The Cannes Film Festival is best-known for its lavish parties and stunning red carpets, but the celebration of cinema has also often been colored by political concerns. This year, promises to be an unusually turbulent one.
After all, filmmakers, studio executives and movie lovers are assembling in the South of France as the specter of war in Ukraine and rising autocracies around the world threaten to overshadow the good times. Indeed, the loudest applause on Cannes’ opening night were reserved for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who made a special appearance via video link in which he invoked Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” a satire of Nazism, to remind the audience of the powerful role movies can play.
“Hundreds of people die every day,” Zelensky said. “Will cinema stay silent, or will it talk about it? If there is a dictator, if there is a war for freedom, again, it all depends on our unity. Can cinema stay out of this unity? We need a new [Charlie] Chaplin who will prove that, in our time, cinema is not silent.”
Many filmmakers are not remaining mute about the suffering and oppression taking place around the world. The fraught political moment is reflected in some of the films being showcased at the festival, as artists grapple with the aftermath of Russia’s brutal invasion. That’s the case with “The Natural History of Destruction,” the latest documentary from Sergei Loznitsa, the Ukrainian filmmaker who quit the European Film Academy, claiming it was tepid in its condemnation of Russian atrocities. The festival will also screen the final movie from Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius, a Ukraine-set documentary that the director was shooting in the city of Mariupol when he was killed in early April. And Sean Penn’s new documentary about the invasion of the country won’t be shown at the festival, but it will be presented to buyers where it is expected to draw intense bidding.
Cannes also waded into the political situation in other ways, banning Russians with ties to Vladimir Putin’s government from the festival. It will allow Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” to show in competition, in part because the director has clashed publicly with Russian officials. He was sentenced in June 2020 to a three-year suspended prison sentence over trumped-up charges of embezzlement and later relocated to Germany.
But Ukraine isn’t the only topic that will be influenced by the rising political polarization taking place around the world. James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” may be a coming-of-age story set several decades ago in Queens, but the characters in the film will reportedly interact with members of Donald Trump’s family. Not even a bildungsroman can avoid the shadow of the 45th president.
There’s also Danish-Iranian helmer Ali Abbasi’s “Holy Spider,” a film based on the grueling true story of an Iranian serial killer who murdered prostitutes in order to “cleanse” the holy city of Mashhad, and Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh’s “Boy From Heaven,” a thriller set in Cairo at a Koranic school in the aftermath of the collapse of a grand imam, which marks the start of a ruthless battle for influence.
Speaking of “Holy Spider,” Abbasi said, “This is on the one hand a thematic story, and the theme is very obvious: misogyny. Dramatically, when you go and kill women, that’s misogyny in its purest form.” Abbasi is best-known for his searing genre movies, for instance “Border,” which won Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2018, and “Shelley” in 2016.
In the case of “Boy From Heaven,” the movie marks Saleh’s most daring film to date. The helmer, who’s been banned from Egypt since the making of his previous film “The Nile Hilton Incident,” wasn’t able to shoot “Boy From Heaven” on location. Memento Films’ Alexandre Mallet-Guy, who co-produced the movie with the Stockholm-based outfit Atmo, described “Boy From Heaven” as a “highly political thriller in the vein of ‘The Name of the Rose’ giving a very dark picture of Egypt’s corrupt political system.”
Several movies competing also explore timely social themes, such as Leonor Serraille’s “Mother and Son,” which spans three decades and follows a woman emigrating from the Ivory Coast to France with her two children, hoping to give them a better life. Although the movie isn’t just dealing with immigration, Serraille acknowledged that it was an important part of the story. Looking at the popularity of France’s far-right figures such as Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour during the recent presidential election, the movie will surely strike a chord with crowds at Cannes.
In a completely different genre, David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future” aspires to be more than just a body-horror film. Cronenberg says his movie isn’t just about gore. It also deals with global warming.
“It’s technically a big part of the movie, but this is not a climate change movie … like a Leo DiCaprio movie warning people about climate change,” he explained.
Some filmmakers argue that it’s better to apply a light touch when tackling politically charged material. Rob Reiner, who will be at Cannes to screen “This Is Spinal Tap” and to sell rights to its upcoming sequel, believes that movies can only be so effective in changing perceptions.
“I don’t think films are the best way to change minds,” he says. “The more and more polarized we are because of disinformation the more and more impossible it is to reach people that you think you should be reaching.”
Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.