a mystical Sufi dance filmed in one extended take that earned a spontaneous round of applause from the audience for its cinematic tour de force. It’s an energized and sensual film with subtantial momentum, supported by a reflective and deeply-felt yearning for self-awareness.
The Other Side of the Street (Marcos Bernstein, Brazil)
This film represents the directorial debut of one of the screenwriter’s of Central Station, and it’s about what you might expect. Well-written with standout performances, it’s an easygoing character study about an aging, lonely woman and her misdirected desire to compartmentalize her life and strictly divide people between the Good and the Bad. The protagonist is charmingly played by Central Station‘s acclaimed Fernanda Montenegro, who manages to express both her character’s kind ambitions and cutting suspicions in a fluid, compelling manner. The film also offers a strong alternative to the younger-skewing trends in most narrative films with its playful, engaging, and even romantic vision of late-middle age. Even if it sometimes flirts with melodramatic sensibilities, it nevertheless remains an observant drama.
Click here for the second part of the PSIFF summaries.