Geopolitical Rarities in Palm Springs

in 28th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by David Sterritt

Among its other merits, the admirably programmed and efficiently organized Palm Springs International Film Festival is an excellent showcase for foreign-language pictures in the Academy Awards race, and for pictures submitted for Oscar consideration by their respective countries whether they end up with actual nominations or not. By the end of the 2017 program I’d seen dozens of Oscar-aspiring movies from an enormous range of nations, some of which are seldom (or never) represented in American theaters. Among the geopolitical rarities were Min Bahadur Bham’s The Black Hen (Kalo Pothi) from Nepal, Zrinko Ogresta’s On the Other Side (S one strane) from Croatia, Mahmoud Sabbagh’s Barakah Meets Barakah (Barakah yoqabil Barakah) from Saudi Arabia, Kadri Kõusaar’s Mother (Ema) from Estonia, Julia Vargas Weise’s Sealed Cargo (Carga Sellada) from Bolivia, and Danis Tanovic’s Death in Sarajevo (Smrt u Sarajevu) from Bosnia and Herzegovina – worthy entries, one and all.

My favorite film in the lineup was Halkawt Mustafa’s El clásico, which is an Iraqi- Norwegian production, notwithstanding its Spanish title. The protagonists are Alan and Shirwan, two Kurdish brothers of short stature who care passionately about soccer, following the exploits of rival Spanish teams (Barcelona and Real Madrid) while dealing with challenges in their own lives, which for Alan includes the dream of marrying his girlfriend, Gona, despite the refusal of her shoemaker father, Jalal, to allow a dwarf into the family. As proof that little people can do big things, Alan sets off with his brother to deliver a pair of specially made shoes to a Real Madrid star in Spain, a country not much more accessible than the moon for small-town guys with little money and less experience in the ways of the wider world. Their story is engrossing every step of the way, vividly filmed and superbly acted by an excellent cast. In a more egalitarian world, this deliciously entertaining movie would be in distribution everywhere.

Another impressive entry was Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Sparrows (Þrestir), an Icelandic- Danish-Croatian production filmed in Iceland, where formidable landscapes throw the quietly engaging story into high relief. When his mother heads for Africa on a research expedition, 16-year- old Ari is packed off to a rural fishing village to live with his father, who turns out to be an irresponsible creep. The title refers to Ari’s talent as a singer in a church choir, and also to the vulnerability he feels as a newcomer to an isolated and unfamiliar community. Rúnarsson depicts his gradual integration into local society with care and precision, and unleashes a last-minute narrative twist that makes this one of the most powerfully back-loaded films in recent memory.

Movies elevated above the average by extraordinary acting included Paula van der Oest’s moving Tonio, with Pierre Bokma as a middle-aged grieving father; Brillante Mendoza’s high-octane Filipino drama Ma’ Rosa, with Jaclyn Jose as a mother supporting her family through minor drug deals until she and her husband get busted; Juho Kuosmanen’s Finnish-Swedish- German production The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies), with Jarkko Lahti as a famous Finnish boxer who aimed at a world championship in the early 1960s; and the last film of Andrzej Wajda’s great career, Afterimage (Powidoki), with Boguslaw Linda as the Polish painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski, who lost an arm and leg to World War I, became an internationally renowned theorist and educator, and was declared persona non grata by the establishment two years before his death because he rejected the socialist-realism party line. Also distinguished by topnotch performances were Paul Verhoeven’s controversial French-German- Belgian production Elle, with Isabelle Huppert in top form, and Pedro Almodóvar’s sensitive Julieta, with Emma Suárez as the heroine of a bittersweet drama based on three marvelous Alice Munro stories.

Several of the films I saw in Palm Springs have risen to Oscar glory or at least gone into reasonably wide distribution since then: Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (Forushande), Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, Claude Barras’s animated My Life as a Zucchini (Ma Vie de courgette), Maren Ade’s overrated Toni Erdmann, Martin Zandvliet’s suspenseful Land of Mine (Under sandet), and others. I hope equal attention is paid to Erik Poppe’s dramatic The King’s Choice (Kongens nei), Cristi Puiu’s obsessive Sieranevada, and Andrei Konchalovsky’s ambitious Paradise (Ray), to name a few. And finally, I can’t resist balancing the scale by naming a few contenders that failed to impress me: Yôji Yamada’s superficial and sentimental Nagasaki: Memories of My Son (Haha to kuraseba), Hannes Holm’s very ordinary A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove), and Daryne Joshua’s true-crime melodrama Noem My Skollie: Call Me Thief head this list. In all, though, the Palm Springs program of Oscar hopefuls was more than worth perusing. Long may this tradition flourish.

David Sterritt is editor-in- chief of Quarterly Review of Film and Video, former film critic of The Christian Science Monitor, and author of many film-related books. He served twice as chair of the New York Film Critics Circle and chaired the National Society of Film Critics from 2005 to 2015.