Cannes remains triumphant despite the leaden skies

A strong contingent of independent films took a little luster from the brash Hollywood offerings like the new Indiana Jones movie

By Andrew McCathie  /  DPA , CANNES, FRANCE

Fri, May 30, 2008 - Page 16

Sunday was a rather gloomy and soggy end to the Cannes Film Festival. But while the weather might have been cool and damp, the cinema shone this year at the world’s leading film festival.

Directors dug deep into some troubling themes — from the Mafia’s grip on Italy through to brother-sister incest and the human fallout from globalization and the murky trade in European citizenship.

With the festival low on escapism and Indian Jones losing some of his swagger in Steven Spielberg’s hotly anticipated sequel, the only joy for many festival goers came from the myriad of lavish parties, though many were washed out by the periodic downpours that punctuated the 12-day movie marathon.

Nevertheless, the end result of the 61st Cannes Film Festival was the fest confirming its role as the world’s premier film event, with a memorable year for films screened in the Cote d’Azur resort town.

French director Laurent Cantet’s The Class (Entre Les Murs) about teacher-pupil relations in a tough multicultural school classroom in Paris was a popular choice for the festival’s Palme d’Or, one of the most prestigious prizes in the movie business.

The announcement of the Palme d’Or victors came one day after Kazakhstan director Sergey Dvortsevoy’s widely acclaimed film Tulcan won the main prize at one of the festival’s other key sections, the Un Certain Regard, which showcases young and experimental filmmakers. International film buyers have already been moving in on Tulcan.

Faced with the impossible task of trying to allocate prizes among the rich fare of movies selected for this year’s Un Certain Regard, the section’s jury was forced to devise additional prizes.

Likewise, it seems to have been an unenviable task for the nine-member Palme d’Or jury, headed by US actor-director Sean Penn, to decide between the impressive lineup of movies in the festival’s main competition and the commanding acting performances in many of the films.

There were some duds along the way, including French director Philippe Garrel’s melodramatic La Frontiere de l’Aube (Frontier of Dawn), where a ghost in a mirror issued instructions to the main character. Those liking Philippines’ Brillante Mendoza’s tale of chaos and morality in modern Asia in his low-budget Serbis were also in the minority.

At least for the critics attending Cannes, the choice of winner came right down to the wire with more than half of the 22 films in the main competition seen as possible contenders for the movie jamboree’s top honors.

Indeed, screenings for the main competition came to a resounding end last Saturday with the premiere of Cantet’s extraordinary and riveting docu-drama about life in a multicultural French classroom, based on an autobiographical novel by Francois Begaudeau. Real teachers and students played the roles in the tough Paris classroom.

Some thought Begaudeau, who played a dedicated but sometimes flawed young teacher in the film, should have even won the best actor award.

After a slow start with Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’ somehow underwhelming disaster movie about a town ravaged by an outbreak of blindness, the festival rapidly picked up the pace.

By the end of the first few days, a raft of Palme d’Or favorites had already emerged with the premiere of Israeli Ari Folman’s groundbreaking animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, about the events surrounding the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, and Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s brooding family drama Three Monkeys (Uc Maymum).

These were followed by Beijing-based Jia Zhangke’s (賈樟柯) latest expose of the human fallout from his nation’s rapid and convulsive change in 24 City (二十四城).

French director Arnaud Desplechin won several festival critics’ hearts with his A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel), about a family torn apart by a child’s death.

At the same time, Brazilian directors Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas launched a challenge from the big contingent of Latin American movies vying for the festival’s top awards with Linha de Passe, which portrays four brothers trying to follow their dreams in Sao Paulo’s slums.

Italian director Matteo Garrone’s almost apocalyptic Gomorrah, about a world gone mad and under the thumb of the Mafia, and Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s look at Europe’s arranged-marriage business, marked the festival’s confident move into the second week.

Gomorrah won of the festival’s top prizes, the Grand Prix, while the Dardenne brothers were handed the best screenplay award.

Then came veteran US director Clint Eastwood’s highly rated The Exchange, about how a mother’s determination to find her lost son triggered a major shakeout in Los Angeles’ police and political establishment in the 1920s.

One of the movies generating the most division among festival goers this year at Cannes was another big Hollywood studio film, Steven Soderbergh’s more than four-hour, two-part epic about the Latin American revolutionary leader Che Guevara.

Some thought it was masterful; others thought the Sex, Lies and Videotape director should go back the drawing board. Either way, Benicio Del Toro won the best actor award for his portrayal of Che.