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Cannes 2004: The gems

There were many movies I loved at the 57th Cannes International Film Festival held between May 12 and 23 2004.

I found the line-up quite inspiring, though there were some entries that just did not grip me, let alone interest me even mildly.

But that is to be expected in any movie festival. It is only when the bad overshadows the good that a cinematic event like Cannes or Venice or Berlin gets to be dreary.But Cannes this summer of 2004 was far from that with blue sunny skies adding to the mirth, and a sense of professional satisfaction to a film critic.

Now here are Cannes' gems:

Bad Education: Pedro Almodovar's Spanish work opened the Cannes International Film Festival on May 12 2004. This was the first time that a movie from Spain was given this honour at what is certainly the top festival in the world.

Gael Garcia Bernal in "Bad Education"

"Bad Education" may not match the emotional depth or even the technical finesse of Almodovar's earlier creations, particularly "Talk To Her", but the Cannes' opener had some of his firsts.

For one, it has a predominantly male cast. Two, unlike the auteur's earlier inspiration which he drew from Tennessee Williams, Ingmar Bergman and so on, Almodovar looks towards Hollywood for encouragement in his latest work.

Some critics at the French Riviera compared "Bad Education" with Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo": both share the concept of obsessive romance. I am not so sure."Bad Education" begins in 1980 at Madrid, where two friends meet. One is a film director desperately seeking inspiration, the other a handsome man who is said to have been the director's school friend and first homosexual partner. The director does not remember this, even when the friend presents a story idea based on their childhood experiences at the hand of an abusive school principal, a catholic priest. When the friend decides to confront the principal, the tale becomes piquant, and Almodovar, true to his style, bombards us with frames that really confuse us by saying what is quite contrary to truth. We have to peel layers to get to it.

Obviously, "Bad Education" is clearly a movie that tries and attacks the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, even while it underlines that all is not black. Almodovar gives a shade of genuineness to the principal, and the work evens out in a beautiful sort of way.

Nobody Knows: Japan's Hirokazu Kore-eda's fourth feature is also his second to screen at Cannes Competition. The earlier was the 2001 drama, "Distance".

Based loosely on a real 1988 Tokyo incident, "Nobody Knows", follows a single mother as she moves into a flat with her four children, each fathered by a different man. Life is fine, till the mother finds a new mate and runs away with him. Then begins a nightmare for the children. Kore-eda uses Japan's four seasons, with their distinctive colours, to capture the movie's mood as it swings from joy and laughter to pain and pathos.

"Nobody Knows" is actually an ode to not only pathetic parental neglect, but also to a society where no one is bothered or concerned about the next person. When the kids fail to pay the house rent, when their electricity and water supplies are disconnected and when they have to steal food  to survive, we see a race go by without noticing this suffering. The children's plight does not appear on anybody's radar !

Kore-eda, who has dealt with the theme of loss in his earlier two films ("After Life" and "Distance" in that order), highlights this emotion again in "Nobody Knows" through some fine performances of his child actors, especially Yuya Yagira. He won Cannes' Best Actor Award, and at 12 years of age, he was the youngest to have won this Palm.

However, true to Kore-eda style, this movie often seems to plod over a rather skimpy plot that makes its pace rather uncomfortable. But, today, Japanese cinema largely falls into this mould, which is quite different from Hollywood with its slick editing and quick flash of frames.

Life Is A Miracle: Emir Kusturica's brilliant 1995 film, "Underground" tends to -- I am afraid -- overshadow the director's subsequent works. His latest, "Life Is A Miracle", despite its exuberance fell a little short of my expectation. This is not to imply "Life Is..." was disappointing or anything  vaguely that.

This time, Kusturica's flight of fancy takes him to a sleepy Bosnian town in 1992, when the war has just broken out. Most of the action takes places in and around a railway station, where the protagonists are a railway engineer, his captured soldier son and a Muslim nurse.

Although Kusturica tries to tell us that his is a love story -- it is certainly reminiscent of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", "As You Like It" and "A Winter's Tale" -- it is actually a comment on war. The helmer argues that blaming one or the other in a conflict freezes the problem rather than solving it. This appears too simplistic. The Serbs featured, for instance, are shown as peace loving victims of circumstance. Moreover, when a Muslim is shot in the final act, it is mistakenly but conveniently by a fellow Muslim !

At one level, "Life Is..." lacks a depth that I would have expected from a man of Kusturica's stature. Having said this, I must conclude on a happier note. The movie  has the usual Kusturica energy and colour that push us into a realm of fantasy and fascination. The editing is so lively that the narrative flows with great ease, and helps a viewer to  believe all that he sees. Even Kusturica's mad magic.

Look At Me: One of the French Riviera's most enjoyable entry was Agnes Jaoui's "Look At Me", which films the frustration of living out another man's expectations. In this case, it is the daughter, Lolita, plump and plain, who finds herself outcast by her famous publisher-author-father, who does not even have time for his trophy of a young wife. So egocentric the man is that he even refuses to acknowledge his daughter's talent for singing. It takes a teacher to recognise that, but Lolita knows that this is partly because her mentor's husband is a struggling writer himself who may benefit from an association with the father.

Agnes Jaoui in "Look at Me"

Newcomer Marilou Berry as Lolita is terrific, also because she is large herself. In the end, through superb acting, she makes just everybody love her, and this transformation -- a little like a fairytale though -- in not totally unconvincing. Thanks to helmer Jaoui, who is also an actress, and has a small role in the movie.

In the end, "Look at Me", is a powerful indictment of the male gaze, the way men perceive women and bracket them in stereotypes, often grading them solely on their physical attributes. Of course, women play along. In an interview Jaoui says that she has been on a diet for 30 years now, and that most women are seldom happy with the way they look. Worse, they let men play mirror,let them form conclusions about the appearance of a woman.

In "Look at Me", the father goes a step beyond, and decides on his daughter's talent or lack of it purely through, what I would think, her physical measurements.

"The Educators: The first German entry in Competition in 11 years is pleasing approach to a not-too-pleasing problem: the rift in German society between the haves and the have-nots.

Two friends break into rich mansions, upset the furniture arrangement (like putting the stereo into the fridge) and leave without stealing anything. They, however, leave a note that warns the occupants that their days of good living are numbered. One such adventure turns sour, and the three are forced to kidnap the a rich man.

Director Hans Weingartner twists the plot in a wonderful  direction that makes the film utterly enjoyable: witty and intelligent. Eventually, what fascinated me about this German work was the way the captive became the captor, and the captors captive in a sense.

The Educators is a positive piece of celluloid that underlines the futility of unlawful ways of living.


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