Different Foreign Languages

in 24th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Jacob Lundström

Since this is a rare occasion — it has happened nine times all in all — some have accused the Academy of myopic ignorance because of their unwillingness to nominate films made outside of the United States. They seem to be implying that these films aren’t quite in the same league as Hollywood.

Others have pointed out the absurdity of the concept of “foreign language film”. In a statement acknowledging that his film Holy Motors had won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s award for Best Foreign Language Film, Leos Carax joked that “foreign-language films are very hard to make, obviously, because you have to invent a foreign language instead of using the usual language”.

The Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) presents an excellent opportunity to study this “minor league” of cinema. In an ambitious section called “Awards Buzz”, the festival screens a majority of the films submitted by their respective countries to compete for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

This year a total of 71 films were submitted, a record high, out of which 42 competed at PSIFF for the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Film as well as for Best Actor and Actress. From this generous sample one can assess the state of “national cinemas” today.

Since the submissions are decided on a national level, this particular Oscar category almost resembles a sort of Olympic games for cinema. And after sitting through a majority of the films screened at PSIFF, one can easily conclude that world cinema stays well within the confines of narrative conventionalism. Only the themes and subjects are unique to each country — the means of storytelling remain largely the same.

One explanation for this seeming convergence of style is that the flame of these Cinema Olympics doesn’t travel but keeps on burning in Hollywood. Hence, it is not strange that each country picks its candidate with the taste of the Academy in mind. Over the years it has been duly noted that anything out of the ordinary with regards to style will not be considered.

In this competition some films seem custom made for consideration. For example, Denmark’s competent but dreary historical drama A Royal Affair (En kongelig affare), directed by Nikolaj Arcel, made its way to the final five nominees. But Sweden’s attempt to ride the Nordic crime wave with Lasse Hallström’s truly tranquilizing The Hypnotist (Hypnotisören), with its tourist catalogue-esque helicopter shots of Stockholm and its gruesome plot, backfired.

In the same way that A Royal Affair champions Denmark’s early advocates of Enlightenment, other countries illuminate proud and inspiring moments from their nation’s history, if not always boasting Oscar-worthy execution. Poland’s all too obvious 80 Million (80 Milonúw), directed by Waldemar Krzystek, reminisces about the days of the Solidarity movement, Palestinan director Annemarie Jacir’s endearing When I Saw You (Lamma Shoftak) follows a boy who joins the resistance in 1967. The Czech Republic’s standard spy noir In the Shadow (Ve stinu), from director David Ondricek, tells the story of an honest police captain who stands up to the oppressive state in 1953. And Algerian director Saïd Ould Khelifa’s Zabana! (not shown at PSIFF) is a sort of prequel to Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic The Battle of Algiers.

Other films that explore the darker chapters of national history are Argentine director Benjamín Ávila’s Clandestine Childhood (Infancia clandestina), Bosnia-Herzegovinan director Aida Begic’s Children of Sarajevo (Djeca), Lost Loves by Cambodia’s Chhay Bora, and Barbara by German director Christian Petzold.

But a few films did stand out stylistically, and hence were predestined to be overlooked.

The observational chilliness of Mexico’s After Lucia (Después de Lucía), directed by Michel Franco, will not melt any hearts. The film chronicles the tragic developments for a motherless teenager and her helpless father with a defyingly static camera; it may be gratuitous, but it is also deeply effective.

The chaste sensualism and respectful intimacy of Israeli director Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void (Lemale ey Ha’halal), a heartfelt study of matchmaking in Tel Aviv’s ultra-Orthodox Hassidic community, is almost a physical experience. Other deviations from convention include Australian director Cate Shortland’s post-WWII Germany-set Lore with its impressionistic sense of nature; Unfair World (Adikos kosmos) from Greek director Filippos Tsitos, which almost plays like a Kaurismäki black comedy set in Athens; and of course, the sheer relentlessness of Romania’s monastery horror movie Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri) from Cristian Mungiu. Such films prove that, luckily, we still can’t limit “world cinema” to a narrow Oscar category.

Edited by Peter Keough