CANNES, FRANCE — Midway through the Cannes Film Festival, the competition has been all about family — more specifically all about parents (and parent surrogates) and their troubled children, many of both types pretty much from hell.
Brad Pitt seems a good bet for red-carpet glory as the domineering autocrat atop The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's long-awaited tale of a 1950s Waco family and the whole darn universe. Pitt's character is as emotionally distant as Malick's movie, but The Tree of Life aside, the competition's two most discussed movies have been more visceral — a pair of arty horror films on the subject of parenting. Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin — an overheated, hyper-crafted, feel-bad cine-ordeal — attempts to trap the viewer inside the brain of a woman whose son has committed a Columbine-style high school massacre, while Austrian first-timer Markus Schleinzer's Michael — a coolly restrained, highly clever Haneke-like game played with the audience — involves an innocent 8-year-old held captive in a basement vault by a bland, weirdly dutiful pedophile.
Both of these movies bid to wash the audience in the blood of the lambs and the tears of bereft parents. As monsters go, however, Schleinzer's calm, strict "father" is pure banality-of-evil, while Ramsay's hysterical, withholding mother (played for maximum lunacy by Tilda Swinton) cries out to be burnt at the stake. Correspondingly, Michael's eerily passive sex-slave is scarier than Kevin's devil child of Satan. For comic relief in the matter of abused children, the competition offered Polisse, one-named director Maïwenn's near-camp essay on the swashbuckling derring-do of Paris' Child Protection Unit. Seemingly modeled on Law & Order, this ensemble workplace drama jumps the shark after five minutes with its first screaming perp interrogation, turns hopelessly risible in the middle with an impromptu mass breakdance display by grateful, liberated Gypsy children, and carves out a niche in camp history when the unit celebrates the rescue of a battered baby with a group trip to the disco: "Champagne!"
The most warmly received movie in the competition thus far, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid With the Bike is not just a return to form after the brothers' 2008 Lorna's Silence but a stern rebuke to Kevin's hysteria and Polisse's campy faux-verité (not to mention Michael's cool anti-humanism). Abandoned by his father, 12-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) is the most remarkable Dardenne protagonist since Rosetta — implacable, single-minded, resourceful, and fiercely unlovable. Given the nickname "Pitbull," this pinch-faced throwaway kid seems like a hopeless case; if his redemption, thanks in part to the ministrations of a neo-realist angel (the wonderfully named Cécile de France), seems improbable or even miraculous, that would be precisely the Dardennes' point.
Although Cannes' official section also includes Mel Gibson's nutty dad in The Beaver, the most cosmic meditation on parents and children was surely Nanni Moretti's Habemus Papam, in which the Italian comic auteur plays the official shrink to a panicky new pope (Michel Piccoli). Given the director's psychoanalytic bent, Habemus Papam does seem remarkably uninterested in the notion of the reluctant pope as a withholding Holy Father — there's a sort of inoculation in that the Moretti character criticizes his wife, also an analyst, for her undue interest in "parental deficit." In any case, the competition's ultimate parent-child drama, as well as its strongest, most original movie thus far was Joseph Cedar's The Footnote.
This Talmudic tale of two competitive Talmud scholars, father and son, is set in present-day Israel but it could have been played out in 18th-century Vilna or imagined by Franz Kafka. Comic ironies proliferate at every level of the production: The performances (with stand-up comedian Shlomo Bar-Aba and macho heartthrob Lior Ashkenazi cast against type) are as subtle as the music is blatantly obvious, the issues at stake are at once profound and absurd, and the characters' self-importance is mirrored by their marginality. (The title tells all.) It's hardly coincidental that the most impassioned moral debate would be waged in an office the size of a broom closet.
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As befits what could well be the most Jewish movie ever shown in competition at Cannes, critical response to The Footnote was fascinatingly mixed — the critics polled each day by Le film français gave it lower marks than any movie in the official section save Pirates des Caraïbes 4 — although, in the first such transaction in what has been described as a lively market, Sony Classics picked up the U.S. rights.
Perhaps The Footnote should have been set in medieval Toledo and played in Ladino. This year's festival attests to the continuing vitality of the young Spanish-language and Latin American cinema. I've seen four movies from South America thus far; none have been less than interesting, and Gerardo Naranjo's ferociously paced, bleakly humorous, highly atmospheric Miss Bala — inspired by the true story of a Sinaloa beauty queen who got mixed up with the local narco gangsters — is one of the two or three strongest movies I've seen here, certainly the pick thus far of "Un Certain Regard."
The other three are a varied lot. Language and an ambitious ruling metaphor aside, Pablo Giorgelli's minimalist road movie Las Acacias — a sit-doc in which a taciturn truck driver hauls an Indian Madonna and her child from Paraguay to Buenos Aires — has little in common with the Brazilian quasi-horror flick, Hard Labor, made by Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra. Stronger on paper than in execution, this first feature uses a São Paulo housewife's attempt to open a grocery store in a depressed economy to suggest a middle-class tenuously perched atop a morass of corruption, underdevelopment, superstition, exploitation, and filth.
More successful as cinema, Chilean director Cristián Jimenez's Bonsái — adapted from the short novel by Alejandro Zambra and also in "Un Certain Regard" — is a tricky tragicomedy of student-boho life in which deadpan exchanges are enlivened by percussive blasts of teen spirit. This could have been unbearably smug, but the director's unsentimental evocation of youth's eternal present and the movie's funky Santiago ambience serves to mitigate the preciosity. Bonsái may be familiar, but it isn't banal. The movie is not bad, and these days, "not bad" is the new "pretty good."