Rites of Passage Gone Terribly Wrong

in 25th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Steven Rea

Forty-six foreign language films — their respective country of origin’s official submissions for 2014 Academy Award consideration — screened in Palm Springs last week, greeted by long lines of festivalgoers, ducking in from the desert sun and cool nights to find dark, troubling, inspired stories from around the globe.

And if one theme emerged from this wildly diverse and mostly accomplished lot, it was of rites of passage gone terribly wrong. Consider the traumatic childbirths depicted in New Zealand’s White Lies (Tuakiri huna), which boasts a bravura performance from Whirimako Black as a Maori healer; or the ill-fated twin boy of Australia’s Laotian entry, The Rocket, and Argentina’s eerie The German Doctor (Wakolda), in which another set of twins are experimented on, in vitro, and brought into the world by one of the most infamous medicos of the 20th century.

Consider the devastating loss experienced by the bluegrass crooning couple in Belgium’s The Broken Circle Breakdown; or the borderline ADD young son who can’t help but thwart his single and singularly alone young mother’s lovelife in the powerful Norwegian character study, I Am Yours (Jeg er din), or the grim third act revelation that sends a mother into sudden despair in Germany’s Two Lives (Zwei Leben).

Weddings, typically a reason for joy and affirmation, take a bleaker turn in the Georgian coming-of-age drama, In Bloom (Grzeli nateli dgeebi), a gray and grave portrait of two 14-year-old girls in 1992 Tbilisi that marks the screen debut of the remarkable actress Lika Babluani. And the teenagers in Slovenia’s Class Enemy (Razredni sovraznik) are confronted with a different kind of dread: a student commits suicide, and a stern new substitute teacher (Igor Samobor) is blamed.

Separation? Death? Try The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza), Paolo Sarrentino’s sumptuous homage to La dolce vita, in which a lonely writer moves through the ritzier spheres of Rome, breaking down as he carries a coffin at a funeral, full of regret for the girl that slipped away from him in his youth. In Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (Le passé, from France), Berenice Bejo is a Paris woman who summons her husband (Ali Mosaffa) back from Iran so he can sign divorce papers — but she is still drawn to him, even as she is deep in a relationship with another man, with two children running around the apartment, too. In Romania’s Child’s Pose (Pozitia copilului), a domineering mother and wife (the brilliant Luminita Gheorghiu) tries to exert influence on police officials and grieving parents after her thirtysomething son kills a kid who runs in front of his car. Even the humor to be found in Anthony Chen’s late-’90s Singapore social satire, Ilo Ilo, is leavened by the shock of a suicide — a body plummeting from a balcony in the same apartment complex where a mother (Yann Yann Yeo), pregnant with a second child, bosses around her Filipino housemaid. (An illegal immigrant Filipino caregiver is at the center of another of the foreign language Oscar contenders, too: Philippine’s Transit.)

The FIPRESCI awards decided on by myself and my two esteemed colleagues, György Kárpáti of Budapest and Karsten Kastelan of Berlin, represent all that is most exciting and provocative about world cinema today. The best foreign language film prize went to Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown, which is now one of the five contenders for a best foreign language film Academy Award. The Artist’s silent movie vamp, Berenice Bejo, offered up the sort of transformation that was impossible to ignore in The Past, winning the best actress competition. And Mads Mikkelsen, the extraordinary and extraordinarily busy Dane, took the best actor prize for Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Jagten), a chilling tale of accusation and character assassination, which is also in contention for an Oscar. Mikkelsen’s Lucas, a kindergarten teacher suspected of pedophilia, experiences his own rite of passage: a gentle man forever changed by rumor, suspicion and the jolt of a gunshot echoing in the woods.

Steven Rea