Foreign Exchange: The Gulf Between Audiences and Critics at PSIFF ’16

in 27th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Jon Asp

For 27 years the Palm Springs International Film Festival has existed in order to build a bridge between the American film industry, the local Palm Springs audience and the world of cinema. It’s an honorable and important mission to program 170 films, of which the great majority are not in English, to an audience probably unaccustomed to reading subtitles on a daily basis.

The festival also has a very high success rate of predicting the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film based on audience scoring. A strong example would be Yojiro Takita’s Japanese drama Departures (2008), which first took serious notice among critics and spectators when it played at Palm Springs, and then went on to win the Oscar in 2009.

Somehow parallel to this ambition,  Palm Springs’ 2016 edition demonstrates, with great clarity, a deep gap between critically applauded and festival awarded films and the films that rated highest by the festival audience.

Venice’s Golden Lion winner from last year, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron) was at the losing end of the audience poll, as was the Cannes director prize-winning The Assassin (Nie yin niang) by Hou Hsiao-hsien and critically lauded Fortnight selection Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights – Volume II: The Desolate One (As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 2, O Desolado), and recent Berlinale winners Pablo Larraín’s The Club (El club) and Radu Jude’s Aferim!

At the very top of the audience poll in Palm Springs were more conventional, less challenging films not programmed at A-festivals, or at least rarely. Among them Finnish contribution The Fencer (Miekkailija) by Klaus Härö and Germany’s Labyrinth of Lies (Im Labyrinth des Schweigens) by Giulio Ricciarelli, two films that, in different ways, are healing wounds in the wake of World War II atrocities—still a favorite topic also among Academy members.

On the other side of the World War II films is Hungarian debutant László Nemes’ Son of Saul (Saul fia) which rated about average in the Palm Springs’ poll, which won Cannes’ Grand Prix, was recently awarded a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and also nominated for an Oscar. Whereas most WWII films clearly draw a line between victim and villain, Son of Saul is more morally ambiguous, in that a Sonderkommando is extending his life at the expense of other Jewish lives.

In keeping with statements made by the director, the film’s lead actor, Géza Röhrig, explained to The Hollywood Reporter: “We are so fed up with the Disneyfied version of it… we didn’t want anyone to cry, because crying is cathartic. We wanted to deliver a more lasting impact, a punch to the stomach or the throat.”

This turned out to be an acceptable strategy for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (who decide on the Golden Globe), but will the Academy members tolerate such a bold approach?

Another nominated film about ethics and conflicts is A War (Krigen) by Tobias Lindholm, a contemporary drama that fits hand-in-glove with the expected taste of the Academy. A War is a very well-acted film about a Danish military (Pilou Asbaek), faced with a Catch-22 in Afghanistan, while at the same time as his wife, the mother of his three kids (Tuva Novotny) is struggling hard at home. Of course, the rather unabashed Western perspective is no disadvantage in this context.

As with the other nominated films—Mustang, Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente) and Theeb—A War is well worthy of attention. But, with The Assassin early removed from the Oscar list, Son of Saul should be the obvious choice.

Edited by José Teodoro