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To non-Americans, Moore comes across like some jolly ethnographer explaining the folkways of a backward tribe. In this respect, Sicko has played like a dream in Cannes, earning a 20-minute standing ovation. It may have done so even if Moore hadn't larded the film with adoring references to the French health system, and even if this weren't a good movie. But it is. The mix of facts and faces, outrage and sympathy, the telling anecdote and the surreal observation showcases Moore's savviness. So do his visits to Canada, Britain, France and, spectacularly, Cuba. Hearing Congressional testimony that detainees at Guantánamo are getting lavish medical attention, Moore sails to the base, taking with him volunteer rescue workers from the World Trade Center site who suffered respiratory and other diseases and said their plans did not cover the all treatment they needed. When their request to receive treatment at the base is denied, they go to Havana, where their ailments are efficiently cared for. (Cuba, whatever its other troubles, is widely recognized as having first-class health care.) Is this showboating, or just showmanship? Either way, the polemicist makes his point in a film that's angry and one-sided, sure, but also instructive and often so funny you may pop a stitch watching it.
Barbet Schroeder has directed movies with stars like Jeremy Irons, Sandra Bullock and Gérard Depardieu. But he has also made documentaries, including up-close studies of Idi Amin Dada and Koko the talking gorilla. His new film, Terror's Advocate, is a biopic of Jacques Vergès, the French lawyer who has defended many of the 20th century's most notorious miscreants, from Carlos the Jackal to the Nazi "Butcher of Lyon," Klaus Barbie. Asked if he would defend Hitler, Vergès replies, "I'd even defend Bush. Of course he'd have to admit his guilt first." The answer is flippant, but it points to a question posed by this meticulous, powerful film: Why is the violence committed by individuals called terrorism, while the violence committed by nations called statecraft?
Both forms of bloodshed are preoccupying themes for the English director Michael Winterbottom. His 2006 movie The Road to Guantanamo is in part a straightforward documentary of three British nationals who were held and abused for two years in the U.S. detention center (before being released with no charges or apologies), and partly a re-enactment of the trio's plight. In his new docudrama A Mighty Heart, he has enlisted the star power of Angelina Jolie (and her partner Brad Pitt as producer) to re-create the ordeal of Mariane Pearl, wife of Daniel Pearlthe Wall Street Journal reporter in Pakistan who was kidnapped and eventually beheaded by Islamic terrorists. The film is brisk and well told, and Jolie's bold, harrowing performance is altogether honorableyet some overarching unity is lacking: ultimately, A Mighty Heart doesn't become more than an accumulation of dread and dreadful deeds.
That definition, of course, could fit many a movie thriller. Indeed, horror and grief are at the center of Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage, an intense sepulchral mystery about a Spanish woman (Belén Rueda) whose adopted son goes missing and is presumed dead; she, however, believes the boy's whereabouts can be determined by spirits in her house, which happens to be the orphanage she grew up in. It sounds hokey, and the film is not reluctant to dabble in ghost-story conventions. But this is a shuddery, splendidly made parable about the power of both grief and belief. Bayona makes his feature debut here; if his form holds, he will be back in Cannes for years to come.
Speaking of shuddersand returns to CannesJoel and Ethan Coen have been going to the festival since 1984, when they peddled their first feature, the murder mystery Blood Simple, in the Cannes Market. They won the Palme d'Or in 1991 for Barton Fink. But the brothers' earlier crime dramas are mere frolics compared to No Country For Old Mena grim, mostly enthralling version of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel about $2 million in missing drug loot. For most of its 122-minute running time, this is a gnarly action movie, a duel between a kind-of-good guy (Josh Brolin) who finds the stash, and an implacable monster (Javier Bardem) who's pursuing him and leaving a heap of corpses along the way. Toward the end, when an aged, seen-it-all sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) takes center screen, the film runs itself off the railswillfully refusing to come to the climactic showdown the viewer demands. But mostly it's a tense, fatal game of Texas Hold-'Em, in which Brolin and Bardem give career-defining performances.
Defining careers have also been celebrated this year. Thirty-five of Cannes' veteran auteurs have contributed three-minute filmettes to a compilation called Chacun Son Cinéma (To Each His Own Cinema). The theme is the movie theater. Predictably and poignantly, these brief movies are mostly nostalgic evocations of a communal film experience that may vanish in the face of audience-segmenting multiplex cinemas and the continued development of home-entertainment technology. If the old-fashioned tradition of cinemagoing is to continue, in fact, it may be only in places like Cannes that the great smorgasbord of the movie world seems more appetizing, for one heady moment each year, than a bag of chips in front of the TV.