CANNES, FRANCEMidway through the Cannes Film Festival, the competition has been all about familymore specifically all about parents (and parent surrogates) and their troubled children, many of both types pretty much from hell.
Brad Pitt seems a good bet for red-carpet glory as the domineering autocrat atop The Tree of Life, Terrence Malicks long-awaited tale of a 1950s Waco family and the whole darn universe, opening in New York (and reviewed in the Voice) next week. Pitts character is as emotionally distant as Malicks movie, but The Tree of Life aside, the competitions two most discussed movies have been more viscerala pair of arty horror films on the subject of parenting. Lynne Ramsays We Need to Talk About Kevinan overheated, hyper-crafted, feel-bad cine-ordealattempts to trap the viewer inside the brain of a woman whose son has committed a Columbine-style high school massacre, while Austrian first-timer Markus Schleinzers Michaela coolly restrained, highly clever Haneke-like game played with the audienceinvolves an innocent eight-year-old held captive in a basement vault by a bland, weirdly dutiful pedophile.
Both of these movies bid to wash the audience in the blood of the lambs and the tears of bereft parents. As monsters go, however, Schleinzers calm, strict father is pure banality-of-evil, while Ramsays hysterical, withholding mother (played for maximum lunacy by Tilda Swinton) cries out to be burnt at the stake. Correspondingly, Michaels eerily passive sex-slave is scarier than Kevins devil child of Satan. For comic relief in the matter of abused children, the competition offered Polisse, one-named director Maïwenns near-camp essay on the swashbuckling derring-do of Pariss Child Protection Unit. Seemingly modeled on Law & Order, this ensemble workplace drama jumps the shark after five minutes with its first screaming perp interrogation, turns hopelessly risible in the middle with an impromptu mass breakdance display by grateful, liberated Gypsy children, and carves out a niche in camp history when the unit celebrates the rescue of a battered baby with a group trip to the disco: Champagne!
The most warmly received movie in the competition thus far, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes The Kid With the Bike is not just a return to form after the brothers 2008 Lornas Silence but a stern rebuke to Kevins hysteria and Polisses campy faux-verité (not to mention Michaels cool anti-humanism). Abandoned by his father, 12-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) is the most remarkable Dardenne protagonist since Rosettaimplacable, single-minded, resourceful, and fiercely unlovable. Given the nickname Pitbull, this pinch-faced throwaway kid seems like a hopeless case; if his redemption, thanks in part to the ministrations of a neo-realist angel (the wonderfully named Cécile de France), seems improbable or even miraculous, that would be precisely the Dardennes point.
Although Cannes official section also includes Mel Gibsons nutty dad in The Beaver, the most cosmic meditation on parents and children was surely Nanni Morettis Habemus Papam, in which the Italian comic auteur plays the official shrink to a panicky new pope (Michel Piccoli). Given the directors psychoanalytic bent, Habemus Papam does seem remarkably uninterested in the notion of the reluctant pope as a withholding Holy Fathertheres a sort of inoculation in that the Moretti character criticizes his wife, also an analyst, for her undue interest in parental deficit. In any case, the competitions ultimate parent-child drama, as well as its strongest, most original movie thus far, was Joseph Cedars The Footnote.
This Talmudic tale of two competitive Talmud scholars, father and son, is set in present-day Israel, but it could have been played out in 18th-century Vilna or imagined by Franz Kafka. Comic ironies proliferate at every level of the production: The performances (with stand-up comedian Shlomo Bar-Aba and macho heartthrob Lior Ashkenazi cast against type) are as subtle as the music is blatantly obvious, the issues at stake are at once profound and absurd, and the characters self-importance is mirrored by their marginality. (The title tells all.) Its hardly coincidental that the most impassioned moral debate would be waged in an office the size of a broom closet.
As befits what could well be the most Jewish movie ever shown in competition at Cannes, critical response to The Footnote was fascinatingly mixedthe critics polled each day by Le film français gave it lower marks than any movie in the official section save Pirates des Caraïbes 4although, in the first such transaction in what has been described as a lively market, Sony Classics picked up the U.S. rights.
Perhaps The Footnote should have been set in medieval Toledo and played in Ladino. This years festival attests to the continuing vitality of the young Spanish-language and Latin American cinema. Ive seen four movies from South America thus far; none have been less than interesting, and Gerardo Naranjos ferociously paced, bleakly humorous, highly atmospheric Miss Balainspired by the true story of a Sinaloa beauty queen who got mixed up with the local narco gangstersis one of the two or three strongest movies Ive seen here, certainly the pick thus far of Un Certain Regard.
The other three are a varied lot. Language and an ambitious ruling metaphor aside, Pablo Giorgellis minimalist road movie Las Acaciasa sit-doc in which a taciturn truck driver hauls an Indian Madonna and her child from Paraguay to Buenos Aireshas little in common with the Brazilian quasi-horror flick, Hard Labor, made by Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra. Stronger on paper than in execution, this first feature uses a São Paulo housewifes attempt to open a grocery store in a depressed economy to suggest a middle-class tenuously perched atop a morass of corruption, underdevelopment, superstition, exploitation, and filth.
More successful as cinema, Chilean director Cristián Jimenezs Bonsáiadapted from the short novel by Alejandro Zambra and also in Un Certain Regardis a tricky tragicomedy of student-boho life in which deadpan exchanges are enlivened by percussive blasts of teen spirit. This could have been unbearably smug, but the directors unsentimental evocation of youths eternal present and the movies funky Santiago ambience serves to mitigate the preciosity. Bonsái may be familiar, but it isnt banal. The movie is not bad, and these days, not bad is the new pretty good.
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