The 2006 Cannes International Film Festival, which was to close yesterday with the awards ceremony, began with a thunderous dud and did not improve much until its second week.
The much-anticipated world premiere of The Da Vinci Code, which opened the festival on May 17, was more of a media event than a memorable film experience, universally scorned by the traditionally demanding mob of international critics who come to Cannes.
While Ron Howard's film version of Dan Brown's blockbuster novel shrugged off the bad reviews and was playing to packed theaters around the world, the Cannes festival took a little longer to recover.
The only true highlight of the festival's first week was Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's brilliant ghost story Volver, starring Penelope Cruz.
Volver is a magnificently-filmed, brilliantly-written tale about three generations of women and involves betrayal, murder, incest, the relationship between mothers and daughters -- and a very lively ghost.
It was immediately pegged as the favorite to win the coveted Palme d'Or for best film of the festival, and Cruz, in a sultry and deeply emotional performance, remains a hot contender to win the best actress award.
Not until the second week did the festival present a film and an actress that could rival the two. But Babel, directed by Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, provided Cannes with a much-needed dose of cinematic brilliance.
The film stars Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and a host of excellent actors from Japan, Morocco and Mexico and could be described as a human globalization drama.
A complex tale of interrelated stories on three continents, Babel boasts a magnificent performance by Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi, playing a deaf-mute teenager frustrated by her inability to communicate with the people around her.
It was hardly surprising that the two favorites for the Palme d'Or were made by film makers from Spanish-language countries, since five of the 20 films selected to vie for the top prize came from Spain and Latin America.
The festival's second week provided several pleasant surprises, such as Paolo Sorrentino's A Family Friend, a black comedy about an ugly, unscrupulous, deeply cynical loan shark living with his sick, domineering mother.
Former Palme d'Or winner Nanni Moretti's mordant The Caiman scored points as a fierce attack on former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi that uses a touching domestic drama as foundation.
The festival's dark horse may very well be Days of Glory, by Franco-Algerian Rachid Bouchareb, which deserves a prize for being the most important film to screen here this year.
The tale of four North Africans who volunteer to leave their homelands to liberate France from Nazi occupation in World War II, Days of Glory is certain to provoke a lively debate on the role of foreigners in French history and in French society today.
All three films feature strong performances by male actors.
In The Caiman, Silvio Orlando is excellent as a down-on-his-luck movie producer desperately trying to save his career and his marriage, while in The Family Friend Giacomo Rizzo, as Geremia the "golden-hearted" usurer, manages to be both vulgar and vulnerable.
Sami Bouajila contributes an impressive performance to Days of Glory as an ambitious Algerian corporal who protests against the discrimination his men suffer in the French army.