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Cannes '11 Day 4: Unfair

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 14, 2011 04:54 PM

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It's an awfully unscientific thing to say, but most of the movies that appear at this festival – and many of the rest that appear everywhere else – are about the unfairness of life. I just saw a movie yesterday about a bunch of cardinals who pray to God not to be elected Pope. The man who is elected is immediately depressed. That's "Habemus Papam," a comedy. But there's no anger quite like the anger that arises from feeling helpless over someone else's helplessness. That really should go without saying, and yet I've never said it. It was so striking today because the sense of injustice was both unavoidable and, at least in two cases, searingly specific to their respective countries' social and political climates. Today, nothing was fair.

Thumbnail image for Be Omid e Didar.jpg

Mohammad Rasoulof's "Bé Omid é Didar" (or "Goodbye") woke everyone up by bringing them down. Rasoulof and his fellow filmmaker Jafar Panahi supported Iran's opposition movement and, consequently, are currently serving a six-year prison sentence for "crimes against the state." Made under conditions the festival has described as "clandestine" and showing in the Un Certain Regard wing of the festival, "Goodbye" is a pristine-looking movie that tells the increasingly maddening story of an attorney (Leyla Zareh) who's lost her license to practice the law. Her husband is a journalist who's gone underground, leaving her alone with a pregnancy and life she's unsure she wants, and each new attempt at a visa to leave Iran goes ungranted. The movie's stillness and quiet are close to funereal. Rasoulof limits himself to a handful of cameras angles. Every closed door brings a thunderous rumble. And, in the most cruelly ironic of production choices, the terrace of his heroine's home, overlooks an airport runway. It's a stinging work of art and an allegory of a nightmare: Everyone's in a prison.          

At least three of the four films I saw were about women in difficult positions. In "Return," a soldier named Kelli (Linda Cardellini) comes back to Ohio from service in Iraq. The adjustment isn't easy, but she shrugs it off, perhaps since her non-combat duties and personal injury aren't as bad as others'. Her husband (Michael Shannon) and her friends want her to emote, but she's clearly trying to move forward even though she can't. Her marriage suffers, and things begin to unravel in the unremarkably human way that some lives do. Liza Johnson wrote and directed this movie, which is the only American entry in the festival's Director's Fortnight. I like Johnson's delicacy and discretion. She trusts Cardellini's natural, easygoing performance to show us what goes untold. The movie is modest, too, and it's small emotional scale works. Without asking for pity or outrage, it's another movie about how the unaccountable, unending drain of war.

Kid on the bike.jpgJean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are masters of unfair. They've given us so many minimalists tales of men and women seemingly discarded by life and roiled by circumstance that they'd have to be considered the calorie-counter's Dickens. "The Kid with a Bike" is their latest Palme d'Or entry (they've won twice), and it's many rungs below their leanest and mightiest stuff -- "La Promesse," "The Son," and "The Child." It's a stepladder, really. A hard-looking, recalcitrant Belgian boy named Cyril (Thomas Doret) is determined to find the father who doesn't want him and asks to live with a sexy hairstylist (Cécile de France) who shows him some kindness. She shows so much that even when Cyril disobeys and snaps at her, you come to fear her idiocy.

The stakes are grievously low, and the brothers' avowed realism, which they had seemed to be taking in a new direction with their previous movie, "Lorna's Silence," isn't capacious enough to unpack troubled minds. They've dispensed with their usual stripped-down Belgium and are beginning to let in some urban (or urbanish) detail. With the brothers, when you're noticing the writing rather than getting caught up in the muscularity of the filmmaking, something's wrong. All you do with this new movie is notice.

The Dardennes are up for the Palme d'Or because they always are. But Gerardo Naranjo's Un Certain Regard entry "Miss Bala" is far worthier of a shot. It was the movie of the day yesterday, meaning there appeared to be some consensus that it worked. There was a next-day screening this afternoon. I'd say it works too well. No more Mexican beauty pageants or border-crossing cash-and-gun runs for me. (It's also one of three movies I saw today in which a character makes an escape through a window.)

Miss Bala.jpg"Miss Bala" gives us a 23-year-old Tijuanan named Laura (Stephanie Sigman). She's this close to entering the Miss Baja California contest (Sigman's a model) until she gets caught up in Mexico's drug war. It's a strange, spiritually deflating movie. A cartel and its leader essentially use Laura in every way they can – mule, go-between, sex toy, prostitute, mole, moll. Why send an email, pick up the phone, or call FedEx when you've got her? Naranjo, whose previous movie is "I'm Going to Explode," is not above an occasional lick of comedy, but this is essentially a horror show that establishes its grim dread from the first (of many) Steadicam riffs. His Mexico approximates the country's war-zone narcopolypse while also making clear that every avenue of the system is rigged to mock free will. In that sense, the movie's cabalistic cosmos is at odds with logic and common sense -- or maybe the former just holds the other at gunpoint. Too many times, you say to Laura, "Girl, you better run!" only to realize: What's the point? Like Matteo Garone's more astonishing epic "Gomorrah," Naranjo so effectively locates hell on earth that you're almost better off remaining in your seat.

Pirates red carpet arrival at Cannes.jpgUnfortunately, you have to exit, and this evening I walked out of "Miss Bala" and into the ocean of elation that was lapping at the red carpet outside the Palais. There's nothing quite like leaving a movie about the categorical disregard for a woman's life and hearing a thousand people crying out for Johnny Depp. Yes, today brought the cast of the fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie to Cannes, and I really don't think I've ever heard screaming as deafening as I heard today for Depp and his costar Penélope Cruz. (The terrible photo to the right is of people watching the cast arrive just behind them on the red carpet on an enormous flatscreen monitor.) The movie took up a precious 8:30 screening slot this morning. It's not part of any of the end-of-festival competitions, just the one for most global attention. While "Pirates" played to a packed house of gowns and tuxedos, I ran into its director, Rob Marshall, and its producer, Jerry Bruckheimer. They appeared to be headed to the lounge in the upper tier of the Palais. If they can't sit through this movie, which is scheduled to conquered Earth on Wednesday, why should we?    


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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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