Waltz with Bashir
by Ron Holloway
Guest columnist Ron Holloway, Chicago-born film critic and scholar, who now lives in Berlin, Germany, returns to these pages with this report on the 61st annual Cannes Film Festival.
Ari Folman’s animation-documentary Waltz with Bashir (Israel/France/Germany/USA) is the one film in the 2008 Cannes competition that you cannot easily forget. The traumatic journey of the filmmaker himself into his own past as a young soldier during the Lebanon Crisis, the story is told in hand-drawn comic-book fashion that spotlight confessional reports by eyewitnesses on what really happened in June of 1982, when Israeli forces invaded Lebanon.
As though to underscore Israeli complicity in the massacre of hundreds (estimated as high as 3,000) Palestinian civilians by Lebanese Phalangists in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, soldier-filmmaker Ari Folman shifts away from animation in the final scene to jarring actual documentary footage of the few survivors leaving the camps. As a statement of conscience and shame, guilt and expiation, Waltz with Bashir stands high on the list of the best antiwar films made. Was the international jury under Sean Penn sleeping?! Ari Folman certainly deserved some kind of citation.
The 2008 61st Cannes film festival, which ran from May 14 to 24, was Thierry Frémaux’s first as délégée general. Last year he was the festival’s artistic director under the friendly aegis of président Gilles Jacob. Last year’s 60th anniversary festival was rated by critics and professionals alike as a banner year in Cannes history, a milestone in Cannes history, a tough act for Frémaux to follow.
Of course, a festival is only as good as the production year itself. But in world cinema there are other ways to smooth over the gaps in a lean season – like unveiling previously undiscovered vistas of cinema art that surface readily but need an astute scout to define talent and potential. In this regard, Cannes has the best crew of scouts on record. So if nothing of interest is found in any given year in traditional filmlands, all Thierry Frémaux has to do is to search other continents for new talent and thematic material.
In Frémaux’s first year as Cannes director, entries from auteur directors barely scored on the critics’ lists in trade publications, while films about the mafia and prison life dominated. The documentary film found a permanent niche in the competition, including a first-time animated documentary. In general, Cannes 61 presented itself as a depressing mirror reflection of our present-day chaotic world.
This year, the tone was set with the opening night film, Brazilian director Fernando Meireilles’s Blindness (Brazil/USA/Canada/Japan), a weary claustrophobic futuristic tale set in a Guantánamo-like prison for an urban population afflicted by a plague that appears to be contagious. Based on Portuguese Nobel Prize winning author José Saramago’s bestselling allegorical Essay on Blindness, the book is one of those high-water-marks in literature that proved too much for a movie straightjacket by an aspiring auteur reaching for the moon.
It was followed on the next day by Pablo Trapero’s impressive but rather heavy-handed Leonera (Lion’s Den) (Argentina/Brazil/South Korea), a murder caper that finds an innocent pregnant woman sentenced to prison for apparently killing her lover. The compelling element in this rather familiar account is that actress Martina Gusman, the film’s coproducer, was in fact pregnant, thus adding to the realism of a story that ends some years later with a contrived escape across the border with her infant son.
Two more Latin American entries by name directors drew mixed reactions from critics. Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas’s Linha de passé (Passing Line – a soccer expression) (Brazil), a four-son family drama set in the teaming slums of Sao Paulo, reminded this reviewer of Visconti’s masterful Rocco and His Brothers (Italy, 1960). A wandering episodic drama directed with an uncontrolled hand, it won a Best Actress Award for Sandra Corveloni, the long-suffering mother whose trouble-making brood stem partially from being offspring by different fathers.
These disappointing Latino entries, however, did manage to whet the appetite for Steven Soderbergh’s Che (USA/Spain/France), a two-part, long awaited, four-and-a-half-hour epic on the life and times of Che Guevara, starring Benicio Del Toro in role of the legendary revolutionary. Unfortunately, the film as it now stands has to be reedited to guarantee the success with audience and aficionados that the producers intended.
One would hope that this “hottest ticket in Cannes” would offer something new on the asthmatic revolutionary who had helped Castro defeat Batista in Cuba (Part One, 1956-59) and then lost his way in the jungles of Bolivia (Part Two, 1966-67). But we are barely able to experience the real man behind Del Toro’s acting façade. Even more puzzling for history buffs was why the reenacted visit of Che to the United Nations in 1964 had been included as a tie-together segment between the historical halves. Probably, suggests an Argentinean colleague, it was there to underscore his intellectual acumen, particularly when Cold War journalists tried to bait him with loaded questions and “commy” accusations.
