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Cannes 2018 Spotlights Lives of People on the Margins of Society

Egyptian director A.B. Shawky’s feature debut, “Yomeddine,” didn’t win any prizes at Cannes last Saturday, but in its own profoundly empathetic way, the film might be considered the face of the festival’s 71st edition — one that looked thin on paper, got off to a clunky start but ultimately delivered strong, powerful stories of people living on the margins. For the lead role, Shawky cast Rady Gamal, a nonprofessional actor badly disfigured by a long-ago case of leprosy, who breaks audiences’ hearts at one point when his character, attacked by strangers who view him as some kind of contagious monster, cries out, “I am a human being!”

Those words, reminiscent of “The Elephant Man,” might just as well have been uttered by Marcello Fonte, who won the best actor prize from the Cate Blanchett-led jury for his role in Matteo Garrone’s “Dogman” — practically the definition of an underdog as a disrespected, routinely belittled shrimp who finally stands up to a bully three times his size. They could also be the mantra of “Ayka,” which earned newcomer Samal Yeslyamova best actress honors: She plays an illegal immigrant in Moscow, so desperate to repay her debts that she abandons her newborn in the maternity ward and stumbles back into a world where she is less than nobody.

“Stop! Take notice!” these films seem to cry out to an indifferent world. “These people are human beings!” Miserable or not, we need to hear their stories. That’s true whether it’s Spike Lee, reaffirming not just racial equality but also an empowering sense of black pride with Grand Prix winner “BlacKkKlansman” (his first film in competition since “Jungle Fever” in 1991), or Jury Prize winner Nadine Labaki, whose harrowing child-endangerment drama “Capernaum” calls attention to the problem of neglected children in Beirut.

Consumers of popular cinema typically seek escapism from life’s grim realities, whereas art films such as these plunge spectators deep into the suffering of others, asking them to identify with people they might overlook if encountered on the streets.

That also applies to Lee Chang-dong’s masterful “Burning,” winner of the Fipresci jury’s top prize and a favorite of many critics at the fest. Like David Robert Mitchell’s impressive-looking but relatively immature “Under the Silver Lake,” which premiered the previous night, “Burning” grapples with class differences and envy through the eyes of a virtual nobody unable to process the disappearance of a young woman, grasping for any kind of meaning in — and raging against — a world in which he’s made to feel subhuman.

Labaki’s “Capernaum” all but devastates when its 12-year-old protagonist (Zain Al Rafeea) announces his intent to sue his parents “for giving me life.” How low must someone’s self-image sink to imagine himself better off not existing? And yet, it’s even more piercing to see the child’s father (played by Kawthar Al Haddad) break down in court, confessing, “I was raised like them. … People treat me like an animal.”

“Capernaum” is a powerful accomplishment — a female-made film with the potential to connect with global audiences in a big way — made even more chilling by the implication that variations on Zain’s case are repeated and ignored around the globe.

Veteran auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” took home
the Palme d’Or.
FRANCK ROBICHON/EPA-EFE/REX/Shut

Where Labaki’s film smolders with indignation, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters,” the director’s career best, withholds judgment in its sensitive portrayal of a similar instance of humans pushed to the brink — a lower-class Tokyo family that resorts to stealing and other small-time crimes to get by.

Kore-eda’s exceptional film fully merited the jury’s top prize in a year when many predicted Blanchett and her peers — including forward thinker Kristen Stewart and outspoken equal rights advocate Ava DuVernay — to give the Palme to a woman. As it is, two of the three female-made films took home prizes, as screenplay honors were shared by Alice Rohrwacher for “Happy as Lazzaro” and Jafar Panahi’s femme-centric “3 Faces,” which was co-written by a woman, Nader Saeivar.

For many, this writer included, Rohrwacher’s film was the discovery of the festival, perhaps not so successful in the end as Kore-eda’s but boldly and undeniably original in its selective use of magic within the good, old-fashioned Italian neorealist tradition. The less one knows going in, the better, although Rohrwacher also reiterates the festival’s overarching theme when a character says, “Human beings are like animals: Set them free, and they realize they are slaves chained to their own misery.” Lazzaro’s happiness may depend on his naïveté, but Cannes’ best films do well to break the spell.

As no less an oracle than Jean-Luc Godard says toward the end of his ciné-essay “The Image Book” — itself an analysis of the power and limitations of cinema to represent lives too often ignored — “Believe me, we are never sad enough for the world to be better.”

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