Domesticating the International

in 27th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by José Antonio Teodoro

Given that it programs a great many of the titles put forward as contenders for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the Palm Springs International Film Festival provides a unique opportunity to survey both the ways in which various national cinemas wish to present themselves in the context of the Oscars and, once we’re able to note which films make the Oscar shortlist, the ways in which the Oscars choose to regard the multi-faceted Other that is international, non-English-language cinema.

Certain films put forward by their respective countries seem above all mimetic of big-budget Hollywood spectacle, but surely no one actually believes that escapist fare such as the Norwegian disaster movie The Wave (Bølgen), in which the inhabitants of an alpine tourist town attempt to escape from—you guessed it—a really big wave, is going to fulfill the unwritten Oscar mandate championing foreign films that balance ethnographic quirkiness with some nominal arthouse credibility. A more obvious example of a film that encapsulates these qualities is Iceland’s Rams (Hrútar), the already widely acclaimed fable about elderly sheepherding brothers who must call a truce to their 40-year two-man cold war so as to protect the last of their herd, condemned to be slaughtered on account of an epidemic. Written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson, Rams also happens to be a very good movie, highlighted by a spare but evocative use of light and landscape, superbly measured storytelling and two lead performances that convey a convincing sense of shared history and longstanding fraternal animosity—it is, to be sure, the film’s two-legged antagonists that are locking horns. Despite all this, Rams did not make the Oscar shortlist.

Nor, for that matter, did Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsein’s gorgeous and transporting  The Assassin (Nie yin niang), despite that fact that it offers Western audiences a mythical narrative about conflicted loyalties and delivers it in an exquisitely rendered genre package that is at least superficially akin to the 2000 Best Foreign Language-winner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long). Is Hou too slow? Is wuxia now too exotic? Is the historical period too ancient? Some much more recent history is dramatized in Argentine director Pablo Trapero’s The Clan (El Clan), a familial true-crime sage whose swaggering approach to chronicling a series of truly appalling crimes owes something to the films of Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese. But that one didn’t make the shortlist either. Not did Sweden’s history-infused A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron), despite the fact that director Roy Andersson is by now deemed the sort of major international auteur that Oscar likes to pat on the back every once in a while. In any case, while its craftsmanship is truly of the highest order—all those beautiful fixed compositions that often include various escape routes that Andersson’s doomed characters never take—A Pigeon finds Andersson sitting far too comfortably in the hermetically sealed world of his own creation. There is precious little sense of risk, surprise or even curiosity in this film. Scene after scene conforms to and confirms Andersson’s established aesthetic and philosophical worldview. It is immaculate and waxen as the faces of its heavily made-up cast.

One historical narrative that did make the Oscar shortlist is Hungary’s Son of Saul (Saul fia), director and co-scenarist László Nemes’s feature debut. To speculate that Son of Saul made the cut on account of its novel spin on Holocaust narrative might seem cynical, yet is very much in keeping with Oscar’s history of championing Holocaust films good or bad. As a Holocaust film Son of Saul is arguably both good and bad: Mátyás Erdély’s extraordinary cinematography, closely echoing similar tactics Erdély used in Miss Bala, is an astonishing feat of close-third-person storytelling, while Nemes’ apprenticeship under Béla Tarr pays off splendidly in the film’s sustained, carefully stage-managed sequences. But I know I’m not the only critic to walk away from Son of Saul feeling like far more attention was paid to the film’s ostentatious use of form for its own sake that to forging a meaningful, worthwhile narrative that reflects the gravity of the film’s infernal milieu. Still, at least Son of Saul is a bolder, more provocative film about the side effects of war that Denmark’s shortlisted entry, the bluntly titled, blithely humanist A War (Krigen), in which a Danish commander is put on trial for having given an order that resulted in the deaths of several innocent civilians in Afghanistan. Tobias Lindholm painstakingly directs the film in such a way that the commander is unambiguously the hero of the story, draining A War of any real moral ambiguity or suspense, and coming precariously close to functioning as an apologia for real-life military infractions, a reactionary “You can’t handle the truth.”

One might hope that when awarding a major prize to a film in a language other than English, a film from, potentially, a country other than those whose film industries are as robust as that of the US, innovation could be given a high premium, that Oscar might look to faraway places with strange sounding names for radically different approaches to cinematic storytelling. But if that were the case than surely Portugal’s Arabian Nights: Volume 2: The Desolate One (As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 2, O Desolado) would have made the final cut. The second and most accessible piece in Miguel Gomes’ wildly ambitious, unruly, uneven and frequently ingenious fantasy-documentary hybrid trilogy about his country in a time of economic crisis is nothing if not inventive and impassioned. It also features one of the great canine performances in the history of cinema. And Oscar likes dogs, no? Laugh if you will at my having even the tiniest shred of hope that Gomes might have been invited to the Oscars, but bear in mind that it was only a few years ago that Dogtooth (Kynodontas), while not actually featuring a dog, infiltrated the Best Foreign Language category. Dogtooth may have lost to the middle-brow mediocrity of In a Better World (Hævnen)—does that mean A War is a shoo-in?—but at least it reminded those paying attention that the wider world of movies can be far stranger, more adventurous and more challenging than Oscar’s typically domesticated view of international cinema.

José Teodoro