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    61st Festival de Cannes 2008

    By Ron Holloway | July 8, 2008

    Any way you look at it, 2008 was a watershed year at the Cannes film festival. This was Thierry Frémaux’s initial year as délégée général, the first time he was listed in the catalogue as the man who put his own signature on the selection. Last year, Frémaux was down simply as director artistique, to wit: the festival’s artistic director under the friendly aegis of président Gilles Jacob. As for Gilles Jacob himself, he is currently penning his collection of memories as the festival icon over the past 30 years.

    Knowing Jacob’s unrestrained love for the Festival de Cannes, a spring event he has personally molded into an institution that stands head and shoulders over all other “A-category” festivals, his memoirs will surely offer insights into how he was able to balance the ideals of auteur cinema with the public’s demand for stars on the grand staircase and entertainment fare.

    This said, Thierry Frémaux found himself uncomfortably on the firing line at the 61st Festival de Cannes (13-24 May 2008). Because last year’s 60th anniversary festival was rated by critics and professionals alike as a banner year in Cannes history. One that would be hard to beat by any stretch of the imagination. A milestone in Cannes history, some contended. True, a festival is only as good as the production year itself. But in world cinema there are other ways to smooth over the gaps in a lean season – like unveiling previously undiscovered vistas of cinema art that surface readily but need an astute scout to define talent and potential.  In this regard, Cannes has the best crew of scouts on record.

    So if nothing of interest is found in any given year in traditional filmlands, all Thierry Frémaux has to do is to search other continents for new talent and thematic material. Thus, in the late 1990s tired European cinema gave way to vibrant Asian cinema. And this year, unless my hunch is far off the mark, Asian cinema is being nudged aside by Latin American film waves.

    How did Thierry Frémaux’s virgin year as festival chief fare? Several contrasting opinions have been offered in the press and media. Like: entries by auteur directors barely scored on the critics’ lists in trade publications. Or: films about  the mafia and prison life dominated. Further: the documentary film has found a permanent niche in the competition, including a first-time animated documentary. In general, Cannes 61 presented itself as a quite accurate mirror reflection of our present-day chaotic world.

    Latino Cinema

    The current strength of Latin American cinema was confirmed on opening night: Brazil’s Fernando Meireilles bowed with Blindness (Brazil/USA/Canada/Japan). A claustrophobic futuristic tale set in a  prison for an urban population afflicted by a plague that appears to be contagious, the reference to Guantánamo was unmistakable. Based on Portuguese Nobel Prize winning author José Saramago’s bestselling allegorical Essay on Blindness, the book is one of those high-water-marks in literature that proved too much for a movie straightjacket by an aspiring auteur reaching for the moon.

    It was followed on the next day by Pablo Trapero’s impressive but rather heavy-handed Leonera (Lion’s Den) (Argentina/Brazil/South Korea), a murder caper that finds an innocent pregnant woman sentenced to prison for apparently killing her lover. The compelling element in this rather familiar prison account is that actress Martina Gusman, the film’s coproducer, was in fact pregnant, thus adding to the realism of a story that ends some years later with a contrived escape across the border with her infant son.

    Two more Latin American entries by name directors drew mixed reactions from critics. Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas’s Linha de passé (Passing Line – a soccer expression) (Brazil), a four-son family drama set in the teaming slums of Sao Paulo, recalled Visconti’s masterful Rocco and His Brothers (Italy, 1960). A wandering episodic drama, it won a Best Actress Award for Sandra Corveloni, the long-suffering mother whose trouble-making brood stem partially from being offspring by different fathers.

    Also, Lucrecia Martel’s La mujer sin cabeza (The Woman Without a Head) (Argentina/Spain/France/Italy), came across as a rambling go-nowhere portrait of a middle-aged woman-dentist who loses control of her sensory powers. We are made to believe that the memory loss – or apparent fantasy delusion – was due to a head concussion suffered when her car hit an unseen object or person on the highway. Yet after her recovery, we still don’t have a clue as to what is really going on in this deranged woman’s head.

    If nothing else, however, these disappointing Latino entries whetted the appetite for Steven Soderbergh’s Che (USA/Spain/France), a two-part, long awaited, four-and-a-half-hour epic on the life and times of Che Guevara, starring Benicio Del Toro in role of the legendary revolutionary.  The hottest ticket in Cannes, Che chronicles two paths taken by the asthmatic revolutionary who had helped Castro to defeat Batista in Cuba (Part One, 1956-59) and then lost his way in the jungles of Bolivia (Part Two, 1966-67). Del Toro’s multi-faceted acting performance merited him the Best Actor award at Cannes. Puzzling, however, was why the reenacted visit of Che to the United Nations in 1964 had been included as a tie-together segment between the historical halves. Was it there to underscore his intellectual acumen, particularly when Cold War journalists tried to bait him with loaded questions and “commy” accusations? Probably.

