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Deep Focus

'Mother' is Cannes hit

CANNES — The mood of festgoers changed entirely Saturday, along with the weather, as the Cannes Film Festival found its first unqualified hit. Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” is a deeply engaging and entertaining film about a woman’s gradual but surprising emotional recovery after the accidental death of her beloved teenage son.

Impeccably performed and made with complete confidence, the film provokes laughter and tears in the manner of the best popular Hollywood movies of yore. It won over virtually all segments of the fest audience, and has set the bar at an imposing height for all fest entries to come.

This wonderful official Spanish entry will no doubt put a stop to festgoers’ preoccupation with the major disappointments of the first two days, Nikita Mikhalkov’s “The Barber of Siberia” and Leos Carax’s “Pola X.” Although there is plenty of competition, the former, which has opened softly at the B.O. in France, certainly ranks among the worst Cannes openers ever; Mikhalkov cut short his Riviera stay and beat a hasty retreat to Moscow. The Carax pic, savaged even by some French crix, also opened to unpromising local biz.

Most of the other competition titles have received mixed reactions. Prolific Brit helmer Michael Winterbottom scored a split decision with his kaleidoscopic portrait of working-class Londoners, “Wonderland,” which will be distributed by Universal stateside. The director’s fans found it to be a full-bodied, sometimes moving view of a group of people’s mostly fumbling attempts to find a path in life, while detractors considered the aggressive hand-held style and the basically no-hope p.o.v., capped by a cutesy ending, wearyingly familiar.

Similarly, Alexander Sokurov’s “Moloch,” an intimate look at the domestic life of Adolf Hitler, Eva Braun and the Fuhrer’s inner circle over the course of a 24-hour period in 1942, had critics at odds. Attendees felt the darkly stylized film, set entirely at the dictator’s mountaintop retreat, does not measure up to the Russian maverick’s best work. But it does create a haunting mood and, through its sympathetic portrait of Braun, opens an unusually personal window on a monstrous figure who has always proved notoriously difficult to humanize in dramatic terms.

A pleasant surprise to many was Amos Gitai’s “Sacred” (Kadosh), a lacerating attack on Israel’s Orthodox Jews seen through the prism of their sexual practices and attitudes toward women. With an election today in the offing and conflicts among Israel’s various religious and political factions at their most inflamed ever, pic is particularly controversial locally (it was the first film ever unanimously denied support by Israel’s national funding board, a refusal reversed only after its acceptance at Cannes). The film startlingly draws back the curtain on the exceptionally submissive role Judaism’s most conservative adherents expect women to play.

Also of note was the refined beauty of the three-part Iranian competition entry “Tales of Kish,” in which three narratively simple but metaphorically loaded stories are played out on the sandy shores of the sun-baked titular island. It’s a minor, ephemeral collection, although one with buff interest by virtue of the final tale, “The Door,” directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

Out of competition, Steven Soderbergh’s “The Limey,” starring Terence Stamp as a British criminal arrived in L.A. to track down his daughter’s killer, was generally seen as a standard B-movie Western/gangster revenge saga dressed up with the most imaginative possible direction.

Un Certain Regard sidebar has turned up little of significance thus far, although Youssef Chahine’s Egyptian entry “The Other” and Lynne Ramsay’s grimly offbeat, thematically familiar “Ratcatcher” had scattered support.

The crowd-pleasing hit of the Directors Fortnight thus far has been Damien O’Donnell’s bittersweet, ’70s-set cross-cultural comedy “East Is East” from the U.K., which Miramax recently acquired for $2 million. Also earning upbeat response was Belgian helmer Benoit Mariage’s darkly comic look at a high-strung father, “The Carriers Are Waiting.” Aussie title “Siam Sunset,” first directorial outing by actor John Polson, has had the strongest upbeat reaction of any film thus far in the Intl. Critics Week.