On the first day, moviegoers at the 60th edition of the Cannes film festival stepped out of the inconvenient truth of extreme Mediterranean heat into the first screening of 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. The competition film had arrived under the radar, to say the least. And to tell the truth, many (me among them) had reduced the unheralded movie by 39-year-old writer-director Cristian Mungiu to the unpromising phrase ”the Romanian abortion drama.” It is, after all, the story of Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), a university student seeking illegal termination of a pregnancy in the last late-’80s days of Ceausescu’s miserable Communist regime. A mousy, modest girl practically catatonic with hopelessness, Gabita relies on her more resourceful roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), to contact an abortionist.
What happens is as riveting in its spare, concentrated power and dramatic flow as it is grim, dominated by a breathtaking Marinca as the roommate who juggles danger and the demands of an oblivious boyfriend. The movie is stunning — nuanced, clear-eyed, flowing with a documentary-inflected naturalism that straddles empathy and tough-minded commentary. Manufactured summer blockbusters never felt so far away, or beside the point, nor world cinema so important to the well-being of movie lovers.
On that first day, 4 Months (the film’s subsequent, more reverent shorthand) became a sensation. And on the last day, in the strongest competition slate in years, Mungiu’s ”abortion drama” won the film festival’s top prize. Enthusiastic cinephiles hailed the creative flowering of Romanian cinema. Others, like me, entranced by the novelistic daring of Secret Sunshine, about a young Korean widow’s messy hunger for spiritual solace (and especially by the fearlessness of Jeon Do-yeon’s prizewinning performance), celebrated a year of great roles for women. In addition to Marinca and Jeon, I loved Russian opera legend Galina Vishnevskaya as a grandmother visiting her soldier grandson in the Chechen Republic in Alexander Sokurov’s uncharacteristically pointed political meditation Alexandra.
In The Edge of Heaven, a sophisticated follow-up to Head-On that continues his exploration of culture clash in contemporary Germany, Turkish-German writer-director Fatih Akin uses a Babel-like structure to intertwine the fates of Turks born in Turkey and Turks born in Germany, with an emphasis on mothers and daughters. In the luminous, mysterious Silent Light, the Mexican virtuoso Carlos Reygadas abandons the shock moves he favored in 2005’s Battle in Heaven for the deeper astonishment of a hushed drama of infidelity, faith, and, indeed, miracles set among a Mennonite sect in northern Mexico.
So much to love! So patient and tender the voices — even when noisy, frustrated, and outraged (yes, I mean Michael Moore’s Sicko)! If the Cannes film festival is a cinematic State of the World address, then this year, the world is a delicate, worrisome, but reasonably habitable place where the best artists cultivate their gardens with less emphasis on raising a fist than on modulating their voices to make a mature emotional connection. Look at the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. Their No Country for Old Men — a vibrant, gut-grabbing adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel starring a scary-as-hell Javier Bardem as a madman killer — strips away years of crusted Coen mannerisms to get at the best of their sly style. Look at Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, about a skateboarding kid accidentally involved in a security guard’s death, and stricken into silence — a beauty of a movie with no need for the Columbine-inflected shenanigans the director brought to Elephant. The best of the American movies at Cannes this year were true to their Americanness with a simplicity that acknowledged the foolishness of arrogance, now more than ever. (The weakest American movies suffered for not getting the memo — notably We Own the Night, a self-conscious pose of nostalgia for an inauthentic 1988 New York City with Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, and Robert Duvall let loose to do a whole lot of showy attitudinizing.)
I was thrilled by Persepolis, a brilliant animated version of Marjane Satrapi’s spirited autobiographical graphic novels about growing up irrepressible and Iranian: It’s easily one of the most successful comic-book-page-to-screen translations I’ve seen, fluid and inventive. (Satrapi herself codirected with Vincent Paronnaud.) Aware of its artiness, I was nevertheless impressed with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by art-besotted director Julian Schnabel (impressionistically shot by longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski). A victim’s-eye view of near total paralysis, based on a tour de force 1997 memoir by the late French magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, the picture is also a tour de force for Mathieu Amalric as Bauby, able to communicate only with the yes/no blink of one eyelid.
And so, if I blink quickly over this year’s less satisfying entries — among them the overwrought Russian spiritual allegory The Banishment and Hungarian purist Béla Tarr’s unforgivingly inert The Man From London — it’s only because my eye is still so refreshed by dispatches from a world beyond the shores of Pirates of the Caribbean.