Special to The Times

ORIGINALLY envisioned by then-Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono as a way to reinvigorate the storied connection between his city and Hollywood, the Palm Springs International Film Festival has morphed into arguably the region's best showcase for films from around the globe. Celebrating not only the rich tradition of Hollywood filmmaking, but also the best of international film culture, the 14th edition of the festival opens tonight with the North American premiere of Franco Zeffirelli's "Forever Callas" and runs through Jan. 20.

Among the nearly 200 films showing this year are 45 of the 54 submissions for the foreign-language Oscar. Unless you're on the academy's nominating committee, there's hardly a better place to see as many of these films screened together. One of the most exciting entries this year is the first local presentation of Swedish director Lukas Moodysson's "Lilya 4-Ever." Palm Springs screened Moodysson's previous effort, "Together," two years ago, and his new film seems a direct response to those who found that film accomplished but slight.

Emotionally dense and at times tough to take, "Lilya 4-Ever" traces the downward spiral of a 16-year-old girl (played with incredible strength and heartbreaking dignity by Oksana Akinshina) in contemporary Russia. Abandoned by her family, she is left to fend for herself amid tenement blocks, finding her only solace and companionship with a glue-sniffing neighbor boy.

It is easy to dismiss "Lilya 4-Ever" as an exercise in rote miserablism, but the film assays a detailed emotional landscape that also takes in moments of joy, hope and beauty, and even ends on an unexpected note of uplift. Another highlight of the academy section is the North American premiere of the Chinese submission, "Hero," a historical martial-arts film directed by art-house master Zhang Yimou. The cast alone is reason to consider this one, including action superstar Jet Li, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" star Zhang Ziyi, and a reunion of the star-crossed lovers from "In the Mood for Love," Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. The film, shot by acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle, is breaking records in mainland China and Hong Kong.

For years now, American moviegoers have heard of the extremely prolific film industry in India, which has fallen under the catch-all description "Bollywood." In a special section, this year's Palm Springs fest will explore the many aspects of Indian cinema.

Make no mistake: The garish, song-and-dance hysteria most viewers associate with Indian cinema is well represented. "Devdas," India's submission for the Academy Awards and the first Bollywood film invited to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, is Bollywood with the volume all the way up. The most expensive film ever made in India, "Devdas" overflows with lavish sets and costumes, extras galore and lots of songs. Other Indian films in the section, such as "Mr. And Mrs. Iyer" and "The Little Republic," are more conventional, toned-down dramas that may come as a shock to those expecting over-the-top extravaganzas.

BesideS a critics' jury prize and a prize for best debut filmmaker, the festival will be presenting career achievement awards to director Zeffirelli, the late cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, composer Michel LeGrand, actress Lynn Redgrave and producer Mace Neufeld. Additionally, international filmmaker awards will be presented to directors Stephen Daldry and Stephen Frears. Daldry's "The Hours" will screen with the director scheduled to attend, while Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things" will receive an advance screening. Frears' career is an interesting one, though at times a frustrating grab bag. His apparent desire to avoid classification drove him to follow up the popular "High Fidelity" with the dour and charmless "Liam." Which makes the powerful and engaging "Dirty Pretty Things," set amid the immigrant underclass of contemporary London, all the more surprising.

Among other films screening that are worth a look are the crowd-pleasing spelling-bee documentary "Spellbound," Thai eccentricity "Mon-Rak Transistor," and such varied international dramas as "Oasis," "The Son," "The Man Without a Past," "Sweet Sixteen," "Ten," "The Magdelene Sisters" and "Japon."

Even many of the films that have domestic distribution in place are not scheduled to hit theaters for several months. To sample many of the best films world cinema currently has to offer, think about heading past the outlet malls and roadside dinosaurs to trade in that deck chair for a theater seat.


Festival facts

The Palm Springs International Film Festival runs today through Jan. 20. Information and tickets: (760) 778-8979, (800) 898-7256, or at www.psfilmfest.org.

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