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CANNES ’07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | To Each His Own: Cannes Competition Offers Romanian Resonance; while “

CANNES '07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | To Each His Own: Cannes Competition Offers Romanian Resonance; while "

“To Each His Own Cinema” — that’s the rough English translation of “Chacun Son Cinema,” the name of the 33-short-film program commissioned for the 60th anniversary edition of the Cannes Film Festival, that is screening tonight (Sunday). It’s a fitting moniker for an event whose tastes range the entire spectrum of cinematic production, from the most rigorous (Alexandre Sokurov) to the most popular (“Ocean’s Thirteen“).

“Chacun Son Cinema,” itself, showcases a range of filmmaking aesthetics, and for the most part, the program is a dazzling and memorable array of current auteur cinema. With the exception of a few horrid entries (Michael Cimino, Amos Gitai), many of the films offer up the breathtaking magic of the moviegoing experience, whether wry comedic contributions from Nanni Moretti, Takeshi Kitano and Roman Polanski to affective cinematic tributes from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (a blind woman watching “Contempt“), Andrei Konchalovsky (viewing “8 1/2“), and Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, (the overwheming power of Robert Bresson‘s “Au hasard Balthazar“).

Even Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan makes his best film in years with “Artaud Double Bill,” a meditation on technology and the thrall of cinema, mixing “Vivre Sa Vie,” and “Joan of Arc” with his own “The Adjustor.” Unfortunately, the best films in the selection aren’t given time to breathe, so as a two-hour show, it’s difficult to recommend wholeheartedly. But as individual achievements, many of the films are glowing testaments to the glory of movies, Cannes itself, and the master filmmakers it has cultivated over the years.

Dare we report the Dardenne brothers’ three-and-a-half-minute short is more profound than most of the films that have shown in this year’s competition, so far?

With fewer gems than drags, the competition screenings have offered little to recommend. In fact, of the eight movies that have screened vying for the Palme D’Or, only one counts as a bona fide gem. If you take the pulse of critics covering the race for the Palme, opinions are significantly mixed, with films being called beautifully photographed yet overlong (Andrey Zvyagintsev‘s “The Banishment“) or an all-out waste of a competition slot (Raphael Nadjari‘s “Telehim“).

This year’s competition discovery is Cristian Mungiu‘s Romanian entry, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” a nasty, little riveting drama about college students trying to obtain an illegal abortion in 1989, during the fading reign of Nikolai Ceausescu. Filmed in a steely, blue-gray tinge, Mungui’s Romania is oppressive, with a hint of grungy all-consuming paranoia. For the first few minutes, the girls’ college dorm feels like a women’s prison. But the young women caught in Mungiu’s vice find themselves entrapped in more ominous confines: Stuck in a hotel room with a male abortionist whose methods make Vera Drake’s look like a walk in the park.

At several points, Mungiu’s stark thriller channels Hitchcock, with ominous props picked up and left for curious viewers to contemplate their future usage and a waiting telephone that completely steals one of the scenes. As with “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” the Romanian Cannes winner of which it’s already been compared, “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” presents some long-takes of excrutiating expressivity that only imprison his characters further. A haunting portrait of Romania and the lies and cruelties that make humanity go round, the movie stands as the best in the official competion so far.

The Coen brothers present their own unique brand of evil with “No Country for Old Men,” the latest Cannes contender from the creative duo who have been frequently celebrated here over the years. Fans of “Blood Simple” and “Raising Arizona” may see some echoes in “No Country,” a violent cowboy picture about one man’s attempts to keep a case of drug money he’s discovered in the Texas desert.

The film is best in its fascinating opening moments: gorgeous landscapes, a post-massacre tableau in the desert, and the enigmatic Javier Bardem as a ruthless assassin who kills with the help of a stun gun. The resulting picture combines Coen’s knack for sharp dialogue, tortuous bloodbaths and rural characters (their colorful array of clerks, cashiers and front-desk denizens surpasses anything in the history of cinema). While mostly entertaining (particularly an early chase scene with a Rottweiler), the Coens, and others, have traversed this road before. Chasing a bag of money, of course, is no original conceit and the film’s ultimate message — that one can’t escape one’s fate — only travels so far.

Still, “No Country for Old Men” has its fans, notably the old man of Variety, critic Todd McCarthy, and along with David Fincher‘s competition picture “Zodiac” stands a chance of remaining one of the better English competition films after all the cards are on the table.

Outside of the competition, two documentaries have also drawn a lot of buzz during the early days of the festival. Barbet Schroeder‘s “Terror’s Advocate” — an intriguing account of equal-opportunity defender Jacques Verges (he’d happily represent Hitler and Bush) — traces the rise of the controversial lawyer from Algeria’s freedom fighters to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to Saddam Hussein. As noted in the film, Verges might have been a terrorist himself, had he not liked good beef and fine wine so much. Self-satisfied and withholding, Verges is a fascinating figure and his role connecting just about every act of terrorism during the 20th century is shocking. But the movie, at over two hours in length, loses its focus throughout with digressions and a lax structure that undermines the whole. U.S. distributor Magnolia Pictures, who boarded the project earlier this year, should consider a recut.

A scene from Michael Moore’s “SiCKO.” Photo courtesy of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

But the biggest documentary at the festival, of course, is Michael Moore‘s “SiCKO.” Lacking context or a shred of counterargument, the movie is predictably populist and one-dimensional. But in its litany of health-care horror stories, one after another after another, “SiCKO” packs an emotional wallop that’s hard to resist with dead children and fallen husbands all casualties of the American healthcare system. However, the film’s overseas jaunts and prankish stunts — reflecting the superior socialist medicine in Canada, France, the U.K. and Cuba — are less successful and overly simplistic, leaving itself open to easy criticisms. Skirting over history and policy, “SiCKO” prefers alternating between sentimentality and the irreverence to create a direct appeal to the American people. And with just about everyone in the U.S. either experiencing firsthand or knowing someone close who has experienced the frustrations and betrayals of the U.S. healthcare system, Moore should have a wide and welcoming audience when the film is released next month.

The latest from the 2007 Festival de Cannes is available anytime in indieWIRE’s special section.

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