Seconds before the Palme d'Or winner was announced Sunday night, a TV camera caught popular favorite Nanni Moretti anxiously rubbing his brow. He needn't have worried. His "La Stanza del Figlio" (The Son's Room) became the first Italian film in more than 20 years to win the top prize at the Festival International du Film.
Not well-known in the U.S. but a Cannes veteran whose "Dear Diary" took the best director prize here in 1994, Moretti's film had already won the Davide di Donatello, the Italian Oscar. Looking both exultant and overwhelmed, Moretti doled out specific thanks in rapid Italian and then appeared to exhaust his French with a fervent "Merci, merci, merci."
"The Son's Room" is similar to Moretti's earlier films in that he not only directed but starred in and co-wrote it, but it is very different in tone. While the others are personal comedies, this is a wrenching, engrossing drama about how a convincingly happy family (Moretti plays the psychoanalyst father) is torn apart by the accidental death of a son.
(Also the winner of the international critics organization Fipresci prize, "The Son's Room" will have its Los Angeles debut May 31 as the opening night of an American Cinematheque tribute to Moretti at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.)
If this film's triumph was anticipated, the triple victory of Michael Haneke's "The Piano Teacher," which left several well-liked efforts out in the cold, definitely was not. Except possibly by those who know how important the taste of the jury chairman (in this case, Ingmar Bergman veteran Liv Ullmann) is to the final decision.
Shot in French but directed by an Austrian and set in Vienna, "The Piano Teacher" took the male and female acting awards as well as the Grand Prix, considered the festival's runner-up prize. Even director Haneke said he was "actually a little bit ashamed to be here" after picking up his film's third prize.
A severe, lacerating drama that graphically details the tortured and tortuous sadomasochistic relationship between a teacher and her young, handsome student, "Piano" did seem likely to win the actress award for Isabelle Huppert's intense, uncompromising performance. Said Ullmann on announcing the award: "We all agreed on this one."
"Some films scare you, you think they're going to take everything from you, but they give you everything," Huppert said in accepting. At "The Piano Teacher's" screening, the actress wore a backless gown that revealed lettering on her back and shoulders that read, in French: "God should thank Bach because Bach proves the existence of God."
The biggest surprise of the night was the best actor victory for Huppert's young co-star, Benoit Magimel. The favorite had been the veteran Michel Piccoli in "I'm Going Home," 92-year-old Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira's charming meditation on life, death and aging, an inside look at what it means to get old.
The best director prize was shared by two Americans--Joel Coen and David Lynch--who won consecutive Palme d'Ors here a decade ago. Coen's "The Man Who Wasn't There" is a completely amusing film noir spoof, while Lynch's beautifully made but purposefully illogical "Mulholland Drive" is the latest example of the director's fascination with the connections between dream states and reality. Another successful American director was Los Angeles filmmaker David Greenspan whose Japanese short film "Bean Cake" won the Palme d'Or for short films.
The prize for best script went to Bosnian writer-director Danis Tanovic for the quite funny "No Man's Land," a typically Balkan comedy-with-a-body-count about two soldiers during the 1993 war, a Bosnian and a Serb, who get trapped between their two lines. The film had one of the festival's best proverbs: "A pessimist thinks things can't get worse. An optimist knows they can."
The Camera d'Or, for the best debut film, went to "Atanarjuat The Fast Runner," the movie version of one of the classic folk legends of Canada's Inuit people, which led to the festival's first acceptance speech in the Inuit language, by director Zacharias Kunuk. If there was one work it was sad to see leave the festival without a prize, it was New Wave veteran Jacques Rivette's "Va Savoir" (Who Knows), a droll romantic comedy with the grace and elegance of Shakespeare combined with Eric Rohmer. In a more poetic world, this adult exploration of love, jealousy and infatuation would have split the Palme with another another work by a 70-something New Wave veteran, Jean-Luc Godard's "Eloge de l'amour."
