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Three hours out of Los Angeles, surrounded by magnificent mountains and a sweeping desert, lies an oasis known as Palm Springs. A haven for the rich and famous, this charming Spanish-American town is also the host of an international film festival. Now in its 10th year, the Palm Springs International Film Festival is the brainchild of its former mayor and senator, the late Sonny Bono, and though it may lack the recognition of other north American festivals, such as Sundance and Toronto, it sets out to showcase some of the best in international cinema. This year, countries represented include Italy and Germany, Iceland and Tunisia, Great Britain and the United States, and Australia (well received). A large media contingent (300) covers Palm Springs to report on this wonderfully distinct Festival, one that will continue to grow in stature.

Clearly it's impossible to see everything, but here is a rundown of some of the films that I saw at the Festival, many of which are certain to appear in Australian film festivals in the coming year, or in commercial release.

B Monkey (Great Britain)
The long-awaited follow-up from British director Michael Radford (Il Postino) is a sure fire masterpiece, a vividly dark comedy/drama about low-lifes, crime, sex and finding love in unexpected ways. B, played with power by the alluring Asia Argento, is a wild and crazy girl who is also a great thief, who mixes with London's nastier underworld types. She also shares her life with Bohemian coke addict Paul (another tour-de-force performance by Rupert Everett) and his unpredictable and violent lover Bruno (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). But B wants to escape her criminal life, and finally finds a way out when she meets placid school teacher and jazz aficionado Alan (Jared Harris). Love may conquer all, but will it hide a murky and violent past? Featuring topnotch performances and Radford's imaginative direction, B. Monkey is a compelling and seductive drama.

Max and the Kid (USA)
This is a prime example of American independent movie making that has its heart in the right place, but seems like a work in progress. Made on an ultra low budget, pic is a charming road movie about an old guy who leaves his nursing home to pursue a fifties car he and his late buddy bought years ago. En route he is picked up by a feisty runaway teenager. Clearly made on the cheap, Max and the Kid is one of those little films that may pop up on the festival circuit but never reach commercial screens. Director Don Campbell's script is full of holes and often contains puzzling gaps, with entire sequences never explained. Films are made to be seen by an audience, not solely for the gratification of the filmmaker, a lesson that Campbell, who has a good visual sense, ought to remember. But it's a cute, amiable little film that, with some reworking, has strong potential.

Left Luggage (Netherlands)
Film Festivals often discover rare and exciting cinematic jewels: Left Luggage, directed by and co-starring Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe, is such a jewel, a deeply moving and poetic film that dazzles one with its sense of character and humanity. An unorthodox free-spirited Jewish woman takes up the position of nanny to an ultra-Orthodox Hassidic Jewish family. Her own attitude to her parents, sense of Jewishness and her father's Holocaust past, all change through the relationship she forges with the youngest son in this family. Featuring a stellar cast, including Maximillian Schell (magnificent as the girl's father), Isabella Rossellini, a hypnotic newcomer in Laura Fraser as the young girl, and the wonderful Chaim Topol, as a Jewish neighbour. Filled with wonderful humour, combined with genuine pathos and dramatic power, Left Luggage is a truly mesmerising and joyful work.

Vigo (United Kingdom)
This British melodrama revolving around the life and early death of famed French filmmaker Jean Vigo, is a worthy, but deeply unsatisfying affair. In part a passionate love story about Vigo and his beautiful wife Lydu, the film is pure mush, and its principal character painted as such an egomaniac, that his death from TB comes as a relief not only for the character, but we, the suffering audience. One also questions a film about such major French character, told in such a British manner.

In the Naval of the Sea (Philippines)
Filipino cinema has come a long way, as two, very different portraits of Filipino life are explored in films screened throughout this Festival. This is by far the better of the two. Story revolves around Pepito who, growing up in a remote fishing village in the Philippines, is destined to become the successor of his mother: The only midwife in the whole district, a job given from generation to generation. As Pepito's widow mother Rosa becomes pregnant she tries everything to abort the baby because of the shame this would bring. This fails and she sees the only way to protect her son is to commit suicide. After a while Pepito falls in love with a teacher from the capital, Mrs. Santiago. But this relationship cannot have a future. Essentially, this is a haunting work about memory, as the old Pepito narrates this tale of first love, sexual longing and maturation. It depicts the religiousness of village life, and is sold with a simplistic honesty. Beautifully shot, in the Naval of The Sea, is a deeply moving and wonderfully told work.

The Butcher (Italy)
Italian cinema was one of the major focuses of this year's Palm Springs Film Festival, but this was one of the weaker offerings. The story of a conductor's wife who falls heavily in lust with a neighbourhood butcher has some beautiful things going for it. Director Aurelio Grimaldi certainly has a mastery of film language, shown in some of the film's quite beautiful passages which are dialogue-free. The Butcher is a sexual and highly erotic film, but it seems that it is eroticism for eroticism's sake, and there's little room for delving deeper into the film's characters. Thus, as well intentioned as it might be, it's a shallow work which doesn't really go anywhere.

Wilbur Falls (USA)
This is a funny, quirky little gem from first-time writer/director Juliane Glantz, who shot her film in less than three weeks, on location in the small town in which she grew up. 17-year old Renata is on her way to college. Her parents are a tad weird, including ex-cop Phillip (Danny Aiello) and left-of-centre Roberta (Sally Kirkland). It would seem from the opening sequence of the film, that Roberta was destined for great things, but an accidental drowning and childhood-inspired revenge, may well put a damper on her plans. There's a freshness and spontaneity to this wry look at small town America, nicely handled by director Glantz. Though the film sporadically runs out of steam, it's still a well-intentioned and highly auspicious debut.

Love from Ground Zero (USA)
Three strangers meet at The New York funeral of Henry, a mutual friend. The three - Henry's Southern girl friend (Jacqueline McKenzie), his drifting ex-college and buddy (Simon Baker-Denny), and his childhood friend (Pruitt Taylor-Vince) - join together at Henry's request to drive his ashes to Montana to be scattered. The story follows the pitfalls of strangers on a lengthy cross-country journey. There might well have been high expectations from the US debut of Aussie actress Jacqueline McKenzie, but regrettably, both the film and McKenzie don't quite work. Trapped by a strange, southern accent which she's trying hard to deal with, gets in the way of performance and character, a character that remains underdeveloped. Fellow Aussie Simon Baker-Denny fares better, giving a naturalistic, well-balanced performance. The film itself, a personal road movie, suffers from an awkward script and plodding direction, but looks quite beautiful.

Three (Philippines)
An interesting failure, this silly melodrama about a married man coping with his wife's dying, lesbian lover. Despite some unusually graphic sex scenes, the film's comment on lesbianism is something of a cop out and terribly simplistic.

Marianna Ucria (Italy)
This stunning period drama, set in 18th century Sicily, tells of a beautiful mute girl forced to marry at 13, and coming to terms with a dark past and a journey of self-discovery. In the title role, Eva Grieco gives an extraordinary performance A ravishing, beautifully executed and superbly crafted masterpiece.

The Magic (Tunisia)
This is one of the most unforgettable films screened at this festival and one deserving of a major release. Film is the autobiographical story of an impoverished 10-year old boy in a backward Tunisian village, left to mind his house while the rest of the family secures work in Paris. The boy, Deanie, discovers the world of cinema, which he refers to as the magic, and thus begins a most extraordinary tale of survival, friendship and love. Exquisitely put together, this is an overpowering and emotionally resonant tale that refuses to adopt a manipulative tone, and remains true to itself throughout. This is indeed, an absolute gem.

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