PALM SPRINGS — The Nortel Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival battled mightily Saturday night to rebound from the down-beat tone set by last week’s death of fest founder Sonny Bono, and Friday’s torrential storms that stretched the 2-1/2-hour trek from L.A. into as long as a five hour haul.

The fest’s Saturday gala awards dinner at the Marquis Hotel opened with longtime Bono friend Denis Pregnalato of Spelling Entertainment and Bono’s widow, Mary, announcing to the hushed SRO crowd the establishment of a local memorial to the late congressman and former Palm Springs mayor, and a new Palm Springs fest kudo in Bono’s honor, the Visionary Award, to be presented each year, Pregnalato said, “to a filmmaker who explores new frontiers.”

The evening, hosted by “Entertainment Tonight’s” Leonard Maltin, brightened considerably with the presentation of the director’s achievement award to first time feature writer director Kasi Lemmons for her Trimark film “Eve’s Bayou.” The helmer’s award was presented by the film’s preteen star, Jurnee Smollett, who roused the crowd with a vocal spin through Whitney Houston territory. Lemmons’ earnest acceptance speech, while rambling, kept the aud’s attention, perhaps because, as she noted: “This was the first award the film has received.”

Cinergi chief Andrew Vajna presented the Frederick Loewe achievement award to vet composer Jerry Goldsmith, whose latest in a career of more than 150 film scores is “L.A. Confidential.”

Actress Karen Black presented the lifetime achievement award to 86-year old Italian master filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, who was on hand to accept the honor and announce, through an aide, that his newest film project will be shooting in the desert community.

The Charles A. Crain lifetime achievement award to Sylvester Stallone was presented by “Rocky” co-star Talia Shire.

Fest’s ambitions to live up to the “international” mandate were bolstered by the “Wild, Wild East” focus on contemporary Central and Eastern European filmmakers. While the fest hasn’t broken out to become the “nice Sundance” that some have called it, the fest’s indie panels with industry pros — including Dale Pollock, Ira Deutchman, Randolph Pitts, Evzen Kolar and Bob Aronson — created a lively atmosphere, and Pollock’s partner in Open Door Films Kai Schoenhals observed that the East Euro focus “succeeded in elevating the awareness in Hollywood” about the possibilities of the region.

Pollock and Schoenhals provided the fest’s biggest Sundance style biz buzz with the pending announcement of closing their deal with Barry Sonnenfeld for remake rights to fest entry “Kiler” by Polish director Juliusz Machulski. With its current ambitious programming and a few more high profile surprises like this, the fest could move beyond its original image of being a community fest for the sun and golf set.