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Cannes gives preview of great films

3 months after the fest, the flicks are released in U.S.

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Although there is probably a film festival going on somewhere in the world virtually every day of the year, they especially seem to thrive between late spring and early fall. Of the big name festivals, San Francisco and Seattle set things in motion in late April and early May, followed by Cannes, on the French Riviera. From there, it's Locarno, Switzerland, then Venice overlapping Montreal, followed by Toronto, which overlaps San Sebastian, Spain, and so on.

It is Cannes, nevertheless, with its abundance of world premieres and screenings of more than a hundred films a day, that captures the most attention, although most of the films there that gather acclaim — including prize-winners — will hardly be heard of again until late summer or early fall.

Do the foreign-films "Dancer in the Dark," "Blackboards," "Faithless," "Eureka" or "A Time of Drunken Horses" sound familiar? Or even the U.S. entries — "0 Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Nurse Betty"?

Cannes 2000 is nearly three months behind us. But it's for this reason that I've waited until now to write about the films that, one way or another, made the biggest splashes. They're being released to U.S. theaters over the next few months.

The first ones we're likely to see are the Coen Brothers' lightweight but delightful Depression-era comedy, "0 Brother, Where Art Thou?" and Neil LaBute's surprisingly mainstream comic caper, "Nurse Betty."

Neither as dark nor as bizarre as "Miller's Crossing" or "Barton Fink," Joel and Ethan Coen's "0 Brother, Where Art Thou?" is a comic take on Homer's "Odyssey." George Clooney, John Turturro and the wonderful Tim Blake Nelson play escaped prisoners from a 1930's Mississippi chain gang who get themselves into one hilarious scrape after another in the rural Old South. It involves an array of odd-ball characters played by such comic veterans as John Goodman, Charles Durning and Holly Hunter. It may not tread into some of the heavier territory that has marked the Coen Brothers' best films, but this, along with "Raising Arizona," has to be the writing/directing team at their comic best — and the terrific, almost non-stop country music makes it all the merrier.

Former BYU student Neil LaBute shocked and riled audiences everywhere with his first two quirky films, "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," but his newest project is decidedly more mainstream and "audience-friendly." Somewhat in the same vein as "The Truman Show," "EdTV," and even "Pleasantville," the new film has Rene Zellweger perfectly cast in the title role of the naive "Nurse Betty," who, withdrawing from reality after a highly traumatic event, imagines she is actually the girlfriend of a soap-opera doctor she has long idolized on the TV screen. The rest of the cast is equally mainstream, including Greg Kinnear (as the actor/doctor) and Morgan Freeman, as well as LaBute stalwart — and former BYU classmate — Aaron Eckhart (Julia Roberts' hippie-ish boyfriend in "Erin Brockovich"). The script itself, written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, walked away with the Cannes 2000 Best Screenplay Award.

Winning the grand prize (the Palme d'or, or Golden Palm) was a film that also should be opening in the near future. Though "Dancer in the Dark" is a Danish film, directed by Lars von Trier ("Zentropa," "Breaking the Waves" and the highly experimental series "The Kingdom"), the film was nevertheless done in the English language, with its international cast including, in a supporting role, Catherine Deneuve (somewhat miscast and out of her element as a factory worker in the American Northwest!) and (perfectly cast in the main role) Icelandic pop-singer Bjork. ("She didn't even know how to act," said both Deneuve and director von Trier. "She only knew how to 'be.' " But her ability to let herself "be" the near-blind immigrant worker who, like Nurse Betty in LaBute's film, escapes her hard life by imagining herself in movie musicals was enough to captivate not only Cannes audiences, but the festival judges as well, and they gave her the best-actress award!)

Throughout the festival, some critics had quibbled over the films chosen for competition. "Why so many films from Asia?" "It's so lopsided this year; where are the films from Germany and Spain?" "Why all of these films from Iran, of all places!"

By the end of the festival, their questions should have been answered. They were very likely chosen for the competition because they were simply the best out of all the films submitted from around the world. Films from Asia and the Middle East not only assumed an unprecedented dominant presence at Cannes 2000 early on in the festival, but by the end, with the exception of the grand prize to Denmark, they walked away with virtually every other award.

Winning the International Film Critics' prize was Shinji Aoyama's "Eureka," from Japan, a very long but intriguingly original and engrossing film in black and white about the fate of the three survivors of a mass killing that occurred on a local bus. China's "Devil on the Doorstep," set during the Sino-Japanese war of the 19th century and also shot in black and white, won the jury's Grand Prix, second only to the Palme d'or. The best director award went to Taiwan's Edward Yang "Yi Yi" ("A One and a Two"), a very human and very memorable panorama of one family in a Taipei apartment complex. And Hong Kong's intimate yet highly restrained and controlled "In the Mood for Love," by Wong Kar-Wai was given the best actor award for leading man Tony Leung.

But the big revelation of the festival had to be the three films from Iran — all deserving of the awards they won.

Most memorable, perhaps, was "A Time for Drunken Horses" directed by Bahman Ghobadi, set in bleak and rocky Kurdish territory where a boy and his little sister and their crippled brother make their living smuggling goods over the mine-infested Iraqi border. The film won the coveted Camera d'or, or Golden Camera award.

Tying for the Camera d'or was another Iranian film — Hassan Yektapanah's "Djorneh," a quietly charming and subtle film which, like Abbas Kiarostami's "Through the Olive Trees," depicts the agonies of a shy young peasant man mustering up enough nerve to ask a rural shop owner for the hand of his equally shy young daughter with whom he has barely dared to speak.

Finally, winning the special Prix du Jury and, like "Drunken Horses," also set in Kurdish territory, was the striking first film by young Samira Makhmalbaf who, very much like Sofia Coppola in America, is the daughter of a famous filmmaker in her country. As a film to watch for, it is called "Blackboards" and deals with a dozen or so men who, trained as school teachers but poverty stricken because of no work, are forced to take their mammoth blackboards on their backs and set out through the barren countryside looking for any family who would allow their child to learn to read or write.

Three English-language literary films worth watching for were elegant new versions of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth" and Henry James' "The Golden Bowl."

The only film of these three in competition was, unfortunately, the weakest — James Ivory's disappointing "The Golden Bowl," with Nick Nolte and Uma Thurman. Faring considerably better was Terence Davies' "House of Mirth," with an excellent cast and a script so good it makes Wharton seem almost Wildean.

But the very best of the three — and my favorite film of the whole festival — was a film that only had one or two screenings in what is called The Film Market — Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." From Greece — and directed by the excellent Greek director Michael Cacoyannis — this superb version of an unquestionable masterpiece is shot in English and features a first-rate international cast, including Charlotte Rampling, Alan Bates, Kaitlin Cartridge and Frances de la Tour. This is a great classic filmed at its very best, and if an American distributor doesn't pick it up it will be our great loss. At least we might keep a lookout for it to appear on PBS-TV's "Masterpiece Theatre."

Finally, a wonderful little film only played briefly in one of the fringe series at Cannes — Great Britain's charming "Dancer." It is a film about a little boy who, against his father's outspoken wishes, lives to dance. It may not be a perfect film, but it's a gem nevertheless — and better than most things around.

Don Marshall is a freelance writer who lives in Utah.