    Auteur Cinema

    Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys) (Turkey/France) was one of the frontrunners for Palme d’Or laurels. Programmed early in the festival, his Three Monkeys prompted dozens of interviews with the shy director (who seldom strays far from his home base in Istanbul) and his actress wife, Ebru Ceylan. On the surface, Three Monkeys – referring to the “monkey metaphor” of hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil – comes across as a tight kammerspiel about human failings. But below the surface it also raises the philosophical question about how excessive lying to cover up the truth can lead to tragic consequences.  As strong as the direction is – Ceylan was awarded Best Director at Cannes – what’s lacking is his patented aching indictment of human failings that characterized his earlier films: Uzak (Distant) (2003), Grand Jury Prize at 2003 Cannes, and Iklimler (Climates), FIPRESCI Critics Prize at 2006 Cannes. Next time.

    Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence) (Belgium/France/Italy/Germany) is an engaging film along the lines of their previous Palme d’Or winners: Rosetta (1999) and L’Enfant (The Child) (2005). In Lorna’s Silence, set in Liège, an illegal Albanian immigrant – played by talented Kosovo actress Arta Dobroshi, who learned French to get the part – falls into the hands of a slick taxi-driver with mafia contacts in order to obtain Belgian citizenship. The marriage scheme begins with her marriage to a junkie, who is expected to die of an overdose, so that Lorna can then marry a Russian mafia boss to enable the latter to obtain Belgian citizenship. But when her own unexpected pregnancy tips the apple-cart, and Lorna finds herself without a passport, the game becomes dangerous. The film ends on a note of hope when Lorna escapes from mafia captors into the forest. For Lorna’s Silence the Dardenne Brothers were awarded Best Screenplay.

    Arnaud Desplechin may be one of the darlings of the new nouvelle vague (this is the fourth time he has competed for Palme d’Or laurels), but his Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) (France) has all the ear markings of a sentimental vehicle for the home audience. The giveaway is the footnote “Roubaix” found in the preproduction title – like the Dardenne brothers’ Liège, this is where the director was born and raised. The setting of this two-and-a-half-hour, talking-head family drama is an estate in Roubaix, where a painful reunion takes place at Christmas that sparks animosity stemming from a family tragedy that had happened years before. Catherine Deneuve, as the ailing matriarch who needs a bone marrow transplant from one of her difficult offspring, was awarded the Special 60th Anniversary Prize at Cannes.

    Kornel Mundruczo’s Delta was also favored for Cannes laurels, if only because his debut feature, Szep Napok (Pleasant Days) (2002), a grim look at small town mores, had won him a six-month stay for young filmmakers at the Cannes Residence Program in Paris. Moving up the Cannes ladder, his Johanna, presented in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2005 Cannes, drew high critical praise as a rare example of a film-oratorio. Delta, flooded with striking visual imagery of lush fauna in the Danube delta, was a standout at Cannes. The crippling element was the dilemma Mundruczo faced when his leading actor (Lajos Bertok, to whom the film is dedicated) died in the middle of shooting – to be eventually replaced by a violin virtuoso, Felix Lajko, who also scored the film. Lajko, however, brings a vulnerable innocence to this tragic tale of incest and retribution. Delta was awarded the FIPRESCI Critics Prize.

    Atom Egoyan’s Adoration (Canada/France) was the Armenian-Canadian director’s tenth appearance at Cannes (including a stint as a member of the international jury). The director is always good for a surprise. In Adoration, linked to the chat phenomenon of the internet age, a high school lad attempts to come to terms with clichéd prejudices of Canadian society. The film apparently echoes Atom’s own Toronto high school experiences, when, as an adolescent, he immersed himself in film and video technology to explore role-playing at its most fundamental level. This time, internet chatters assume identities online, as the participants, all part of the lad’s school project, explore the reasons behind a known terrorist act. Adoration was awarded the Ecumenical Prize.

    Queried on his reasons for making The Palermo Shooting, Wim Wenders stated in his press book: “I wanted to tell a story without knowing how it would end, to know my subject and my topics without having to peg them to a story from the beginning.” Set in the Sicilian capital, a mythical city of death, The Palermo Shooting is a story about Death in a clinch with a burnt-out photographer. Finn, a high-paid chic-fashion photographer is tired of globe-trotting fashion shoots. One evening on the Autobahn, while shooting wildly with his spin-around camera, Finn accidentally captures an image of Death – Dennis Hopper in a grey hood – who is so enraged that he takes off in pursuit – all the way to Palermo. Along the way, Death has been firing spectral arrows at Finn that leave no trace immediately after the painful impact. The mystery is half-solved when Finn meets the beautiful Flavia (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), an art restorer working on a 14th-century painting by an unknown Sicilian master. The painting features Death shooting arrows at the depraved in church and state!

