The doctors were in again this year, at the 56th Cannes Film Festival. Outside, nature paraded 12 days of gorgeous weather and even more gorgeous strollers down the Côte d'Azur's Croisette. Inside the Grand Palace, directors had their minds on apocalypse: in the Palme d'Or winner, Gus Van Sant's Elephant, an ordinary day in an Oregon high school erupts into massacre, Columbine-style. In Lars von Trier's Dogville, which had all the early buzz but left without any prizes, a beautiful stranger (Nicole Kidman) takes a load of abuse in a Colorado town, then, like an Old Testament God in an I'm-sick-of-Sodom mood, has everyone gunned down. Brazilian director Hector Babenco ended his Carandiru with the slaughter of innocents in a São Paulo jail, and Austrian Michael Haneke depicted the moral chaos attending an unexplained disaster in his testy The Time of the Wolf.
Then, after these grim fairy tales, we would go to a formal beach party thrown by the films' producers and discuss the plight of the world's unfortunates over caviar and bottles of Château Mouton Rothschild. That's radical chic at cinema's most glamorous clambake.
The quality of movies was way off this year. The festival jury, which was led by French director Patrice Chéreau and included Bollywood diva Aishwarya Rai and Chinese actor-director Jiang Wen, deemed only four films worthy of prizes—the lowest number in memory. They also went out of their way to reward movies that were moderate in tone (except for Elephant): the winners included a genial comedy-drama about a dying professor (French Canada's The Barbarian Invasions), a minimalist study of two cousins getting on each other's nerves (the Turkish Uzak), and the one Asian awardee, At Five in the Afternoon, set in Afghanistan and directed by 23-year-old Iranian Samira Makhmalbaf.
To generalize a bit—and what are critics in Cannes for, other than to see dozens of movies and lap up the free vittles?—the artier directors from Europe and the Americas are so sick of current affairs that they want to blow everything up. The Asians on the other hand, who have lived with catastrophe for so long it's like a noisy neighbor, see each day as a little test that must be passed to get to tomorrow. (It's the difference between two views of North Korea: the Bush Administration's and South Korea's.) To put it another way: Western filmmakers are looking for infantile or cartoon solutions; the Asians are the grownups, the realists, the inch-by-inch copers.
If you scoured the outer reaches of the festival, you can find weird extravagance in an Asian film. The Directors' Fortnight presented Takashi Miike's latest outrage, Gozu, an entertaining yakuza saga that ends with the birth of a fully grown man from the womb of a woman in severe discomfort. (Sure, it's all special effects, but still—ick!)
Mostly, though, the tone in the Asian movies was either conciliatory or opaque. Rithy Panh's documentary S21: the Khmer Rouge Killing Machine shows some of the Cambodian perpetrators of genocide in the '70s confronted by their victims or victims' survivors. It's long and harrowing but never shrill, which makes the poise of the victims even more poignant.
China's big Cannes hope, Lou Ye's Purple Butterfly, is an epic set during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. It's got lots of action (including a splendidly complex shoot-out in a train station), a starry performance by Zhang Ziyi and enough period atmosphere to clog your lungs. But Lou seemed to be in a debate with himself about what kind of film he wanted to make. He ultimately chose avant-garde abstraction over the melodramatic vigor this large subject demanded.
At Five in the Afternoon (the title is from a Federico García Lorca poem about the death of a bullfighter) is set after the Taliban's fall, when women have won the right to schooling but many men aren't happy about it. A young woman, Noqreh (Agheleh Rezaïe), has heard the siren call of modernity—women of Afghanistan, throw off your burqas and slip into that darling pair of white shoes you've been hiding! Noqreh does just that after her theologically strict father drops her off at school.
At this all-girl school, the teacher asks, "Who wants to be a teacher?" Many girls stand up. "An engineer?" "A doctor?" Each time, most of the girls happily stand up. "And who wants to be President of Afghanistan?" This time, only Noqreh stands. President? she thinks. Why not? For a start, she'll run for president of her class. But family problems soon overwhelm her ambitions. There's no water, and no milk for her sister's newborn child. And no place to stay. People find shelter in the hull of an abandoned plane or in the ruins of a palace. After occupation by the Soviets, the Taliban and the U.S., Afghanistan is rich in ruins.
The film loses focus toward the end, but for the first hour Makhmalbaf locates the heartache and the desperation without ever raising her voice. She did that only on closing night, when Afternoon won the Jury Prize (third place). "My movie is about a woman who dreams of becoming a President," she declared. "But I personally don't have such a dream ... because we are living in a world in which Mr. George W. Bush is the most famous President."
Samira Makhmalbaf's filmmaking father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf—who directed the superb, Afghan-set Kandahar (2001)—helped finance Sedigh Barmak's Osama, the hit of the Directors' Fortnight. Set in the early days of Taliban rule and based on a true story, it tells of an 11-year-old girl whose mother sends her out with a short haircut and long robes to find work as a "boy" and support the family. It's a reckless ruse, one with potentially fatal consequences. The girl is taken to the men-only prayer ritual, and attends instruction by a mullah in the proper washing of the male genitals. Everyone notices that this "boy" is different—"like a nymph," the mullah says. Her deceit is uncovered by her first menstrual period, and she is married off to an old mullah.
Heartfelt and handsomely made, Osama is full of vignettes showing the depredations of autocratic theocracy. When a Taliban inspector arrives at a hospital where a female doctor is treating an old man, the doctor must quickly don a burqa and claim that she is the wife of her patient's son. We know that a happy ending in reality—indeed, if it is an ending and if it is happy—came only years later, with the overthrow of the Taliban. But the two Afghan films give a lesson that other directors, at Cannes and beyond, could learn from: that life, as it is endured on the vast margins of civilized society, is the most exciting and soul-wrenching form of melodrama. Its dilemmas are not solved by bullets or resolved by bombs.