PSIFF Diary #2

PSIFF organizers claim festival attendance is up 20% this year, and it’s difficult not to believe them. Almost all of my screenings have been well-attended, at least until people walk out of them. But I hear more complaints about challenging fare here than elsewhere. “What’s your favorite film you’ve seen so far?” a woman in line asked me last night. The Death of Mister Lazarescu, I replied, and made her gasp. “That’s your favorite film? Why?” I blithely said I thought it was a revealing look at the people of Romania and health care issues we all face, and she answered, “My husband walked out after thirty minutes, I walked out after an hour and thirty minutes, and my friend stayed the whole time but said it didn’t get any better.” Then her husband arrived and she pointed at me: “Ask that gentleman what his favorite film of the festival has been.” He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “The Death of Mister Lazarescu,” I said, feeling like a punchline. He shrugged. “After thirty minutes of watching that guy puking and complaining, I’d had enough.”

But kudos to the larger Palm Springs community, which continues to support the festival’s diversity each year. While I don’t get the impression that many attendees eagerly embrace the artier fare, they seem glad enough that somebody does.

My latest screenings…

Magic Mirror (Portugal, 2005)

96-year-old Manoel de Oliveira’s latest film, based on a novel called “The Soul of the Rich,” revisits territory familiar to fans of perhaps the oldest of internationally venerated filmmakers. An aristocratic woman distraught at her husband’s inability to impregnate her finds herself increasingly drawn to speculation about the Virgin Mary, and turns to religious scholars (including one played by Michel Piccoli, who assures her of Mary’s wealth) for intellectual comfort. A couple of ex-cons conspire to stage an appearance of the Virgin, but much of the film centers on erudite conversation and manners between the woman and her confidants and potential suitors, in many ways resembling BuÒuel lite (appropriate since de Oliveira is currently filming a sequel to Belle du jour). I found the film clever and intriguing (particularly its elliptical final act), but not particularly resonant.

Reaching Silence (India, 2005)

This film certainly has a premise with rich cinematic potential–Sarit, a young businessman in Delhi’s increasingly globalized economy, becomes hypersensitive to noise pollution: traffic, blaring music, loud voices, even ambient sounds and clatter. Director Jahar Kanung effectively highlights the sights and sounds of the congested city (telephoto compression and an aggressive sound design that comes within hailing distance of Bresson), but Sarit’s perpetual annoyance makes him such an extreme and sullen protagonist that he never seems too emotionally accessible. The audiophobe moves to a rural village, where he enjoys the soft light and subdued sounds of the Bengal countryside, but his nirvana is complicated by a romantic interest who finds his strict limitations burdensome and isolating. It’s an interesting theme well-handled, but I found the film more curious than compelling. It lacks dramatic urgency, even though it largely makes up for it with fine visual and aural textures.

Season of the Horse (China, 2005)

Ning Cai is a renowned Mongolian actor, and this is his directorial debut. Visually stunning compositions (endless Mongolian vistas and indigo nights) present a herdsman named Wurgen and his family, who are forced to abandon their trade after the government fences off vast swathes of land for preservation and commerce. Reflecting current events, the film highlights a vanishing way of life deeply rooted in the Mongolian psyche and national character. Particularly effective in the way it conveys Wurgen’s complex mixture of pride and defeat, the film offers a nuanced representation of the relationship between Wurgen and his wife (played by the acclaimed actress Narenhua), a character every bit Wurgen’s determined equal who embraces the need for change long before he does. It’s a deeply felt story told through a succession of breathtaking landscapes.

Dreaming of Space (Russia, 2005)

File this one solidly within the respectable historical drama category of recent fare like Downfall and The Best of Youth; its detailed recreation of the Kruschev era in the Soviet Union and well-rounded, literary characters makes it engaging viewing, even if it ultimately seems a bit too polished and ideologically tepid beyond rudimentary observations about entrapment and freedom. Two young men, a cook and a mysterious agent, meet and form a close bond that includes their romantic courting of two sisters. The film recently won the top prize at the Moscow Film Festival, and its mixture of technical virtuosity (desaturated palette, complex camera moves, energetic close-ups) and cultural nostalgia (the early years of the space race were particularly kind to the Russians) fashions the kind of handsome historical summary national organizations enjoy. And the performances are top-notch as well. Why, then, does it leave such a minor aftertaste? A Gallipoli for the Soviet Union, its pleasures are so immediate and easy to digest that it’s not until later that its lack of penetrating cultural insight (as opposed to period detail) fully registers.

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