Clearly troubled by what it saw as a lack of quality in many of the competition films, the jury, with Ullmann as its spokesperson, said at the beginning of the night that it "wanted to commend and thank Francis Ford Coppola and 'Apocalypse Now.' Thirty years later, his masterpiece is still there and growing."
Even though this year's festival was considered one of the less scintillating of recent years, that didn't stop celebrities of all stripes from manufacturing a reason to be here. Playboy's Hugh Hefner decided Cannes was just the spot to celebrate his 75th birthday; Danni Ashe, "the world's most downloaded woman," announced a forthcoming autobiography; and the Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived to helped promote a "digital docu-diary" on a year of his life called "The Country Preacher: Keep Hope Alive."
Walking on the Croisette, you might encounter "the world's largest dancing beer bottles," courtesy of Sol Cerveza, or a young man from Australia with a hand-lettered cardboard sandwich board reading "Looking for Harvey." That would be Jeremy Weinstein, "writer, director, publicist, anything else you can do with a film," here to promote a short about an earlier attempt to meet Miramax Films co-chairman Harvey Weinstein. "I thought he might be a long-lost relative." Was he? "I don't want to ruin the surprise."
While the wonderfully realized 26 minutes culled from the forthcoming "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was the most-talked about work in progress, it was also possible to see 10 or so minutes of another ambitious spectacle, the 2-hour, 47-minute "Quo Vadis," billed as "the biggest production in the history of Polish cinema."
Based on the often-filmed novel by Nobel Prize-winner Henryk Sienkiewicz, the new "Quo Vadis" seems to have enthusiastically cornered the market on familiar scenes of Roman spectacle, from dissolute orgies to Christians thrown to the lions to, yes, Nero fiddling while Rome burns. To film it took, among other things, 17,622 meters of fabric, 10 kilograms of face powder and 1,000 cans of hair spray. All well spent.
As for completed works, a wanderer through Cannes' several sections could experience an almost schizophrenic variety of films. Where else could there appear, side by side, "Never Say Never Mind," a James Bond spoof starring the Swedish Bikini Team; "The Pornographer," an art film with hard-core sequences starring Francois Truffaut veteran Jean-Pierre Leaud as a porn director having a personal crisis; and "La Libertad," a deadly serious Argentine film showing in minute detail the solitary life of a man whose life is spent cutting wood on the lonely Argentine pampas.
This year at Cannes also turned out to be a successful and equally diverse one for documentaries. Consider the following:
"Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.," a new work by "Shoah" director Cluade Lanzmann. Though it consists almost entirely of a single interview (with survivor Yehuda Lerner), "Sobibor" ends up exceptionally powerful and disturbing as Lerner gives a blow-by-blow account of a unique successful Jewish uprising against the Germans who ran the Sobibor camp.
"Cool & Crazy": The most popular film in Norway, this droll and amusing doc investigates the genial eccentrics who make up the 30-member male choir of the frigid, North Pole-adjacent fishing village of Berlevag, the same spot previously featured in Isak Dinesen's "Babette's Feast."
"His Majesty Needs Sunshine": Possibly the least-seen film in the festival (I was the only person in its lone film-market screening) and one of the most intriguing as well. Using a wealth of rarely seen newsreel footage, even some unusual 1913 color sequences, "His Majesty" offers both an up close and personal look at Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II as well as an explanation of why and how the ruler intentionally turned himself into "The First German Movie Star."
One of the most personal, as well as the longest, of this year's docs was Martin Scorsese's four-hour-plus "Il Mio Viaggio in Italia" (My Journey in Italy). Discursive, leisurely and continually fascinating despite its length, "Viaggio" combines poignant stories of the director's New York childhood with a short course in the great names of Italian postwar cinema, especially Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni.
Because he considers Italian neo-realism "the most precious moment in film history," Scorsese features extensive sections on such acknowledged classics as "Paisan," "The Bicycle Thief," "La Terra Trema" and "Umberto D."
While it's unreasonable to expect masterpieces at every Cannes, seeing these excerpts pointed up how few touches of greatness were visible this time around.