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Small, popular winner emerges

Times Staff Writer

“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” a small Romanian film that was one of the first shown at the Festival de Cannes, outlasted its better-financed, better-known rivals and won the Palme d’Or at a ceremony Sunday night at the Palais des Festivals.

The victory for this beautifully realistic, faultlessly made film about the agonies of getting an abortion in Communist Romania circa 1987 was a popular choice in what was considered one of the strongest competition fields in years. Following the strength of previous Romanian films “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “12:08 East of Bucharest” and with the victory of “Nesfarsit” (“California Dreamin’ ”) in this year’s Un Certain Regard section, the triumph for “4 Months,” which also took the FIPRESCI or international critics’ prize, underlined the emergence of Romanian cinema as a world force.

“This is good news for small filmmakers from small countries,” said dazed writer-director Cristian Mungiu. “You don’t need a big budget and big stars to make a story that moves audiences.”

Though the Coen brothers’ much-admired “No Country for Old Men” came away empty-handed, as did James Gray’s “We Own the Night,” awards for American directors were not lacking.

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Artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel won the best directing prize for a feature he made in French, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” taken from a celebrated book written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a man whose mind was intact inside a completely paralyzed body. “In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d be here,” the director said, wearing his sunglasses on stage. “Basically I’m just a movie fan.”

Winner of the specially created 60th anniversary prize was Gus Van Sant, for “Paranoid Park,” the latest in his series of earnest examinations of the interior life of teenage boys, an award jury president Stephen Frears made a point of saying was also “for his career.”

This edition of Cannes was also a good one for Asian filmmakers. Japanese director Naomi Kawase won the Grand Prize for “The Mourning Forest,” and, in a considerably more popular award, Korean performer Jeon Do-yeon took the best actress prize for her tour de force starring role as a widow who faces startling difficulties in making a life for herself in “Secret Sunshine.” The best actor prize went to Konstantin Lavronenko of “The Banishment,” the overly long new film by Russia’s Andrey Zvyagintsev, who also made the Lavronenko-starring “The Return.”

Turkish director Fatih Akin, who often works in Germany and whose “Head-On” won the Golden Bear in Berlin a few years back, took the best screenplay prize for his “The Edge of Heaven,” a thoughtful examination of the pain of being caught between cultures and generations.

The Jury Prize was split between very different films. Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light” is a formal, severe film about adultery set in a Mennonite community in Mexico, while Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s “Persepolis” is an antic animated feature taken from Satrapi’s graphic novels. Also from the Middle East was the winner of the Camera d’Or for best first feature, “Meduzot,” co-directed by popular Israeli author Etgar Keret, who said he was wearing his first suit since his bar mitzvah, and Shira Geffen.

Though they tend to get overshadowed by the competition films, smaller features made an impact this year at Cannes as well. One of the most successful was another Israeli film, “The Band’s Visit,” the first theatrical feature for writer-director Eran Kolirin, which acquired both the FIPRESCI prize for the Un Certain Regard section and an American distributor. Displaying a deadpan comic sensibility, the equivalent of having the Scandinavian “Kitchen Stories” transplanted to the Middle East, “Visit” tells its strangers-in-a-strange-land story (an Egyptian band visits Israel and no one meets them at the airport) in a way that is both amusing and pointed.

Also rich in character development was the Italian “My Brother Is an Only Child,” directed by Daniele Luchetti and gratefully received by festival audiences as a kind of “Son of ‘Best of Youth.’ ” Like that Italian success of a few years back, “Brother” was written by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli and tells the wonderfully involving story of the relationship over 15 years of two brothers of opposite political philosophies.

The documentary area was especially strong at Cannes, starting with Todd McCarthy’s “Man of Cinema: Pierre Rissient,” a charming and affectionate tribute to a pillar of the festival, an international film talent scout accurately described by Werner Herzog as a “relentless enthusiast for cinema, like the last wooly mammoth.”

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The doc that got the most attention was one of the most involving yet by world-class provocateur Michael Moore. “Sicko,” which examines what’s wrong with the American healthcare system and what’s right with how the rest of the world does it, is entertaining, outrageous, informative and very much to the point.

Two other excellent documentaries also had strongly political subject matter. Barbet Schroder’s smart and sophisticated “Terror’s Advocate,” perhaps the most fascinating film of the festival, examines the dramatic and controversial life of French attorney Jacques Verges, defender of everyone from Pol Pot to Klaus Barbie to Carlos the Jackal. “He’s a combination of Alan Dershowitz and Claus von Bulow,” says Schroder, who directed “Reversal of Fortune.” “You get two for the price of one.”

Equally controversial and a last-minute addition to the festival was Andrei Nekrasov’s “Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case.” Polemical and personal, its unsettling look at corruption and state-sponsored death in Russia is concerned not only with who killed former security officer Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in Britain with radioactive tea, but with the knowledge, activities and beliefs that got him killed.

Cannes, of course, is famously about fun as much as serious subject matter, and it’s the place where New Line went this year to unveil 10 impressive minutes, complete with armored bears, from its projected Christmas release of Chris Weitz’s version of “The Golden Compass,” the first of a trio of fantasy novels by British author Philip Pullman.

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Given that this was its 60th anniversary, the festival did some rejoicing of its own, commissioning some 30 directors to make a series of three-minute films inspired by the subject of the motion picture theater. Gathered under the title “To Each His Own Cinema,” these shorts, ranging in tone from the rueful to the comic to the melancholy, celebrate the moviegoing experience in a way that echoed what Jane Fonda told festival president Gilles Jacob about Cannes’ anniversary. “It’s been my experience,” she said, smiling, “that life begins at 60.”

kenneth.turan@latimes.com


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