Friends: My first three screenings today were all masterfully conceived and executed films delving with life in countries that I know well thanks to my bicycle, having spent a couple months in each--Morocco, South Africa and Turkey. It is always intensely satisfying to relive those experiences thanks to the power of first rate cinema. That is as much of a reason as any that international film festivals have such an appeal to me.
Most of the films in Competition receive at least a smattering of applause."The Source" received a thunderous ovation from a good portion of its audience, by far the most favorable reaction of any audience I've been a part of. But there were also a few hearty boos as well. If the lights had been on, one would have seen a strong male-female divide among those expressing their opinion, the women dominating with their thrill at seeing the women of a small village in an unnamed North African Arabic country standing up to the men in the village. The couple of boos would have been from possible Islamic males in the audiences.
An independent-minded young woman intrudes upon this village as the wife of the local school teacher. She is appalled at the women doing all the work and the men sitting around drinking tea all day and organizes a sex strike. What might have been a comedy was actually a starkly frank and realistic drama. There was not a false step in this credible story. It may have seemed sharply one-sided in the women's favor, but such is life in such an environment. An older woman helps spark the strike by giving a lengthy monologue on her life as not much more than chattel and a beast of burden. She said she was once asked by someone from France what her happiest time was. She says up until she was 14 and was forced to marry a 40-year old who had recently lost his wife. He had two children, 11 and 8, that she immediately became the mother to. She had quite a few children herself afterwards, not all of whom survived. She never loved her husband. It was the standard life for women in such villages.
The men at first don't believe the women are serious or can stick to their vow of not having sex with them until they install a pipeline so they don't have to make a long, strenuous hike for water to "The Source." When they persist, some of the men start beating them and making all sorts of threats. At a certain point they threaten to disavow all their wives, kick them out of the village and acquire new wives. The Islamic elders try to reason with the women, citing passages from the Koran. The women have viable responses. If the four women block on the nine person jury band together, they might make this their Palm d'Or. It certainly deserves to be recognized with one of the seven awards they are allowed to parcel out to the twenty films.
"Beauty" took me back to South Africa, though not the South Africa I experienced. There was hardly a black to be seen in this movie, possibly only one for just a brief glimpse. A man brings him to a gathering of several husky Afrikaners and is immediately rebuked for bringing him and ordered to send him out. "The rules are no blacks and no faggots," one says. Not that they are anti-homosexual. The men are all closet gays of the "Bear" persuasion such as were depicted in the exceptional documentary that played at Cannes last year, "Bear Nation," on the gay sub-culture of bearish males who do not fit the limp-wristed gay stereotype.
These men all lead normal lives with wives and children, but get together for sex. There is only this opening scene though of their sex, other than a climatic rape scene, the most brutal by far of the festival, of a young man who is a friend of one of these older men. He assaults him in a hotel room. The film did give glimpses into life in South Africa that I could relate to, with comments such as life is much more dangerous there now since the end of apartheid.
The latest film from Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan was the final film in Competition. The two-and-a-half hour running time indicated he thought he had a masterpiece on his hands. He won the best director award for his last film at Cannes. This was one of the films I was most looking forward to seeing having just returned from Turkey and the Turkey depicted in this film "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia" in rural Turkey on the somewhat barren Anatolian plain that forms the heart of the country.
The first ninety minutes of the film takes place at night as a trio of police cars drive about with a confessed murderer seeking out the body of the victim. He can't quite remember where he buried him, and driving around at night doesn't help. Along with the police are a prosecutor and a doctor. The prosecutor intercedes when the officers grow frustrated with the murderer and start beating him as they struggle to find the burial sight. The prosecutor says that such behaviour is unacceptable with Turkey trying to get into the EU. That was certainly a prominent theme while I was there, the Turks frustrated that they are continually being rejected by the EU even as they try to abide by its standards.
I was pleasantly surprised that most everyone in the Palais stuck with this slow-moving story. The handful of characters are all superbly portrayed and captured the various strains of Turkish characters that I encountered. There is much truth and insight into present day Turkey in this simple, bare bones movie that is not without some comic relief. There are so many good films this year though, that there may not be enough prizes to give it one.
I sacrificed a Cannes Classic to make sure I got into the screening of the4Director Fortnight winner "The Giants." It was my first attempt on the distant Croisette Theater as it sells a pass of its own and can be difficult to get into. I need not have worried now that the majority of the 30,000 people attending the festival have left. The theater wasn't even half full.
Ralph and I spotted Tom from Telluride and a couple of empty seats beside him. It is always a privilege to have a few words with him, one of the founders of the Telluride Film Festival 38 years ago and as knowledgeable and well-connected man is there is in the world of cinema, a true film guru. As a former jury member at Cannes in 1992 when Louis Malle was the president of the jury, he was the perfect person to ask about what this jury might give awards to. He knew enough to say that there is no predicting.
I wondered if DeNiro might have personal preferences that could influence the jury. Tom said that Malle wanted to give an award to one of his friends, but no one on the jury had liked the film so they overruled him. He added,"Bobby is very soft-spoken," and didn't think he would be overly assertive in having his way on any of the choices. Tom won't be around for the awards ceremony as he flies out of Nice tomorrow morning at 7:45 for London and then on to San Francisco, where the Telluride Film Festival has its home office.
"The Giants" was featured on the cover of the Film Festival pocket guide, so it was a much anticipated film by Bouli Lanners, a Belgian-French co-production. The giants are a trio of young boys, two of whom are left on their own for the summer by their mother at their summer cottage. Their third is a neighboring boy. They get into quite a bit of trouble. I found it rather mundane. I never connected with the boys and didn't care what they did or where this movie was headed.
Before the final screening of the festival at 10:30 Ralph and I ducked into the Palais conference center to see if the Un Certain Regard winners had been posted. We sacrificed going to the announcement ceremony by going to see "The Giants." Everyone anticipated the Mexican film "Miss Bala" to win. The jury handed out four awards and none of them went to "Miss Bala." I was thrilled that Kim Ki-Duk's documentary "Arirang" shared the top award. Many people had reviled this harangue of all his grievances against the world and confession of why he hadn't made a movie in three years, showing how he had been living in a dilapidated shack in rural isolation. Emir Kustirica was the president of the jury, a fellow bad boy of cinema who doubtlessly championed this movie. There were certainly those on the jury who opposed it, as Ki-Duk shared the top prize with "Stopped on the Track" about a man with brain cancer. The film begins saying he has two months to live and shows him dying. I had no interest in this movie. Ralph and seen it and said it was good.
"Sur La Plance" could have made a perfect bookend for my day. As with the first movie, this one took place in Morocco and was about women, these a pair in their early 20s. They are struggling for independence, or a way of living independently, but this did not compare to the potency of "The Source." It was a movie I could have done without.
And tomorrow is the final day. I'll get to see "Melancholia" and the much-anticipated award ceremony. It will be an injustice if "The Tree of Life" does not win the top prize. There are ten others films that could easily win awards, much more than usual in this exceptional year. It has just flown by.