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Cannes 2011 reviews: God and Man, Cops and Children

[Extended editions of two reviews hosted on Awards Daily associate Cannes platform, The Wrap.]

Polisse

French filmmakers don’t appear to live under the same constraints as American filmmakers do. They usually are given enough room to tell their story however long they think it needs to be told. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. With Maïwenn Le Besco’s Polisse it almost works. What she needs is a good editor and someone to tell her when to stop. Still, there is much to applaud in the film, even if, in the end, it feels like too much to take in all at once.

Part of the problem of the film is Le Besco herself, who feels the need to not only write and direct the behemoth, but also to star in it. Her presence may be the one straw that breaks the camel’s back. She is simply too strong of a force to play a side character, and her movie seems to pull in two very different directions Рthe love story of Le Besco’s character and the ongoing saga of the police department that deals specifically with crimes against children.

Le Besco’s film revolves around a team of hardened police men and women whose lives are personally affected, every day, by the kind of terrible situations they find themselves in. Well-written, and beautifully acted, we dive into the lives of each one of them and discover the ways that hearing about tragedy every day begins to wear them down.

The film is hard to watch as the crimes are graphic and thoroughly described as such. We only have to hear it for two solid hours while these characters must live it every day of their lives Рso many of the fathers are raping their daughters, mothers are unintentionally abusive Рsome sexually, some violently. In one moving sequence, a Nigerian woman is forced to give up her son because she sleeps on the street and doesn’t want him to end up like her. When they separate the boy wails in agony.

In all of these instances, the team must cordon off their personal feelings, not get involved with victims, not act out against perps. Worse, once they have to then go home and face their husbands or wives or children – how do they keep an open heart? How do they not completely lose their minds?

The first half of the film is involving, as the detectives trap, question and chase after rapists and pedophiles. It could be a mini-series like The Wire, which seems to be its role model for verité style filmmaking and gripping dramatic tension. Unlike The Wire, however, Le Besco takes it all too far, especially as it comes to the one-and-a-half hour mark, which is when it should have ended. That extra half-hour becomes problematic as each character has to have a shrieking breakdown.

The biggest problem comes with Le Besco‚Äôs character. Angular, tall and striking, with Mick Jagger lips and Charlotte Rampling cheekbones, Le Besco looks and feels out of place. As the writer and the director she must also find a justification for herself being there. Admirable that she‚Äôs able to do all of this; very few female filmmakers have. But perhaps if she‚Äôd been less of a focal point and more of a peripheral figure – it‚Äôs just that she‚Äôs simply too unique — she stands out too much and therefore, she draws attention away from the rest of the cast. The film seems to want to follow her storyline, or else move in the other direction – but it can‚Äôt seem to manage both.

Nonetheless, Le Besco paints a picture of a world and characters we come to know. She’s found actors who are so good you almost wonder, half the time, if we’re watching a movie or watching real life. Unfortunately, she overdoes it to the point where we do become disconnected from the characters, which is unfortunate, because they are all worthy of our attention.

Habemus Papam

Nanni Morreti appears to be questioning, albeit in a subtle fashion, the power of organized religion on man‚Äôs will. Many who live faithfully by the Catholic church — make their decisions because of it, show up on Sunday to worship at it, obey all of the laws, regardless of the hypocrisy within it — would probably be offended by Habemus Papam. But for those of us who have long since forsaken the church, or never had the church to begin with, it feels like it treads too lightly on an institution that continues to be rife with controversy, the least of which is the hushing up of pedophile priests.

Visit Italy and you’ll see just how powerful the Vatican remains today. You can’t even step into that realm unless your shoulders and your legs are covered, even if you have to buy a scarf at a booth nearby to enter. God, one suspects, does not want to be offended by the very flesh he supposedly made? That’s a different subject for a different time.

Getting back to the film, while charming and laugh-out-loud funny in parts, Habemus Papam may be a beginning to a much longer discussion about this idea of being “the chosen one.”

The film opens with none of the cardinals wanting to be chosen as Il Papa, or Pope. “Please God,” they pray, “not me.” Finally, when one is chosen (Michel Piccoli) he experiences a sudden identity crisis. He can’t remember who he was. He can’t remember ever having a life. He isn’t ready for the spiritual leadership that’s been handed to him.

Notably, if Nanni Moretti wanted to give the audience what it so badly craves — a kind of King‚Äôs Speech Italian style — he would end this movie in a way you‚Äôd expect. But what makes this such a good film is that it doesn‚Äôt do that. It gives you, instead, something to think about.

Interesting that most of the films I’ve seen here in Cannes so far don’t do much answering of life’s big questions; it is as if these filmmakers prefer to leave things open-ended. This in start contrast to the Hollywood studio system where stories must have a neatly wrapped-up plot, preferably a happy ending, and where no big question is left unanswered.

Habemus Papam seems more interested in exploring the idea of personal choice than in relinquishing the power of the individual because it is pre-ordained. Even though the Cardinals all vote on the Pope, it is still sold as something God decided. The newly chosen Pope waits for God to speak to him but he never hears that voice. He’s left to fend for himself and he doesn’t feel up to the job. So he flees.

While he‚Äôs away, the millions of people who look to the Pope for leadership are lost. First they speculate he might be dead. Then the church has someone stand in his residence and pretend to be him just so that the people don’t feel confused and abandoned.

The Pope wanders the streets of Rome in search of life‚Äôs meaning, and if he can‚Äôt find life‚Äôs meaning, he‚Äôll settle for some sort of reason to believe — to believe in himself, to believe in life. Moretti wisely juxtaposes the church with a theatrical production and a sports game – two scenarios that are created by and executed by people. Somehow these three notions of team-playing are connected. And yet, by the end, the Pope still cannot seem to find his way.

Habemus Papam sort of hovers in the middle of its ideas: it doesn’t really want to take a hard stand and yet it can’t quite surrender itself to this notion of the church, God and all of that power. Resentment for the Vatican sneaks in often and one gets the sense that there is much more Moretti really wants to say but can’t, given the power of the church in Italy today.

While it might make for a slightly unsatisfying sit, it’s still one of the better films shown in competition here at Cannes.

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