As always at Cannes, expectations were high for auteur directors, but the auteurs failed to deliver. For many in the press corps, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys) (Turkey/France) was the leading contenter for the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. Programmed early in the festival, Three Monkeys prompted dozens of flattering interviews with the shy director (who seldom strays far from his home base in Istanbul) and his actress wife, Ebru Ceylan.
On the surface, Three Monkeys– the title comes from the “monkey metaphor” of hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil–is little more than a family kammerspiel about human failings. But below the surface it also raises the philosophical question about how extravagant lies designed to cover up the truth can lead to tragic consequences. As strong as the direction is – Ceylan was awarded the Best Director at Cannes – what’s lacking is his patented aching indictment of human failings that characterized his earlier films: Uzak (Distant) (2003), Grand Jury Prize at 2003 Cannes, and Iklimler (Climates), FIPRESCI Critics Prize at 2006 Cannes. Maybe, next time.
The same fate awaited Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence) (Belgium/France/Italy/Germany), an engaging film which lacks the persuasive power of the Belgian brothers’ previous Palme d’Or winners: Rosetta (1999) and L’Enfant (The Child) (2005). For Lorna’s Silence, the directors return to an environment they know only too well from childhood: Liège. Here, an illegal Albanian immigrant – played by talented Kosovo actress Arta Dobroshi, who learned French to get the part – falls into the hands of a slick taxi-driver with mafia contacts in order to obtain Belgian citizenship.
The marriage scheme begins with a junkie, who is expected to die of an overdose, so that Lorna can then marry a Russian mafia boss to enable the latter to obtain Belgian citizenship. When her own unexpected pregnancy changes things, Lorna finds herself without a passport, the game becomes dangerous.The film ends in a no man’s land. Lorna’s Silence was awarded the consolation Special 60th Anniversary Prize.
Atom Egoyan’s Adoration (Canada/France) was a major disappointment at Cannes. Considering that this is the Armenian-Canadian director’s tenth appearance at Cannes (including a stint as a member of the international jury), one would expect more maturity in his choice of thematic material. Instead, Adoration, a discourse on the chat phenomenon of the internet age, is drowned at the outset in film and video technology at its most fundamental high-school level.
Wim Wenders’s The Palermo Shooting (Germany/UK) is not much better – indeed, its negative reception at Cannes might signal the demise of auteur cinema as a reliable festival ethic in the years to come. What made matters particularly embarrassing was his specious dedication of the film “to the memory of Ingmar and Antonioni” – as though Bergman and Antonioni might deign to shower their blessings upon the German director’s fiasco.
The problem with Wenders’s lackadaisical road movie, about a chic-fashion photographer (German rock star Campino) just a few steps ahead of “Death” (Dennis Hopper) on a trip from Germany to Sicily, is Wim’s bullheaded, all-out commitment to creative improvisation. This time around – on his ninth visit to the Cannes competition that included a Palme d’Or for Paris, Texas (1984) – he has completely sabotaged his ingrained penchant for “free-wheeling film art.” “Most stories are quite self-centered and have a tendency to push everything else aside,” he once said in an interview in which he criticized narrative cinema. Now Wim is the victim of his own Wenders hubris.
For some critics, the apparent new wave of Italian mafia films heralded a revival of neorealist cinema. Programmed towards the middle of the festival, the most talked about film at Cannes was suddenly Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (Gomorra) (Italy), awarded the runnerup Grand Jury Prize. Based on the non-fiction bestseller with the same title by Roberto Saviano, it deals with the inner workings of the Camorra mafia in Naples.
The intertwining stories in Gamorra feature some bravura acting performances. The story of how a young delivery boy, longing to join the mafia, sets up a woman for execution at the hands of rival toughs is chilling in its authenticity. Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo (Italy/France), a portrait of former Christian Democrat Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (brilliantly interpreted by Toni Servillo) is peppered with such delightful moments of outrageous wit and humor that Andreotti comes across as a real-life, modern-day, double-dealing Machiavellian Prince – one who will stop at nothing to retain power, cost what it may. Il Divo was awarded the Special Jury Prize.
Programmed in the final slot on the last day of competition, Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs (The Class) (France) was unanimously awarded the Palme d’Or. Based on an autobiographical bestseller by François Begaudeau, who plays the lead in this finely sketched story about 13- and 14-year-old students at a multi-cultural school in a tough Parisian neighborhood, The Class covers one year in a teacher’s ordeal to instill a love for learning – along with a tolerance for discipline that makes learning possible in the first place.
The Class could be called fiction-documentary or docu-fiction, but the film is entirely fictional from start to finish. Cantet and Begaudeau collaborated with screenwriter Robin Campillo to make the film, which was shot during a full school year. It offers a rare, and authentic look at a modern urban school.