Towards the end of Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis, the patrons of a dilapidated Manila adult-movie palace are surprised to discover that a goat has wandered in from the street, partly obstructing their view of the naked bodies on screen.
The animal’s sudden appearance—which sets off one of several chaotic, hilarious chases in this rambunctious, noisy film—might be taken as a symbol. The cinema can be a place of fantasy and sometimes disreputable pleasure, but reality, as stubborn and hard to corral as that goat, has a way of intruding whether we like it or not.
At the Cannes Film Festival, however, the metaphor often works in reverse. The metaphorical goats, as it were, can be found in the screening rooms where audiences gather, sheeplike, to witness the frustration, misery and disorder of real life in various parts of the world. The main competition (which this year includes Mendoza’s film), and the adventuresome Un Certain Regard side programme, share a tendency to exalt seriousness and suffering, and some of the strongest entries this year plunge viewers into worlds of private pain, family dysfunction, economic deprivation and social cruelty.
As the festival approached its midpoint, a rich sampling of modern cinematic realism was already on display. Something approaching the 19th century literary understanding of the term informs Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Story), Arnaud Desplechin’s busy, unpredictable variation on the venerable home-for-the-holidays genre. With a cast that includes Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni and the Desplechin mainstay Mathieu Amalric, A Christmas Story is one of the more light-hearted competition selections. It begins with the death of a child and includes a vicious sibling feud, mental illness and cancer. I swear, it filled me with unadulterated joy.
On the more sombre side, Walter Salles’ and Daniela Thomas’ Linha de Passe, from Brazil, looks back to the models of post-war Italian cinema and sideways to the sentimental formulas of Sundance as it tells the story of four brothers and their pregnant mother struggling to rise above the mean streets of Sao Paulo. An equally well-shot, far more unsparing and analytically disciplined look at the predatory logic of urban life (and lawless capitalism) can be found in Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone’s ferocious adaptation of Roberto Soriano’s best-selling semi-fictional exposé of organized crime in Naples.
If you want escapism, it is sometimes necessary to flee the screening rooms altogether. You might hop into a cab to the Hotel du Cap, a half-hour ride down the coast and the scene, late Saturday night, of the Vanity Fair party.
What a lark! (What a mistake.) Clutching your hard-won, holograph-embossed invitation, you descend from your taxi into the care of solicitous security personnele who, if they were a bit friendlier and less neatly dressed, might be mistaken for some of the Neapolitan hit men in Gomorrah. Fortified with a glass of Veuve Clicquot and a paper cone of tiny fried fish, you swirl through the crowd, telepathically air-kissing celebrities—Harrison! Calista! Bono! Mr Murdoch!—before settling into conversation with the two or three people who will actually talk to you. Not that you mind: the du Cap is lovely at night. But after a brief stroll around the grounds, you’re ready to go home.
But here comes that goat. Though the security thugs would be happy to see you leave, by taking that stroll around the grounds, it seems you forfeited your right to re-enter what’s left of the party, even to use the men’s room. No means of escape is forthcoming. A line of cars snakes up the drive, but none are here for you, and your friends have all vanished. At that moment, you would give anything to be back in the Palais, staring at a widescreen projection of someone else’s far more interesting unhappiness.
The film on everybody’s list of Palme d’Or probables is Ari Folman’s ‘Waltz with Bashir‘ from Israel. An animated documentary, it is a saga of recall by an Israeli soldier, Folman, and some companions about the Sabra and Shatila camp massacres of Palestinians in September 1982. The murderers were Lebanese Christian militiamen avenging the assassination of their leader, Bashir Gemayel, president of Lebanon. But the camps were under the control of the Israelis, who looked on, and even colluded under the orders of then defence minister Ariel Sharon. He was forced to resign after an Israeli inquiry. The story is tracked by Israeli soldiers, mostly in original voice-overs, with sumptuous dream sequences, woven into a texture that never fails to enchant. Speaking to ‘Lounge’, Folman said: “I hope I’ve made an anti-war film. I hope young people everywhere will see it and say, ‘No more war, ever, anywhere’.” He spoke about the technique he and his team invented, of going from real-life enactment to re-creation as animation. “Yes, documentary is real life. But animation is freedom and total control.”
Would his damning accusation of Israeli crimes ever be exhibited in Israel? “Of course it will be,” said Folman. “We are an open society. Besides, it’s been made with government funding and the support of Channel 8 in Israel. If some people choose to call me a traitor, well, let them.”
The film has already been sold in Germany, France and the UK. Folman has toured India three times and hopes to screen his films here.
Gerson da Cunha
©2008/The New York Times