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Half-Way There, And Quite Predictable: A Report on the Cannes Competition, So Far

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire May 19, 1998 at 2:0AM

Half-Way There, And Quite Predictable: A Report on the Cannes Competition, So Far
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Half-Way There, And Quite Predictable: A Report on the Cannes Competition, So Far

by Stephen Garrett




As Cannes rounds the halfway point, the only surprise so far is just how
predictable most of the major filmmakers' entries have been. Ken Loach has
his bleak U.K. stories of the poor and unemployed (barking, of course, in
incomprehensible accents); Tsai Ming-Liang has his alienated Taiwanese vainly
mopping up leaky apartment floors; Rolf de Heer has his handicapped societal
outcasts struggling to find love; Nanni Moretti has his navel-gazing
observations about Italian politics and its effect on his personal life;
Shohei Imamura's got his whores, abusive men, and backward villages; Todd
Solondz has his parade of misfits and losers; Ingmar Bergman has his self-
reflective observations on theater, cinema and life, all wrapped up in
psychological despair; and Terry Gilliam's got his tripped-out visions of
reality. Nothing succeeds like previous successes, but nothing bores more
quickly than redundancy.


Solondz, to be fair, does develop his misanthropy into a more disturbingly
mature voice with "Happiness", one of the stronger premieres this week in the
Director's Fortnight sidebar series. But in the main competition Roberto
Begnini stands alone as the one filmmaker (so far) who truly breaks out of his
own auteurist stereotype to create "La Vita e Bella" (Life is Good), a (believe it
or not) comedy about the Holocaust that is one of the more touching
expressions of the human spirit in the face of absolute despair.


Begnini himself stars as a Jewish bookseller whom the Nazis take, with his
wife and little boy, to a concentration camp. Lying to his son, he re-
imagines their incarceration as a sleepaway camp to preserve the boy's
innocence about the world. Wildly inventive, reminiscent of the best
screwball comedies and genuinely evocative of Charlie Chaplin's unique mix of
humor and pathos, La Vita e Bella is never tasteless and often devastating.


"The theme completely turned me upside down," Begnini explained at a press
conference full of journalists mostly gushing with effusive praise for the
comedian/filmmaker. "I received this gift from Heaven, and I hesitated -- I
felt a struggle in my whole body. But you need to be strong when you're in
love. And I loved this idea."


In a conversation that touched on Primo Levi, Dante, Proust and Kafka, Begnini
robustly defended his decision to take on the subject of the Holocaust.
"Comedy is perceived as a minor genre -- and this is not a farce about
concentration camps. It's a tragedy presented by a comic. This is a comic
making a tragic film." When asked how he felt about being in competition with
Cannes' other Italian entry, Nanni Moretti's "Aprile", Begnini had only kind
words. "It is an honor to be alongside Moretti," he said in his typically
booming and buoyant voice. (Moretti's film, although well-received at the
festival, is generally less personal than "Caro Diario", with an emphasis on
local Italian politics and culture that doesn't translate well overseas). And
when a few journalists continued to praise him for his movie, Begnini joked,
"I can come back next year, if you like."


Meanwhile, critical opinion remains divided on the movies in competition and
lukewarm overall, with Begnini's film receiving a mixed reception despite its
defenders. The Hollywood Reporter considers "Dance Me to My Song" to be another
"Shine" for any distributor willing to work hard enough in the U.S., while the
frontrunner for the Palme D'or, as far as Variety is concerned, is "La Vie
Revee des Anges", a pouty French drama about the friendship between two
twentysomethings girls, from first-time director Erick Zonca. The third
French film to premiere so far at the festival, "La Vie" was preceded the day
before by "La Classe de Neige", Claude Miller's powerful drama about a little
boy on a school ski trip who escapes into wild, nightmare fantasies as a way
of emotionally dealing with an oppressive, overprotective father.


Returning to the Grand Palais for the first time since winning his second
Palme d'Or last year for "The Eel" was Shohei Imamura, looking fit despite
recent reports of failing health. He brought with him his new film, "Kenzo
Sensei
", about a country doctor battling hepatitis on a remote island town.
Set in 1945, in the months between Hitler's suicide and the dropping of the
atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the movie is a vibrant display from a filmmaker with
four decades of experience under his belt and told with his unique blend of
bawdy humor, outbursts of violence, poignant despair and magical epiphanies.


Monday the Variety Pavilion played host to "Financing Independent Film," the
annual seminar organized by the Independent Feature Project and co-sponsored
by Ernst and Young International. Moderated by producer Dolly Hall
(represented at Cannes with her Director's Fortnight selection, Lisa
Cholodenko's "High Art"), the lively 90-minute discussion covered topics that
ranged from pulling together film financing to working with a distributor
during production of a film. When asked what the most favorable elements are
for packaging a movie, Lion's Gate Executive Vice President Jeff Sackman
cracked, "Leonardo DiCaprio is a very favorable element right now." (Lion's
Gate
just spent $21 million to land the Titanic thesp's skills for its
formerly low-budget "American Psycho"). And Ernst & Young's Declan O'Neill
touted Ireland as a very favorable element for producers, since the country's
tax incentives have caused a boom in low-budget filmmaking such as Neil
Jordan's "The Butcher Boy".


Stratosphere's president Paul Cohen pointed out that producers should keep in
mind the cost to distributors of prints and advertising when working with them
to promote and release their films. "The cost of releasing a film, in the
independent area, is usually 50% of its budget," he noted, and explained that
there has to be a risk/release balance of how much people are willing to make
back on the film. Mark Amin, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Trimark
Pictures, though respectful of film budgets, steered the conversation away
from hard figures. "The importance of budgets is highly exaggerated," he
explained, and evoked films ranging from last decade's "sex, lies, and
videotape
" to last year's "The Full Monty". "Look at the history of independent
film: they depend so much on character and dialogue." He even admitted that
he didn't care so much about seeing a boom hanging in frame than watching an
engaging story. "Forget about the money -- think of the integrity of the
film."