No film has shone brighter than rest

There has been elating miserablism and just miserable miserablism at the 61st Cannes Film Festival, which now chugs into its second half still in search of the film or films that will claim this year’s event as its own.

Many festgoers were able to take a deep breath after the frenzy surrounding Sunday’s preem of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Finding a seat at the 1 p.m. Palais showing, at least downstairs, was nearly impossible unless you got there more than a half-hour early, and it was a sign of the blog-happy times that an unprecedented number of viewers rushed up the aisles for the exits when it was clear the picture was about to end, the better to be among the first to get the word out to a presumably panting public the world round. Scarcely anyone was left in the huge salle when the end credits finally came to a close.

With the Spielberg-Lucas-Ford show over, it’s time to hunker in the bunker to search for something of serious quality. Not that seriousness itself has been lacking: The 10 competition titles unveiled thus far have been unwavering in their sober dedication to depicting (if not illuminating) the sad state of the global human condition. Remarkably, every film thus far has a contemporary setting (although the very well-received “Waltz With Bashir,” from Israel, flashes back two decades), and common images from numerous films are of urban squalor, prisons, hospitals, unwanted pregnancies and violence.

Yes, the world is surely in a mess, and one often hears it’s the artist’s job to make sense of it, or at least provide some insight or a stimulating way of looking at things. As usual, the critics differ over who’s doing the best job of this. Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir” certainly employs the most unusual canvas, that of an animated docudrama that summons up Israel’s 1982 incursion into Lebanon with fresh psychological, emotional and personal memory angles.

For sheer cinematic value, two films stand out, Arnaud Desplechin’s almost deliriously neurotic French family drama “A Christmas Tale” and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s darkly etched “Three Monkeys.” Few directors shoot with such fervid energy (or use music so effectively) as Desplechin, and he and his wonderful cast carry the day despite the director’s lack of discipline as an editor of his own writing. Ceylan, despite his visual precision, has created a narrative structure with the feel of such a calculated intellectual exercise that one remains thoroughly outside the drama.

Cities dangerously out of control dominate Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas’ “Linha de passe,” Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah” and Fernando Meirelles’ “Blindness.” The first two concern Sao Paulo and Naples, respectively, and both films try to evaluate the problems with clear eyes and a level head, to generally respectable if not inspiring results. The way Meirelles merges aspects of Sao Paulo, Montevideo and Toronto into a portrait of one ailing metropolis may be the most successful element in his otherwise misfired piece of speculative fiction about a world gone blind.

The putrid prison in the film, with its repeated views of inmates alternately sidestepping or slipping on masses of human excrement, stands in contrast to the detention facility that occupies the central setting of Pablo Trapero’s “Lion’s Den,” from Argentina. Occupied by female inmates with offspring, it’s an unusual place where kids spend their early youth before their mothers are sprung or they themselves are sent out to be raised elsewhere. Unfortunately, the story’s unique aspects are offset by some predictable, standard-issue prison melodrama.

Hell of another kind is served up in Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s “Service,” which stands both as the year’s seemingly obligatory hardcore-sex art picture and, by general agreement, the entry most wildly out of place in the Competition. Derided for its pretentious use of sex and a bursting bum boil as metaphors for its home country’s ills, pic rates as the year’s mini-scandale thus far.

Those predisposed to hail Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke did so, although the one public screening of his docudrama “24 City” set the Palais seats flipping faster than any other entry to date. The much larger art-film constituency enjoyed by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne seemed to remain loyal to their new drama, “Lorna’s Silence,” about an Albanian woman in Belgium with much demanded of her by several men, despite some lingering narrative issues and a more conventional style than their norm.

While the Competition has sort of stumbled along, standouts have been even scarcer elsewhere in Cannes. The Official Selection’s sidebar Un Certain Regard has yielded at least three well- received films in its opener, Steve McQueen’s harrowing North Ireland prison drama “Hunger,” James Toback’s revealing docu “Tyson” and whimsy-horror trilogy “Tokyo!” from Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-ho.

After a good start with Jerzy Skolimowski’s “Four Nights With Anna,” which provided a happy auteurist comeback event in keeping with its 40th anni, the Directors’ Fortnight has been parsimonious with its pleasures, among them Bouli Lanners’ road-tripping “Eldorado,” from Belgium, and two modest but worthwhile South American entries, Pablo Larrain’s surprising “Tony Manero,” about a kid in 1979 Chile who models himself after John Travolta’s character from “Saturday Night Fever,” and Federico Veiroj’s coming-of-ager “Acne” from Uruguay.

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