'Wind' shakes the jury

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The eighth time proved the charm for veteran British director Ken Loach, whose historical drama "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" was the surprise winner of the Palme d'Or Sunday night at the Festival de Cannes.

Because Loach has been such a fixture here with films that have won other prizes, he was not considered likely this time. But jury president Wong Kar Wai said Loach's powerful story of Irish rebels in the 1920s battling first the British and then one another was the unanimous choice for the top prize after a screening that left the jury speechless.

"Our film is a little step in the British confronting their imperialist past," a clearly moved Loach said, adding, in a likely reference to the current situation in Iraq, "Maybe if we tell the truth about the past we can tell the truth about the present."

The film that was the popular favorite for the Palm, Pedro Almodóvar's "Volver," had to settle for two lesser prizes, including the best screenplay award for Almodóvar, who'd previously won the best director prize for "All About My Mother."

A tribute to the strength and communal vitality of women, "Volver" is Almodóvar's most accessible film, adding warmth and emotional weight to his usual wickedly satiric mix. Starring Penélope Cruz in the performance of her career as a Spanish Mother Courage modeled on 1950s Italian heroines like those played by Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren, "Volver" is a melodrama in which tragic acts become comic and death is embraced in the midst of life.

"Volver's" other prize was an unusual ensemble best actress award to the six women of the film, all of whom paid tribute to the director. Star Cruz was especially emotional, calling Almodóvar "the greatest, the bravest director. You put so much magic in our careers and our lives, I love you with all my heart."

Equally emotional were the five men who won an ensemble best actor award for their work in the surprise of the competition, "Days of Glory."

This French/North African production directed by Rachid Bouch illuminates the difficulties encountered by Algerian and Moroccan troops who volunteered to fight for France during World War II. A classic "Saving Private Ryan"-type war movie with a different setting and a contemporary twist, "Glory" is a strong, well-acted film, moving and intelligent, that blends old-fashioned naturalism with a cultural context that is surprisingly relevant today. Its actors celebrated by gathering on stage and singing a vintage military marching song from the film.

The festival's grand or runner-up prize went to the emotionally inert "Flanders," directed by Bruno Dumont, whose "L'Humanité" caused a scandal when it won several awards in 1999. The best director award went to Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu for "Babel," which starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. A group of interconnected stories spread across several countries, the film was described by the director as being about "the borders we have within our souls."

Cannes' jury prize went to "Red Road," a story of surveillance and revenge by English director Andrea Arnold, the only first-time director in the competition and winner of a best short-film Oscar in 2005 for "Wasp."

Aside from the multilingual "Babel," financed largely by Paramount, the festival's American films were shut out of the main jury awards. However, William Friedkin's "Bug" did win the FIPRESCI or international critics award, for the Director's Fortnight section.

As always with Cannes, some excellent competition films were neglected, including Lou Ye's "Summer Palace" from China, a sensual, visually poetic and highly charged love story played out against a background that included the confrontation in Tiananmen Square. Aside from this taboo political reference, the film includes more explicit nudity and sexuality than is the norm for China, and by bringing it to Cannes without government approval the director risks reprisals when he returns.

Perhaps the best of the slighted films was "Pan's Labyrinth," the latest work by the most accomplished fantasist in contemporary film, Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican writer-director of "Chronicles" and "The Devil's Backbone." Part fairy tale, part drama, part magical fantasy, made with an impeccable sense of atmosphere and mood, "Labyrinth" follows a 10-year-old girl burdened with a difficult Fascist stepfather who encounters a world of strange and wondrous creatures at the end of an ancient labyrinth.

Of the dramatic films screening in the noncompetitive sections of the festival, one of the most noteworthy was the Australian "Jindabyne," directed by Ray Lawrence, whose last film was "Lantana." Starring Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne and based on a Raymond Carver short story used in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," this brooding, disturbing film shows the shattering effects on a small town when four men come across a body on a fishing trip and delay reporting their find to the police.

Though no documentaries were included in the competition, a variety could be found in the festival, ranging from "Marcello, A Sweet Life," an intimate look at the career of actor Marcello Mastroianni, "the man who made apathy irresistible," to a most unusual sports film, "Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait."

Part sports film, part conceptual art project, "Zidane" uses 17 cameras to focus exclusively on French soccer star Zinedine Zidane during an ordinary league game. We see every single move Zidane makes for the 90-minute match and nothing else, watching as he runs, passes and often just stands still and scratches his head. A sports film for the Andy Warhol set.

One of Cannes' most eagerly awaited films was also its oldest, as the festival hosted a painstakingly restored version of Italian director Giovanni Pastrone's 1914 look at ancient Rome and Carthage, "Cabiria." The first film to be over three hours long, the first film to use a moving camera, the first film to cost 1 million lira (20 times the average cost of a film at the time), this is a visionary motion picture in every sense of the word, a work of staggering visual detail that set the standard for epic filmmaking few silent works would match and none exceed.

At the other end of the spectrum, an unfinished film, Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls," was also causing excitement. Starring Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Beyoncé Knowles, this December release, an adaptation of the Broadway play based loosely on the career of the Supremes, came to town with clips of four electric production numbers and left viewers eager for the rest.

The home of unfinished films hoping for support was of course the Market, which offered wanderers through its dozens of booths the chance to find out about everything from a massive Thai historical drama called "King Naresuan" (The King Who Dared Change the Destiny of a Nation) to something called "Zorro's Bar Mitzvah" to the Japanese film "Iron," with the unforgettable tag line "Killing Is Easy. Ironing Isn't."

Putting it all in a kind of perspective was a line French director Jean-Luc Godard uttered in Wim Wenders' "Room 666," a 1982 documentary showing in the Cannes Classics section. "The Hollywood dream," Godard says acerbically, "is to make one single film and show it everywhere in the world." If the multifaceted Cannes film festival has its way, that won't be happening any time soon.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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