CANNES, France - Being an American moviegoer at Cannes - at any international film festival, but especially Cannes - is like staggering out of Plato's cave into the sun. So this is how the rest of the world sees movies.
The Palm D'Or for the festival's best film will be awarded today, but perhaps the most weirdly instructive day was last Sunday. At midday came the worldwide premiere of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," the event toward which the glam-obsessed side of this famously conflicted festival had been heading at full steam for five days. In attendance was the cream of cinema royalty, men with names like Spielberg, Lucas, Ford, and LaBoeuf. The paparazzi and the fans lining the red-carpeted steps of the Palais de Festi vals screamed themselves hoarse. The movie? It was pretty good.
Earlier in the morning of the same day, an Italian film called "Gomorra" screened as part of the main competition (Hollywood extravaganzas like "Indiana Jones" and "Kung Fu Panda" are quarantined in the "Out of Competition" category so they won't contaminate the art). Based on a runaway nonfiction bestseller in its native country, the film is a sprawling yet taut multi-character drama exposing the dominance of organized crime in every aspect of life in Naples. A glib way to describe it would be "The Godfather" as made by Robert Altman.
Directed by Matteo Garrone, "Gomorra" was instantly recognized as one of the finds of Cannes 2008, and what makes it special is that it doesn't resort to the standard crime-movie tricks. It feels newly observed, with characters at lower levels of Mafia enterprise - an aging bagman (Gianfelice Imparato), a tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo), a 10-year-old kid (Salvatore Abruzzese), the naive assistant (Carmine Paternoster) to a toxic waste disposal contractor - making the moral decisions that will define them. "Gomorra" isn't "entertainment" as most American moviegoers define it, and yet it's absurdly entertaining. It makes "The Sopranos" look like a cable show.
This is what Cannes is for, among other things: to remind the entertainment press that there are other stories to be told and other ways of telling them. (Our job is then to remind you.) These can be playful: Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale" is a family-holiday-hell tale given eccentricity and heft by a cast that includes Catherine Deneuve, her daughter Chiara Mastroianni, and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" star Mathieu Amalric; it unfolds like a novel and bleeds real blood.
Or a Cannes movie can be rigorous and unyielding, like "The Silence of Lorna," about an Albanian immigrant (played by a smart, soulful young actress named Arta Dobroshi) facing a choice as she goes for a Belgian green card. It can be exhilaratingly surreal, like "Ashes of Time Redux," Wong Kar Wai's remix of his 1994 abstract expressionist martial arts movie, or it can shock and delight, like Germany's "Cloud 9," about the joys of senior sex. It can try to do everything at once - entertain, provoke, commemorate - like "Waltz With Bashir," a marvelous animated Israeli memory play about a soldier's complicity in horrific events and, by extension, his country's.
We get a glimpse of this movie otherworld, through the foreign-language films that barely make a dent in the US distribution/exhibition apparatus, and in the work of our more purposeful moviemakers. Not until you steep yourself in a foreign festival bazaar, though, do you begin to understand how all-pervasive the Hollywood ethos is in America, and how effectively it functions as a wall that keeps us from seeing anything beyond
Of course, the other countries of the world turn out as much entertainment and junk as they do art. Much of the former was for sale in all global territories in the Cannes film market on the bottom floor of the Palais de Festivals. In the main theater last Monday, though, was Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who turns 100 this year.
Still active (he's currently working on his 47th movie), de Oliveira was celebrated with a special presentation. He was given the Golden Palm, the festival's highest prize, and a standing ovation by a crowded theater that included luminaries European (actor Michel Piccoli) and American (Clint Eastwood, Cannes jury foreman Sean Penn), and by festivalgoers young and old. Festival president Gilles Jacob described the director's films as founded on "the principle of uncertainty."
That phrase is extremely useful. An unusually large percentage of movies made outside the US entertainment axis embrace the principle of uncertainty - they question, wonder, foment, call to account. They leave endings unresolved and matters up to us. Even the blatant entertainments can be shot through with hesitation, by a contemplation of actuality as it might be rather than a digitized improvement.
By contrast, the majority of films made for consumption in the United States - and successfully sold like candy bars throughout the world - cling to the principle of certainty. They smooth things over rather than raise questions, and they work toward definitive closure of our emotions and of the sale.
This is less of a value judgment than it sounds. Hollywood cinema exists to divert us, and those diversions can be entertaining, inspiring, occasionally brilliant. We go to the movies to leave the cares of the real world behind: This is a human rather than a national urge.
You can't live on a steady diet of high fructose corn syrup without getting fat, though, and American cinema has an obesity problem. Almost every camera shot in every studio-derived film directs us where to look and what to think; every scene is scored to within an inch of its life. The result is a moviegoing audience rewarded for being lazy, one that expects to be spoon-fed and can't conceive of a time when it wasn't.
Even the American movies at Cannes 2008 bent over backward to make things right in time for the end credits. James Gray's "Two Lovers," based on Dostoevsky's "White Nights" of all things, lets the Brooklyn schmo played by Joaquin Phoenix play with the romantic napalm of a crazy shiksa (Gwyneth Paltrow) but lets him return to his old life with no lasting consequences. Eastwood's "The Exchange" is a tawdry/inspiring true tale of 1920s Los Angeles neutered by a glossy production and the casting of a star, Angelina Jolie, whose glamour is at odds with the material.
Oddly, one of the few US directors at Cannes to let the winds of uncertainty into his movie was Woody Allen, and that's largely on the strength of the European actors in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, both outrageously enjoyable here, toy with and dismantle hot-Spaniard stereotypes; the movie's consciously about American certainty wading out of its depth and fleeing home. Steven Soderbergh's two-part, four-hour-plus "Che," on the other hand, represents a conscious attempt by a stateside filmmaker to tackle a non-Hollywood subject (the revolutionary Che Guevara, played by Benicio del Toro); early reports indicate the film gets badly lost in its own ambitions.
If all films were like Cannes films, of course, going to the movie theater would be masochism. You'd need to buy a hair shirt with your popcorn. The larger point is that hardly any of the movies most of us get a chance to see in this country are like "The Silence of Lorna" or "Gomorra" or even "A Christmas Tale." (Please don't think faux-indies like "Juno" are the answer; they're just smarter diversions.) The lesson of this year's festival is that, increasingly, we're getting left out of a conversation the rest of the planet is having.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.