Senegal surprise a crix click

Gem found in mixed bag

The first five days of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival did produce one outstanding film that in another year might have been considered a strong contender for the Palme d’Or. Unfortunately, it’s not in the competition.

The most enthusiastic reaction from the audience and many international critics was generated by vet 81-year-old Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s “Moolaade,” a politically charged yet serenely presented look at a female rebellion against the circumcision of girls in a small village.

While creating a rich array of characters and lingering on the details of daily life, Sembene slowly builds a stinging case against unquestioned patriarchal authority, willful ignorance and blind obedience to religious tradition, in this case the Islamic practice of “purification” (meaning circumcision) for females, without which they are not considered fit to marry.

The question on many lips over the weekend was, “Why isn’t it in competition?” While fest organizers could only explain why it was squirreled away in Certain Regard, the feeling persists that this is one instance in which the festival took its policy against “old regulars” too far.

Otherwise, it has been a mixed bag so far, with no competing titles inspiring widespread enthusiasm but some producing support in diverse critical circles.

Pedro Almodovar’s opening nighter “Bad Education” felt a bit off the inspired level of his last two films, but still impressed for the instantly enveloping richness of the director’s style and the lead performances of Gael Garcia Bernal and Fele Martinez.

Two films that split critics into distant camps but have gathered some strong partisans are Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Consequences of Love,” from Italy, and Jonathan Nossiter’s nearly three-hour docu about wine, “Mondovino.” Despite some dramatic missteps in the second half, the former reveals a director with great camera style. “Mondovino,” which was moved up to the competition at the beginning of the fest, surmounts its shaky grasp of camera and structure with a fascinating virgin subject for cinema explored in a deeply knowledgeable manner.

Japanese helmer Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s “Nobody Knows” sticks in the mind for the intense intimacy of its depiction of four children living on their own after being abandoned by their mother, although its virtues might appear stronger at considerably less length.

Satisfying for its delivery of traditional pleasures in the realms of writing, acting and cultural observations is Agnes Jaoui’s “Look at Me” (Comme une image), which is particularly good in catching the short patience and tendency to blame among modern urbanites.

“Shrek 2,” which occasioned a sudden growth of green velvet ears on locals strolling the streets Saturday, went down well enough even if it didn’t match the ingenuity levels of the original, which preceded it in competition three years ago.

Park Chan-wook’s violent meller “Old Boy” from South Korea shows high style in the service of questionably edifying material. Even more disappointing is Emir Kusturica’s marathon “Life Is a Miracle,” a slapstick folkloric musical about conflict in Bosnia a decade back. Although it had predictable support from some Euro critics, pic is maddeningly over-the-top and frustratingly unrewarding as a look at its combustible topic. It’s certainly time Kusturica moved on to another subject and setting.

Similarly polarizing is Lucrecia Martel’s “The Holy Child” from Argentina. Some observers, particularly women, found its mysteries moving and insightful, while many more considered it unbearably obscure and deliberately withholding of information and drama.

In the Directors Fortnight, two Sundance entries, “Mean Creek” and “Tarnation,” scored well, while the opposite was the case for Asia Argento’s “The Heart Is Deceitful … Above All Things.”