Film Society of Lincoln Center

Cannes 2008: Take Two

By Richard Peña

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From the corridors of power to the backstreets of the ghetto, Cannes 2008 had no towering masterworks but plenty of strong showings

This year was something of a “middle” one at Cannes: there were no towering masterworks in sight, but the standard of achievement was reasonably strong, especially in the official competition. Moreover, this year’s fest was dominated by mid-career filmmakers. There were few old masters on the Croisette, but many directors with four or five notable works already to their credit. The Palme d’Or winner, Laurent Cantet’s The Class, was certainly in keeping with this pattern: a solid (if not overwhelming) film that continues the promise shown in his earlier Human Resources and Time Out.

Appearing in the official competition for the first time, Argentinean Pablo Trapero unveiled his fifth feature, Leonera, in which a pregnant woman, Julia, wakes up one morning to find the dead body of her boyfriend and the wounded body of his boyfriend. She’s charged with murder and sent to prison, where she is housed in a special wing for expectant and recent mothers, who get to live with their children until they’re four. Aided by an intense performance from Martina Gusman as Julia, the film plunges us first into her hazy, marginal world only to hit us then with the cold, hard reality of prison life. The world of the incarcerated women and their children is powerfully rendered, yet once everything is established, the film doesn’t really have anywhere to go and the rather drawn-out ending feels tacked on. Still, it’s Trapero’s best work since his 1999 debut feature, Crane World.

Brazil’s Walter Salles was back in Cannes after the 2004 success of The Motorcycle Diaries with Linha de Passe, co-directed with Daniela Thomas. In the heart of São Paulo lives a mother and her four sons: an aspiring soccer player, a Pentecostal Christian, a petty criminal, and the youngest, an Afro-Brazilian boy, who is fixated on locating his absent father. Uh huh. Well produced and certainly watchable, the film is also too schematic—it simply never comes to life, as the burden of each character to represent some stratum of Brazilian society deflates any dramatic tension. All the same, Filipina director Sandra Corveloni won the Best Actress award for her role as the long-suffering mother.

At the opposite end of the production spectrum was Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza’s outrageous—and far more satisfying—Serbis (a kind of Tagalog rendition of “service”). An everything-but-the-kitchen-sink family chronicle set around the day-to-day workings of a porn theater, the film moves at breakneck speed and turns on a dime: a showdown between siblings is interrupted by the extended pursuit of a criminal through the back corridors of the theater that ends with a spectacular fall, followed by the revelation of long-standing infidelity. The sex on the porn theater’s screen begins to feel like an oasis of calm amid the hothouse atmosphere that envelops the film. Mendoza’s seventh feature since his 2005 debut (that’s still the pace of production in the Philippines), Serbis has an engaging anarchic energy that grabs you. But then again, I saw it in the market; during the official press screening, critics walked out in droves, and only halfway through the film was it discovered that the sound was being played at almost twice the necessary volume. These things, it seems, happen, even in Cannes; regardless, Mendoza is clearly a talent to watch.

Finally, perhaps the happiest surprise this year was Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo. Sorrentino is no stranger to Cannes: his The Consequences of Love and The Family Friend both screened in the official competition. But the third time truly proved to be the charm, as Il Divo is an enormous leap forward for its director. A blistering and continuously inventive portrait of the Übermensch of postwar Italian politics, Giulio Andreotti (vibrantly played by Toni Servillo), Il Divo presents a whirlwind of deal-making, back-stabbing, hypocrisy, and corruption, with Andreotti as the deceptive calm at the center of the storm. Being at the center, in fact, seems to be the object of the game. Some audience members felt that the profusion of names and real incidents to which the film keeps referring makes it difficult viewing for anyone not steeped in recent Italian history, but to me, the specifics mattered far less than the sense of the world the film so ably expressed. The arch, almost comic-book stylization that frankly made Sorrentino’s The Family Friend hard to watch is deployed here to tremendous effect. Sorrentino may well be the most talented member of what’s emerging as an exciting new generation of Italian filmmakers.