Over There

While American critics script eulogies for foreign film, this year's festival at Cannes suggests that reports of its death are an exaggeration

I myself can't, alas, but I am old enough to have observed (albeit from a distance) the favorable reaction at Cannes to such recent world cinema gems as Breaking the Waves, Underground, Naked, Raise the Red Lantern, The Piano, Taste of Cherry, Crash, Chungking Express, Mother and Son, Flowers of Shanghai, and Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy--and it seems like the only thing comparatively lacking from these masterpieces (besides nudity, in many cases) is the time and attention needed to make them classics. Or is there something else missing? "The trouble," according to Denby, "is that critics can no longer appeal to a commonly held set of values." Like bosoms and cleavage, for example? Or what Denby described as "our moods in late adolescence" [emphasis mine]?

Appearing to appeal to some of those previously shared moods, Peter Greenaway's 8-1/2 Women reflected on the old Cannes culture of sex and auteurism by following, in clinical detail, the exploits of a wealthy father and son (John Standing, Matthew Delamere) who set up a private bordello in their Genevan mansion. As the pair screens Fellini's 8-1/2 to get in the mood, the film-illiterate father asks his son, "So how many directors make these things just to indulge their sexual fantasies?" The young man's response: "Most of them, I think." Lamentably, the press-screening crowd seemed to agree with the kid by roundly booing Greenaway's nudity-strewn headscratcher--which would be a convenient sign of lost patience for prurient and experimental filmmaking (or those other old values) except that Antonioni's L'Avventura was also booed after its bow 40 years ago. Neither should 8-1/2 Women be used to support Variety's claim that famous directors were particularly pretentious and self-indulgent this year, since Greenaway has always been pretentious and self-indulgent--and I say this as a fan.

Certainly, 8-1/2 Women--along with, to a lesser extent, the opulent (and boring) new dramas by Egoyan and Almodóvar--fulfills Corliss's sense of "the allure of foreign-language films" from the '50s and '60s: "They had class and they had sex....These films were invitations to European decadence." Not so the new Kadosh (Sacred), Amos Gitaï's aptly depressing and well-made indictment of the horrific sex roles enforced in the name of religion in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter. The main characters are Meir and Rivka (Yoram Hattab and Yael Abecassis), an Orthodox couple who, after ten years of marriage, have not been able to conceive a child. Per tradition, the man's rabbi instructs him that he must remarry, since "a man who dies without progeny rips a page from the Torah"--a declaration that is tantamount to casting Rivka out into the street. Meanwhile, Rivka's sister Malka (Meital Barda) surrenders her principled objections and marries Youssef (Uri Ran Klauzner), who violently forces himself on his bride on their wedding night. In the end, both women are left to weigh their options from a very short list.

More Old Testament than old-style foreign classic, Kadosh is just about the least sexy film on the subject of male-female relationships that one could possibly imagine, and Gitaï's austere, near-documentary approach enhances the fearlessness of his critique. Though it doesn't stand to titillate American thrill seekers, the film should deliver a polemical punch when it plays to an Israeli audience riven by religious debates.

Similarly shaped by the dictates of religion, and even more minimal in its style, Tales of Kish resembles an Iranian New York Stories--a three-part series of 25-minute shorts whose final chapter by Makhmalbaf was the single most enrapturing piece of film I saw at Cannes. Truth told, the other two parts (by Abolfazl Jalili and Nasser Taghvaï) are of nearly equal greatness, but Makhmalbaf's "The Door" is a genuinely magical work whose mise-en-scène (and story) consists solely of blue sky, brown sand, and the sea, along with a young woman and her goat, an elderly man carrying an antique door on his back through the desert, and a postman who tries to deliver a letter to the man's "address." If only "The Door" could reach one one-thousandth of the kids rushing to see the artificial Episode I. Like Takeshi's oddly sweet Kikujiro (and, to an extent, David Lynch's uncommonly simple The Straight Story), Tales of Kish is a movie that any aspiring filmmaker should see as an example of how creative a director can be using nothing more than his imagination and his natural (and modest) surroundings. Incidentally, in the low-budget and highly censored Iranian film industry, such materials are often all there is to work with.

Which reminds me of Denby's ridiculously dismissive regard for Iranian cinema--along with that of seven other countries--as expressed in a single sentence of his New Yorker article. "One must quickly add that the current French, Italian, German, and Japanese cinemas are but a remnant of their former selves, and that the new movies from China, Russia, Finland, and Iran, however fascinating, cannot replace the old masterworks in excitement or glamour." Granted, there isn't much excitement or glamour in Iranian cinema. In fact, Abbas Kiarostami's recent Palme d'Or winner Taste of Cherry--which, per Denby's review in New York, "lacks the courage, the surprise, the ravenous hunger for life, of a serious work of movie art"--is about a forlorn Teheran man looking for someone to help him commit suicide. No, David, there's no "hunger for life" in Taste of Cherry. And no nudity, either.

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