In its 59th year, the Cannes Int'l Film Festival is still giving us a broad history of the world. But many critics had to sift through the swamp of films to find a few gems. Philip Cheah joins the bum's rush.

There are about 10 film critics who have been going to the Cannes Film Festival (now in its 59th edition) for the last 40 years. It's a wonder to watch them moving slowly through the rushing hordes of critics who are struggling to get into the screenings.

For the last six years, many of us have started wondering what the beef is all about. We struggle to get into the screenings and then realise after 20 minutes that the film is not worth staying for.

Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth.

Case in point was a competition film this year called Colossal Youth by Portuguese director Pedro Costa. Running at two and a half hours, the evacuation began 15 minutes into the screening and went on till the end of the film. It was like a virus eating into the brains of critics. The exodus went on in waves. At the end of the screening, whole rows of empty seats could be seen. Some rows had only one survivor.

There was even talk that jury president Wong Kar Wai liked the film and told the director so. It was speculated that Colossal Youth is aesthetically a more extreme In the Mood for Love as most of the scenes are interior room shots. However, Costa's film ruminates on alienation and loss, and the structural emphasis on repetition while making the alienation palpable, also drove the critics mad. The remaining few however applauded the film loudly and passionately.

The absurdity of Colossal Youth as a competition entry was compounded by Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, that also ran for over two and a half hours. In contrast, the minimalism of Colossal Youth was absent. Instead, Kelly's vision (he of Donnie Darko fame) was an over-the-top vision of Los Angeles in an apocalyptic future where Sarah Michelle Gellar (she of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) is cast as a porn star. The jokes were a mile a minute but no one laughed. Instead, critics fled the hall in the same kind of mass exodus as Colossal Youth. It goes to show that critics can be discriminating. They dislike equally poor entertainment and self-flagellation.

Pedro Almodovar's Volver.

The bets were on for Wong to award Pedro Almodovar's Volver which starred Penelope Cruz (and her cleavage) in the role of a single mother.

Cruz saves her daughter from jail when the latter accidentally kills her lover. And why shouldn't Volver win?

Almodovar had never taken the Golden Palm and this film seemed made for Wong's sensibility, a good taste for women, art direction and performances. It was also funny and sad, the emotions shifting with drama and humour. But no, it only took the Best Script prize while all the women of Volver took the Best Actress prize jointly.

The jury instead awarded the Golden Palm to Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It's a nice film, made with the same dedication and care that marks Loach's work but no one saw it as extraordinary.

Yet since Thierry Fremaux's ascension to the Festival Director's post in 2001, Cannes had a distinct history-of-the-world feel to it. Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley certainly fits in. The film is a rare look at the early beginnings of the Irish civil war in the 1920s when the Irish independence movement split up over those who sided with a limited engagement with the British and those who wanted a total disengagement from the British.

Loach's film is timely because it mirrors Iraq in terms of an Iraqi government that the Iraqis don't totally side with, and an independence war that is labeled terrorist. Loach's film brought the national conflict down to personal ideals, to a battle between families when two brothers find that they are on different sides. He makes the battle less ideological and more personal and shows that people ought to have some say in how they are being governed.

Yet the film sits pleasantly in Loach's filmography without standing out and this makes the award surprising.

Nanni Moretti's The Caiman.

Comparatively, Nanni Moretti's The Caiman also reflects the world today and in many ways, is a more challenging film than Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Yet it walked away with nothing. Many viewers were turned off by the talkativeness of the male neurotic lead, Bruno Bonomo (played by Silvio Orlando), who is a kind of an Italian middle-aged Malcolm in the Middle.

Bonomo is a B-grade film producer who married his actress. But now his life is quickly unraveling, his marriage is on the rocks, and he is debt-ridden from a film he can't finance. The film then reveals its different layers. From the neurotic Woody-Allen-type couple satire, it becomes a film about a film. Bonomo becomes obsessed with a new independent film that he is producing and it becomes a matter of life and death. His utter defeat arrives when he sees a magnificent ship from the film he failed to make, being transported past him on a Rome street. It's a deliciously surreal Fellini moment.

Then Moretti himself makes an appearance as the actor who plays Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who is the subject of Bonomo's independent film. Suddenly the outrage of the film becomes clearer. Bonomo represents the Italian public who for more than 30 years (beginning from the time Berlusconi started owning the media) allowed their premier to run amok in their lives. The helplessness that Bonomo feels has caused him to swallow every defeat.

The film was released before the recent Italian elections and was a big hit. Some even speculate that it caused Berlusconi's narrow defeat. After Moretti's softer earlier film, The Son's Room (2001), The Caiman is actually a roaring return to form. Nevertheless, juries are notoriously unpredictable. Who needs a casino when you have film festival juries?

Next week: On The Road From Cannes Part II.

Click here for other movie articles by Philip Cheah:

East Goes West, West Goes East

Finding Asian Film Gems In Locarno 2005
Five Leaves Left: The Last Days Of Kurt Cobain
Imagine There's No Countries...
The Power Of Nightmares

The Year Of Speaking Mandarin

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