New Voices, New Visions

in 26th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Ella Taylor

The road that runs from the I10 freeway to the Palm Springs International Film Festival abuts a stark, rock-strewn mountain with not a visible trace of greenery on it. The main drag in this small town full of streets and homes named for the Brat-packish movie stars who lived there, is festooned with lush palms. The landscape looks like heaven and the end of the world rolled into one; it conveys melodrama, fantasy, delight and a noir-ish, sun-drenched Southern California moodiness entirely appropriate to a film festival that offers all of the above by the ton.

I was at PSIFF mainly to see foreign films, which meant a very strong slate that included the entire long list of Oscar-nominated movies by established directors, as well as features by others just starting out on their careers. One of the latter is Israeli filmmaker Noam Kaplan, whose first feature, “Manpower”, is exactly the kind of uneven but promising film that arrives without distribution and depends heavily on festival exposure to get the word out. Though it lacks structural definition and goes on so long, it eventually falls off a cliff, “Manpower” is a layered astutely observed, often painful insider examination of Israeli policy toward and treatment of the thousands of migrant workers who flock to the country from Asia and Africa to make money.

Though the acerbic, stylish films of Dutch-born Australian director Rolf de Heer have sometimes been marred by a supercilious edge, “¬Charlie’s Country” is his warmest film yet. Co-written with actor and frequent collaborator David Gulpilil, the movie looks with sardonic sympathy at the socio-cultural trap in which Australia’s Aboriginal population finds themselves when, disenfranchised from their own lands and way of life, the best they can hope for is a modicum of mercy from liberal authorities. Gulpilil shows comic verve and an affectingly ruined dignity as the titular Charlie, an aging rural vagrant doing his best to live out his last days in peace and without interference by well-meaning government officials.

Unsurprisingly the FIPRESCI prize for Best Foreign Film at the festival went to Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” (Leviafan), a brilliant, if austered study of the predicament of a provincial motor mechanic’s Herculean efforts to hang onto his self-built house, in the teeth of corrupt intervention by the town’s crooked mayor. Anne Dorval won the acting award for her extravagant, nuanced portrayal of a single mother trying to contain her ADHD-afflicted teenage son.

But to judge by the word around the festival, I was far from the only moviegoer whose favorite film at the festival ran outside the competition. A joint Serbian-Croatian production, “No One’s Child” (Nicije dete), Vuk Rsumovic’s remarkably poised first feature draws on real-life events to tell the story of a feral boy) who was found, possibly being raised by wolves in the mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina and carted off for rehabilitation in a Belgrade orphanage. This turns out to be the beginning of the boy’s undoing. But though it plays like a bleakly beautiful fairy tale by the brothers Grimm (child actor Denis Muric gives an astonishing performance, much of it on all fours), this harrowing, humane drama is less about individual evildoing — the boy has several kind champions who do their best to save him — than about the different ways in which an under-resourced country slipping into regional war abandons the very children it seeks to rescue.

Both “Manpower” and “No One’s Child” played in the festival’s excellent New Voices/New Visions section, which showcased ten outstanding features by first-time filmmakers.

Ella Taylor