When Roman Polanski's The Pianist, a true story of a Jew evading the Nazi death camps, was announced winner of the Palme d'Or, the top award at the 55th edition of the Cannes film festival last fortnight, there were audible boos among the cheers in the audience. Differences of opinion there are bound to be at this level of art. But at least one case of injustice was manifest. This was the total rejection of Mike Leigh's All or Nothing, a tale of a drifting London cab driver, favoured to win by critics and newspaper polls alike, to say nothing of two great individual acting performances in it.
Be that as it may, The Pianist is Polanski's much-awaited holocaust film and an offering from the Polish auteur after a longish break. He spent a lot of his childhood in war-torn Warsaw and knew at close quarters what went on in the city's infamous ghetto and the extermination camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz. The film is based on the times and troubles of Wladislaw Szpilman, a brilliant Jewish pianist, his escape from a transport going to Treblinka and his rescue by a compassionate German Wehrmacht officer. The film goes over ground made familiar by Spielberg and Wajda, among others, the knocks on doors in the middle of the night and Lugers fired pointblank at cringing children. The Pianist has the merit of making all this only a chilling counterpoint to the saga of Szpilman (Adrian Brody), not its central material, and of doing it as impeccable cinema. But the Palme d'Or ?
If unvarnished strength of narrative went against Mike Leigh's All or Nothing, it should in justice have lost points for The Pianist. The film depicts the decline into slab-faced despondency of Phil, a London taxi-driver (Timothy Spall). He is attended by Penny, his wife of cooling ardour (Lesley Manville), and two decidedly obese offspring. The film showcases ensemble playing of a high order—rage, bitterness and eventually love. The family is brought together by hateful son Rory's heart attack, in the setting of a scruffy housing estate, played over a long weekend. Spall and Manville's minutely-observed performances seemed to everybody strongly deserving of individual honours but they, like their director, left the Riviera with empty hands.
The film was part of a strong comeback by British cinema to Cannes after an absence last year. There were three acceptances in competition, one in the section titled Un Certain Regard and several documentaries. Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen was spoken in a Glasgow accent of such impenetrable authenticity, it needed subtitles in English. It won laurels for Best Script, telling the story of a troubled teenager who gets involved with murderous dope-runners because he wants to buy a nice home for his mum.
Clearly, right up to curtain-rise on awards night, it was anybody's game at Cannes. So high was the overall quality of the films in competition. The festival's artistic director Thierry Fremaux quoted a top critic's grumble: "You've programmed too many good films. It's impossible to digest them all!" Consider this. Some 2,300 films in all were received as entries for screening from 90 countries, a quarter more than last year's total. Just 55 films were chosen for the 'Selection 2002', 48 of them being world or international premieres at this 55th Festival de Cannes. No wonder it is arguably the world's most important cinefest artistically and commercially, its awards second only to the Oscars in significance.
This was amply evident in Elia Suleiman's Yadon Ilaheyya (Divine Intervention), a film from a new film-making country, Palestine, which won the Jury Prize.It frames the tensions in Palestine within a sparse deadpan comedy which throws up into contrasting relief the tragedies of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.A lot of the film is given over to inventive visual ideas—the protagonist (played by the director) is in his car. He blows air into a balloon which slowly reveals a caricature of Arafat on its surface. The balloon then floats out over the city. Yadon Ilaheyya never forgets the hovering spectres of danger and death but also shows the absurd, human side of an impossible situation—perhaps the only way to regard the impasse in Palestine.
There was much to enjoy in the main competitive section of the festival. Aki Kaurismaki's The Man without a Past, which won a Grand Jury Award for the director, is about a nameless man who is beaten to near-death in the first few hundred feet of the film. In a hospital ICU he suddenly sits up, wrenches off various inquisitive wires from his skin and the story begins. He slowly rediscovers his identity and skills as a welder, finds love with another lonely soul in, of all places, the Finnish Salvation Army and walks off with her into the future beyond a drab railway yard. Markku Peltola as The Man and Katti Outinen's Irma (rewarded with the Best Actress crown) provide examples of the Kaurismaki style: deadpan playing invested into drama and humanity.
Bowling for Columbine, which won the Special 55th anniversary prize, has director Michael Moore walking into a bank offering free rifles to new clients. Moore takes a look at the pathology of violence and fear in the US linked to gun mania and the world's highest gun murder rate. Moore's film was the first feature-length documentary screened at the festival in 46 years.
Ten Minutes Older offered a glittering platter of directors in a single film: Kaurismaki, Wim Wenders, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Werner Herzog, Chen Kaige and Victor Erice. Each man was required to present, in no more than ten minutes, his view of an aspect of time. Herzog takes one back 10,000 years in his segment, presenting the past and the present of a tribe in the Amazon forests. Wenders presents a personal experience, an unwitting drug overdose as he drives through an Arizona wasteland and is rescued by a young girl. Chen Kaige's bit is a moving tale with which many in Indian cities will identify: demolition of a man's home and neighbourhood in the interests of civic improvement and his mind's inability to cope with that reality.
Abbas Kiarostami's Ten is a film of ten episodes linked by the character of an unidentified Teheran woman, attractive, well-off, sophisticated. It is entirely shot in a car she is driving, her passengers at different times being her son, sister, a sex worker and an old woman going to a shrine. It is a tour de force of hyper-realistic performance, with the dialogue tumbling out with the power and confusion of real life. A film made possible only by a miniature digital camera and microphone fixed under the car's dashboard.
At Cannes, the crowning of Polanski's return to form might have been debatable. What wasn't debatable was the moveable feast on display.
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