    Andreas Dresen’s Wolke 9 (Cloud 9) (Germany), programmed in the Un Certain Regard section, drew a standing ovation at Cannes. A melodrama about elderly lovers – he in his seventies, she in her sixties – who enjoy a bucolic summer together before their secret leaks out, Cloud 9 makes no attempt to go beyond the immediate and evident. Like teenaged lovers, the couple enjoy the moment for what it is. This, plus Dresen’s talent for drawing convincing performances from his acting ensemble, accounts for the film’s popularity with the Cannes public.

    In addition, the German Pavilion at Cannes was a beehive of activity. All 18 films screened in festival sections could be seen again in the Film Market. Indeed, this festival within a festival was a feast for the cineaste – to say nothing of underscoring the visionary skill of German film commissioners. Congratulations!

    Return of the Documentary

    As the Cannes carousel rolled on, a pair of Italian docu-dramas on how the mafia has infiltrated the social fabric, to say nothing of having reached the higher echelons of political circles, won increasing accolades of praise – like the proverbial snowball rolling down a hill. For some critics, this apparent new wave of Italian mafia films heralded a revival of neorealist cinema.

    Programmed towards the middle of the festival, the most talked about film at Cannes was Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (Gomorra) (Italy), awarded the runnerup Grand Jury Prize. Based on the non-fiction bestseller with the same title by Roberto Saviano, it deals with the inner workings of the Camorra mafia in Naples. According to one unofficial report, the worldwide earnings of the Camorra is estimated at well over $200 billion annually, with the income reaching from drugs and extortion to waste disposal and the haute culture fashion market. That alone makes Gomorra interesting, while the intertwining stories feature some bravura acting performances. The story of how a young delivery boy, longing to join the mafia, sets up a woman for execution at the hands of rival toughs is chilling for its authenticity.

    By the same token, Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo (Italy/France), a portrait of former Christian Democrat Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (brilliantly interpreted by Toni Servillo) is anything but flattering. Rather, Servillo’s performance is peppered with such delightful moments of outrageous wit and humor that Andreotti comes across as a real-life, modern-day, double-dealing Machiavellian Prince – one who will stop at nothing to retain power, cost what it may. Il Divo was awarded the Special Jury Prize.

    Unfortunately overlooked for a festival award, Ari Folman’s animation-documentary Waltz with Bashir (Israel/France/Germany/USA) is the one film in the Cannes competition that you cannot easily forget – and this for any number of reasons.  The traumatic journey of the filmmaker himself into his own past as a young soldier during the Lebanon Crisis, the story is told in hand-drawn comic-book fashion to capture the viewer’s attention and to spotlight confessional reports by eyewitnesses on what really happened in June of 1982, when Israeli forces invaded Lebanon. As though to underscore Israeli complicity in the massacre of hundreds (estimated as high as 3,000) Palestinian civilians by Lebanese Phalangists in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, soldier-filmmaker Ari Folman shifts away from animation in the final scene to jarring actual documentary footage of the few survivors leaving the camps. As a statement of conscience and shame, guilt and expiation, Waltz with Bashir stands high on the list of the best antiwar films made. Was the international jury under Sean Penn sleeping?! Ari Folman certainly deserved some kind of citation.

    Programmed in the final slot on the last day of competition, Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs (The Class) (France) was unanimously awarded the Palme d’Or. Surprising, too, was the fact that this was Cantet’s first visit to the Cannes competition. Based on an autobiographical bestseller by François Begaudeau, who plays the lead in this finely sketched story about 13- and 14-year-old students at a multi-cultural school in a tough Parisian neighborhood, The Class covers one year in a teacher’s ordeal to instill a love for learning – along with a tolerance for discipline that makes learning possible in the first place. Call this fiction-documentary or docu-fiction, both are quite appropriate in this case – although, seen from a broader perspective, the film is entirely fictional from start to finish.

    The attraction is how Cantet and Begaudeau collaborated with screenwriter Robin Campillo to make the film in the first place. Throughout an entire school year in preparation for shooting the film, they ran a workshop for volunteer students between the ages of 13 to 16, allowing the kids to improvise their own roles as they went along. In the process, both the students and the three-man camera crew got to know each other, thus enabling a smooth working relationship when the final casting was made just days before the actual shooting began. Films like The Class come along only once in a while. It will be interesting to see how other would-be filmmakers fare when they try to imitate this lively, scintillating, cutting-edge classroom drama.


