Israeli writer-helmer Bergman nabs inaugural prize

PALM SPRINGS — As the 14th annual Palm Springs Fest shuttered Sunday, eager auds and impressed observers alike shared the view that, even with a few notable glitches, the year’s first major fest has taken significant strides toward A-list status on the global circuit.

Balance of artistic seriousness and populism was reflected in the closing night ceremonies, hosted by a hilariously ribald Bruce Vilanch, with several films winning accolades.

Winner of Fipresci prize for best film among fest’s unprecedented pool of 43 selections in foreign-lingo Oscar race was Aki Kaurismaki’s “The Man Without a Past.”

In a victory for another Oscar selection, Israeli writer-helmer Nir Bergman won the inaugural John Schlessinger Filmmaker Prize for debut feature for his widely admired family drama “Broken Wings.” Earning honorable mentions for the prize were Rahul Bose for his English-language Indian pic, “Everybody Says I’m Fine!” and Christian Caron for his drama “The Girl From Paris,” starring Mathilde Seigner.

Audience balloting for the 170-plus features on display produced a top-10 list of favorites, capped by eclectic trio of Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s Compton-based doc “OT: Our Town,” Peter Mullan’s “The Magdelene Sisters” and Mani Ratnam’s Sri Lankan drama “A Peck on the Cheek.”

Fest organizers were beset by such an unprecedented demand for repeat screenings of the over 20 sellouts that two extra days and six venues were arranged to squeeze in reprise unspoolings.

Demand was reflected in significant boosts in overall attendance and B.O. Fest officials estimated Monday that attendance topped 75,000, up 10,000 from the 2002 edition, and that ticket sales were in the $550,000-$600,000 range, a 10% rise from previous fest frame.

The Fipresci nod for Kaurismaki — determined by a jury of critics affiliated with the international critics’ org — was the latest in a string of awards (including the org’s own best pic prize last year) and critical acclaim for the Finnish helmer, who was not in attendance.

Jury was faced with the largest field of pics (43) that’s considered by any group of its kind at a major fest, but decision-making was swift and without the furor that some past Palm Springs Fipresci groups have experienced.

Vast Oscar field served up some surprises, such as Diego Arsuaga’s popular Uruguayan comedy-drama “The Last Train,” as well as highly topical themes, such as the depiction, in a string of pics, of the clash between central characters and fundamentalist Islamic norms.

Though Palm Springs doesn’t base its rep on racking up world preems, such openers as Do Minh Tuan’s Vietnamese drama “Foul King” further deepened the impression of an event firmly committed to world cinema, particularly in developing countries.

Observers had high marks for the strong programming team headed by Jennifer Stark, who noted that “as the audience and the films have developed, so has the notoriety.” What no longer felt like hype this year were well-grounded comparisons to both Toronto, in terms of passionate and large audiences and the programming’s global reach, and to Seattle, in terms of sheer volume.

Odd choice for closing night pic (an hourlong excerpt from three-hour tube doc “The Great American Songbook”), gripes about logistical snafus and paltry turnout by reporting and reviewing press were among the drawbacks.

Controversy was kicked up at mid-fest when the State Dept. refused to grant Bulgarian helmer Kostadin Bonev a visa to accompany his Oscar entry “Warming Up Yesterday’s Lunch.”

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