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Cannes ’06 Critics Notebook: Tower of Babel: An Uneven Mix from Cannes’ Wide Wide World

Cannes '06 Critics Notebook: Tower of Babel: An Uneven Mix from Cannes' Wide Wide World

One of the best things about the Cannes Film Festival is the worldliness of the event; the intermixing of languages and cultures, both in the movies seen and the people met. How refreshing to find a place where there is such a convergence and excitement around movies from such disparate cultures and filmmaking traditions — where Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako‘s latest movie is the event of the day and everyone’s talking about a little German film from an unknown director that sent shivers up their spine.

Mexican filmmakerAlejandro Gonzalez Innaritu‘s “Babel,” a favorite among many at the festival, rolls this global vibe into a single two-and-a-half-hour package. Crisscrossing narratives between Morocco, Mexico, and Japan, Innaritu and screenwriting partner Guillermo Ariaga (“Amores Perros“) weave the stories together with expert precision, building the film to a predictably satisfying conclusion, with life lessons for all about isolation and interconnectedness.

Some critics are beginning to tire of the Innaritu/Ariaga model: the mixed narratives all linked by a single tragedy (“Perros,” “21 Grams“) and the “profound” human themes and fragmented story that eventually emerges whole like a self-satisfied light-bulb in the viewer’s mind. Still, there is no denying the power of “Babel,” the assured photography and editing, the gripping stories, and the full commitment of the actors (Cate Blanchet and a wrinkled Brad Pitt as tourists in Morocco deliver fine, anguished performances).

But “Babel” works best when drifting furthest from its familiar patterns. While least connected to the film’s central morality tale, the Tokyo-set story is the most fresh and moving. Reeling from the death of her mother and rebelling because of her handicap, the young deaf Chieko (an amazing Rinko Kikuchi) moves through the electric nightlife of Tokyo – strobe lights and silence are used to stunning effect – and the lonely desolation of her glassy high-rise apartment. For his next project, Innaritu might consider applying his talent for expressionistic, evocative filmmaking to more deeply explore a single figure like Chieko.

In the spirit of the “Babel’s” global mosaic, here is a look at some other foreign cinemas in Cannes.

Judging from most of the French films on display, Cannes’ hometown industry seems to be in crisis, or at least on hiatus. One after another, critics panned the festival’s Gallic entries. While Dennis Dercourt‘s “The Page Turner” had a few fans and was picked up for U.S. distribution, Nicole Garcia‘s overwrought “Magnolia‘-type bore “Selon Charlie” and Lucas Belvaux’s “The Right of the Weakest” were roundly dismissed as not worthy of the competition, while Bruno Dumont‘s “Flandres,” was considered a misfire, and Un Certain Regard entry “Murderers” was flat-out panned. It’s telling that the most universally well-liked French production may have been the Un Certain Regard omnibus opener “Paris Je t’aime,” an amiable collection of short films by an international cadre of auteurs. It will take a major surprise from Xavier Giannoli’s competition picture “Quand j’etais Chanteur” (screening Friday) to be able to manage a comeback.

A scene from Francisco Vargas’s “El Violin.” Photo courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival.

Two of Italy’s higher profile selections, Nanni Moretti‘s competition film “The Caymen” and Marco Bellocchio‘s “The Wedding Director” share remarkably similar concerns, namely the nature of power in Italy and the plight of being a filmmaker there. Who knows why Moretti and Bellocchio both felt compelled to make their protagonists shoddy Italian directors (one a genre hack; the other a second-rate auteur), but there must be something happening that has made two of Italy’s most prominent filmmakers to question their own profession.

While both films are uneven and don’t exactly cohere for their full running times, Moretti’s hybrid satire/drama kicks in late with a near heartrending climax and a blistering attack on Italy’s former leader Silvio Berlusconi in a film-within-a-film coda.

And Bellocchio’s Un Certain Regard entry employs the same strange and alluring Kafkaesque style as the director’s “My Mother’s Smile” – it’s a fascinating milieu, populated with a menacing Prince, another filmmaker who has faked his own death to garner posthumous fame, and Bellocchio’s repeated refrain, “It’s the dead that command in Italy.”

Catalin Mitulescu‘s “The Way I Spent the End of the World” also addresses the victims of power, but in the filmmaker’s native Romania. One of the exceptionally large number of first features competing for the Camera d’Or (and among the healthy trio of Romanian movies), “End of the World” is set in Bucharest 1989, the last year of Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship. But politics takes a backseat to the story of a 17-year-old girl’s coming-of-age. Sweet and likeable, the movie quietly captures the young innocent love inside a poor rural village during a time of upheaval.

A continent away in Mexico, Francisco Vargas‘s beautifully lensed black-and-white debut “El Violin” – another Camera d’Or competitor – chronicles a more violent revolution. As a group of peasant rebels engage in a guerilla war with the brutal Mexican army, a frail old man (and father to one of the insurgents) infiltrates the military camp with the delicate playing of his violin – all the while smuggling arms back to the fighters. Expanded from a 2005 short film, “El Violin” takes time to find its momentum with a few clumsily handled early scenes, but you can see why Vargas was given the greenlight to expand it. The kernel of the story – the old man’s tete-a-tetes with a general – is involving and suspenseful. Too bad the several members of the press who walked out didn’t get to witness it – or the satisfied applause of those who stuck it out.

A scene from Catalin Mitulescu’s “The Way I Spent the End of the World.” Photo courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival.

Now over to Germany for that little gem of a thriller, Stefan Krohmer‘s “Summer ’04.” When a handsome stranger invades the summer vacation of a 40-year-old woman, her partner, their 15-year-old son and his adventurous 12-year-old girlfriend, viewers might sense the faint echoes of Michael Haneke‘s “Funny Games” or Roman Polanksi‘s “Knife in the Water.” But while cleverly shifting character’s alliances and motivations and playing with audience expectations, Krohmer’s suspense is subtler and his drama more human. And a final chilling moral clusterfuck is the director’s own ingenious making.

Of the several Australian films in this year’s selection, word on the Croisette was that Ray Lawrence‘s “Jindabyne” was not as strong as his previous “Lantana,” while debuting filmmaker Murali K. Thaluri‘s “Two Thirty 7” (screening for the public on Friday) showed impressive filmmaking talents, but felt derivative when compared to Gus van Sant’s similarly conceived “Elephant.”

However, Rolf de Heer‘s early-screening Un Certain Regard Aboriginal fable “Ten Canoes” was one of the festival’s simple delights. Told in voiceover by a joking storyteller (“Walkabout‘s” David Gulpilil), the film leisurely chronicles a story of his ancestors, involving a young man who covets one of his father’s wives. In between, there are dazzling images of Australian swamplands, a healthy dose of laughter and a little bit of death. As Gulpilil’s narrator declares, evoking a sentiment that could apply to many of Cannes’s distinctive and alluring pleasures, “It’s a good story – not like your story – but a good story all the same.”

[Get the latest from the Festival de Cannes throughout the day in indieWIRE’s special Cannes ’06 section.]

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