    Official Competition
    Palme d’Or, Best Film
    Entre les murs (The Class) (France), dir Laurent Cantet
    Grand Prix
    Gomorra (Gomorrah) (Italy), dir Matteo Garrone
    Prix du Jury / Special Jury Prize
    Il Divo (Italy/France), dir Paolo Sorrentino
    Best Director
    Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys) (Turkey/France)
    Best Actor
    Benicio Del Toro, Che (USA/France/Spain), dir Steven Soderbergh
    Best Actress
    Sandra Corveloni, Linha de passe (Passing Line) (Brazil/France), dir Walter Salles
    Best Screenplay
    Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence) (Belgium/France/Italy/Germany), dir Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
    Special 60th Anniversary Prize
    Clint Eastwood, director/composer, Changeling (USA)
    Catherine Deneuve, actress, Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) (France), dir Arnaud Desplechin

    Palme d’Or, Best Short Film
    Megatron (Romania), dir Marian Crisan
    Special Mention
    Jerrycan (Australia), dir Julius Avery

    Un Certain Regard Prizes
    Main Prize
    Tulpan (Kazakhstan/Russia/Poland/Germany), dir Sergei Dvortsevoy
    Jury Prize
    Tokyo Sonata (Japan), dir Kiyoshi Kurosawa
    KnockOut Prize
    Tyson (USA), dir James Toback
    Hope Prize
    Johnny Mad Dog (France/Belgium), dir Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
    KnockOut Prize
    Tyson (USA), dir James Toback
    Prix Coup de Coeur
    Wolke 9 (Cloud 9) (Germany), dir Andreas Dresen

    Caméra d’Or, Best First Film
    Hunger (Australia), dir Steve McQueen

    FIPRESCI (International Film Critics) Awards
    Official Competition
    Delta (Hungary/Germany), dir Kornel Mundruczo
    Un Certain Regard
    Hunger (Australia), dir Steve McQueen
    International Critics Week and Directors Fortnight
    Eldorado (Belgium/France), dir Bouli Lanners – Directors Fortnight

    Ecumenical Jury Prize
    Adoration (Canada/France), dir Atom Egoyan

    Directors Fortnight Prizes
    Prix Regards Jeunes / Young Eyes Prize
    Eldorado (Belgium/France), dir Bouli Lanners
    Label Europa Cinéma Prize (Best European Film)
    Eldorado (Belgium/France), dir Bouli Lanners
    CICAE Prix Art et Essai
    Slepe lasky (Blind Loves) (Slovakia), dir Juraj Lehotsky
    SACD – French Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers
    Les Bureaux de Dieu (God’s Offices) (France), dir Claire Simon
    “Un Regard Neuf” Short Film Prize
    Muro (Brazil), dir Tiao

    International Critics Week Prizes
    Grand Prize
    Snijeg (Snow) (Bosnia-Herzegovina/Germany/France/Iran), dir Aida Begic
    French Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers
    Best Screenwriter
    Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem et Pat Van Beirs, Aanrijding in Moscou (Moscow, Belgium) (Belgium), dir Christophe Van Rompaey
    ACID/CCAS Support Award
    Aanrijding in Moscou (Moscow, Belgium) (Belgium), dir Christophe Van Rompaey
    OFAJ/TV5MONDE (VERY) Young Critic Award
    La Sangre Brota (Blood Appears) (Argentine/France/Germany), dir Pablo Fendrik
    Canal + Grand Prize for Best Short Film
    Next Floor (Canada), dir Denis Villeneuve
    Kodak Discovery Award for Best Short Film
    Skhizein (France), dir Jérémy Clapin

    Regards Jeunes Prizes
    Eldorado (Belgiim/France), dir Bouli Lanners – Directors Fortnight
    Vse umrut a ja ostqanus (Everybody Dies Except Me) (Russia), dir Valeria Gaï Guermanika – International Critics Week

    Prix de la Jeunesse
    Tulpan (Kazakhstan/Russia/Poland/Germany), dir Sergei Dvortsevoy – Un Certain Regard

    Prix Radio France-Culture for Career Achievement
    Sandrine Bonnaire, actress-director

    La Cinéfondation Awards
    First Prize
    Anthem (Israel), dir Elad Keidan
    Second Prize
    Forbach (France), dir Claire Burger, France
    Third Prize (ex aequo)
    Stop ((South Korea), dir Park Jae-ok
    Roadmarkers (Finland), dir Juho Kuosmanen

    – Ron Holloway

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