Italy, Australia and Romania are the hotbeds of world cinema, with Spain and Mexico not far behind, while Middle Eastern and Asian movies have lost their luster. That is, of course, if you believe the films chosen to screen at next week's Cannes Film Festival can be taken as a sign of cinematic prosperity. Outside of French entries, which often dominate their local showcase, the 59th Cannes Film Festival may very well be remembered for its Romance languages and Aussie twang.
With two films -- Nanni Moretti's "The Cayman," and Paolo Sorrentino's "The Family Friend" -- nabbing highly coveted competition slots and three other features in the official selection, Italy has the pole position at the upcoming Festival de Cannes. Not since 2001, when the festival's competition included Moretti's "The Son's Room" and Ermanno Olmi's "Il Mestiere Delle Armi" ("The Profession of Arms") have the Italians had such a major presence.
The other Italian films are Mimmo Calopresti's out-of-competition Holocaust doc "Volevo Solo Vivere," Cannes veteran Marco Bellocchio's Un Certain Regard entry "The Wedding Director," and actor Kim Rossi Stuart's Directors Fortnight debut "Even Free is Okay," which will also be screening at New York's "Open Roads: New Italian Cinema" series in early June.
Both Bellochio and Moretti's films have already opened in Italy; the former drawing mixed reviews -- Variety's Deborah Young wrote that Bellochio's "surrealism and inconclusiveness will enchant some viewers while disorienting others" -- while the latter, a comedic political attack against recently ousted Prime Minister/media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, swept Italy's film awards, winning prizes for best film, best director and best actor. Again, in Variety, Young called the film, "by turns funny, sublime, frustrating and rousing."
But the big Italian promise is the 36-year-old Neapolitan and Scorsese-devotee, Sorrentino, whose previous film "The Consequences of Love," a stylish thriller cum character study, premiered in Cannes's competition in 2004. "We have a great new talent," says Antonio Monda, an Italian filmmaker, critic, professor and programmer. "I think this is the first time that an Italian director has had two films back to back in competition."
Last year, Italian-made movies increased their market share by 4%, taking in a quarter of all ticket sales in the country, much to Hollywood's dismay, according to a recent article in Variety.
Monda attributes the Italian resurgence to a number of factors: increased activity from Italian institutions, such as FilmItalia and The Ministry of Culture. "For the first time in Italian cinema history, they're really financing and promoting Italian film," says Monda, who also credits the revival to a new generation of directors breaking away from old formulas and generally better-made films.
"With few exceptions," he adds, "our films are less interested in their own bellybuttons and they're talking about major issues, which audiences around the world can relate to."
Even more surprising than this Italian wave is the sudden eruption of Australian films at this year's Cannes. With three features in Un Certain Regard ("2:37," "Ten Canoes," "Surburban Mayhem") one in Directors Fortnight (Ray Lawrence's "Jindabyne"), another in Critics Week ("Look Both Ways") and three shorts ("Sexy Thing," "Snow," and Jane Campion's "The Water Diary"), the 2006 event will see the most number of Australian films since 1986, when new films from Bruce Beresford, Bill Bennett and Paul Cox screened, and a young director named Jane Campion unveiled her first TV feature and three short films.
"It certainly is a good year for us at Cannes after a few lean ones," says Australian critic Paul Byrnes, "both in what we've been making and what the world has been inviting, so that's a good sign. But I note that some of these invites came fairly late."
The films may reflect less of a new wave than a healthy uptick. Byrnes notes that the last few years have been "pretty dire," but now the industry is finally starting to pick up again. Sarah Watt's "Look Both Ways" -- which is struggling to find an audience in the U.S. -- was a big winner at Australia's film and critic awards and the third most popular Aussie film last year (behind "Wolf Creek" and "Little Fish").
While film festivals and distributors have recently showcased a number of solid Aussie films, such as "Ways," "Somersault," "Little Fish," and "The Proposition," Australia's market share last year was only 2.8%, according to the Australian Film Commission, lower than its 13-year average of 5%.
But the industry is turning around, says Victoria Buchan, a spokesperson for the Film Finance Corporation, the primary government agency for funding production. "We have invested in four of the five feature films to be screened during Cannes," she says, via email. "In July 2004 we instituted a number of significant changes to the method of funding feature films" -- Variety reports such alterations as allowing more private investors to recoup investments and choosing films based on consultants' evaluations rather than market concerns. "We believe these changes have been very positive for the industry," she adds, "and that the industry has responded to the changed environment very well."
Indeed, foreign sales agent Arclight Films has a hand in a number of anticipated Australian films in this year's Cannes market, including "Romulus, My Father," starring Eric Bana and Franke Potente, the "Gallipoli"-compared World War II combat film "Kokoda" and "2:37," the high-school set drama from 22-year-old self-taught upstart Murali K. Thalluri.
Spanish-language films and directors will also dominate in Cannes, with a hefty contingent from Mexico. Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu bring their latest internationally financed projects to the competition, respectively, "Pan's Labyrinth," and "Babel," while newbie Francisco Vargas unveils his feature debut "El Violin," and American Film Institute-trained up-and-comer Gerardo Naranjo ("Malachance") shows off his Critics Week entry about aimless young people "Drama/Mex."
Other Latin contenders include films from Spain (Pedro Almodovar's already heralded release "Volver", Manuel Huerga's Un Certain Regard entry "Salvador," starring Daniel Bruhl as a Franco-era anarchist bank-robber); Argentina ("Cronica de una fuga," the latest from "Bolivia's" Adrian Caetano, and Lisandro Alonso's special Directors Fortnight screening "Fantasma"); and for the first time ever, Paraguay (Paz Encina's Un Certain Regard film "Hamaca Paraguaya," about two elderly parents waiting for their veteran son to return from a war).
If multiple pictures hailing from Paraguay and Portugal also signify shifts in world cinema currents, the three Romanian films at this year's Cannes must be some kind of record. Hot on the heels of Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," which won last year's Un Certain Regard prize, comes Catalin Mitulescu's "The Way I Spent the End of the World," also screening in the section. Directors Fortnight will premiere Corneliu Porumboiu's "Did It Happen or Not?," while Critics Week unveils Cristian Nemescu's featurette "Marilena de la P7."
All graduates of Romania's National University for Theater and Film in Bucharest and between the ages of 28 (Nemescu) and 35 (Mitulescu), these directors belong to a "whole new generation of filmmakers," says Corina Suteu, director of New York's Romanian Culture Institute, who notes that two of the films deal with the anti-Communist Romanian Revolution of 1989 "in a dark and humorous way."
"The tone is very different," she says, in comparison to previous Romanian works. "This is a generation that can be distant, critical and loving. They're much more empowered and they don't need to be symbolic to speak about the complicated reality of what's going on in Romania."
Since 2004, when a new party took over the country, there has also been a loosening of financing rules in Romania. "This government introduced a concept of externalizing the state funds and a more liberal-based principle," says Suteu. "It's no longer so centralized."
And neither, apparently, is Cannes' diverse 2006 selection.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Anthony Kaufman writes a world cinema column for indieWIRE and contributes regularly to Variety, the Wall Street Journal Online, Time Out and Filmmaker Magazine.