Cannes Diary VI: Sun, Moon and Star

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It takes a gorgeous bright Sunday like this one to remind movie people visiting from afar that Cannes has a life outside the Film Festival. It is a resort town of 70,000 people, most of whom live nowhere near the beach. But on lovely weekends, the locals, many of them as beautiful as movie stars, come down from the hills for a family stroll on the seaside Croisette. They pack the public beaches to get an early start on their suntans. And as a splendid May afternoon wanes and time nears for the Film Festival's first evening show, les Cannoises stand behind barriers to watch the chosen film's celebs emerge from limos and mount the 24 red-carpeted steps of the Grand Palais.

Today they had a special treat: the world premiere of Star Wars Episode III: Return of the Sith. To one side of the steps was perched a full orchestra in evening dress. As writer-director George Lucas and many of his stars came into view, the orchestra struck up the first martial notes of John Williams' theme. "Georges Lu-cah!" a French voice fanfared over the loud-speaker system, and the crowd cheered. The spectacle was as majestic and fun as the celebration of the Jedi's triumph over the Death Star in the final scene of the first Star Wars, such a long time ago.

If there's one thing that commercial American films know how to do, it's fill a screen with splendor. A huge screen, like the one in the Grand Palais' Lumiere theater, makes any Hollywood-style movie look better. Basic Instinct, no world-beater, had a pearly, febrile glamour when it was shown on opening night here 13 years ago. And Sith, a spiffy catalog of the things Hollywood does best, found its perfect showcase in the Lumiere. Of course the audience of 2,400 exulted when the Star Wars logo first appeared; that happens any time one of the six films is shown. But they remained enthralled, clung tight through the time-warp space ride of thrills and despair, sensations and special effects, in part because of the glorious visual presentation. This is a handsome movie, but it will never again look so good as it did today.

In Cannes, always a politically charged arena, the critics naturally read metaphors into the plot, especially the part involving the rise of Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) to ultimate power. A candidate thrust into the top seat after a military attack? Sounds like Spain after the terrorist attacks of March 11, 2003. A politician who is "scarred and disfigured" by his political enemies, yet survives to win the acclaim of his people? That's spookily like the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko, now President of Ukraine (although the West sees him as a good guy). A leader who cements his command of the government after he lies about a military threat and makes a war? I can't quite place it, but that also strikes a familiar chord.

In fact, as Lucas has said many times, he laid out the story for the entire saga in the early 70s, when another American military engagement was turning sour. Thus Palpatine was more Nixon than Bush, and the slaughter of the innocents in the Jedi Temple is an echo of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Americans, naturally enough, are preoccupied with the carnage they have suffered and wrought. But conflagrations all over the world send refugees fleeing to other countries for safety, security, a little peace. There's a potent moment in Marco Tullio Giordana's Once You're Born —the Italian film that shares the Lumiere theater with Sith today —when a boat load of the dispossessed each give, in closeup, their name and home country. Montenegro, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bosnia, Sudan... The list of trouble spots could be endless; the wretched refuse numbers in the tens of millions; each face on that boat of illegal immigrants is a map of human misery and resolve. They wouldn't be there if they didn't think they could survive and thrive far from home.

Once You're Born (from the fatalistic saying, "Once you're born you can't hide") is the story of how the "immigrant problem" touches a well-bred boy from the Northern city of Brescia. Sandro (the exceptional first-time actor Matteo Gadola) is the only child of a loving couple (Alessio Boni and Michela Cescon) who run a factory that employs mostly immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe. One night, on a yacht excursion with his dad and uncle, Sandro falls overboard and, when his absence isn't noticed, prepares to die. He calls "Papa!" for help, whispers "Mama!" as a prayer. He bequeaths his worldly goods —"except for The Lord of the Rings" —to a girl he has a crush on at school. Then he sinks ... and is rescued by Radu (Vlad Alexandru Toma), a young Romanian from the refugee boat. The two smugglers in charge have no consideration for the 80 or 100 people, including Vlad's sister Alina (Esther Hazan), whose lives and fortunes they command. Indeed, the varlets take the money and run, stranding the refugees and leaving them prey to the Immigration authorities who soon find them.

In its first hour, Once You're Born has echoes of another Italian fable, Pinocchio —the story of a sweet-souled, rather unformed lad who is misled by two villains, has a near-death water adventure and learns what it means to be human. Giordana, whose six-hour The Best of Youth is currently enchanting U.S. art-house audiences, here expertly creates an aura of family love that any child would be sick to be so suddenly and violently removed from. Then, instead of allowing the ecstatic exclamation point of a simple, hugging resolution to Sandro's maritime ordeal, he introduces question marks. Can children who have gone through hell, like Radu and Alina, be expected to act like angels when they've reached the heaven of a welcoming country and embracing family? Will Sandro be able to understand that everyone has his reasons, even someone whom he trusted and soon betrays him?

The film thus offers a test to the audience looking for simple, sentimental entertainment. It seems to declare it is aiming at the moviegoer's heart from its opening credits, scored to an unusually soupy Tom Waits ballad. It builds with its closeups of three attractive youngsters and the mostly helpful adults around them. But the film isn't pushy; it doesn't manipulate feelings so much as caress, massage them, allow them to grow naturally, and them challenge them, in the mind and heart of the sympathetic viewer.

Some viewers, anyway. Emotions are hard to describe in words, harder to justify in a roomful of cinema intellectuals, some of whom hooted derisively at the end of Once You're Born. A movie gets to you or it doesn't, makes you cry or leaves you cold. We'll just say that, for maybe half of this film, one of us (the one with the beard) was wetter than Sandro on that night in the Mediterranean. And the other (prettier) one followed the boy's journey from the comfort of childhood into a mature awareness of human contradictions and ambiguities.

That's where the originality and bravery of this film lies. It grows beyond a simple Pinocchio parable to see that people are not all good or bad, that the young man who saves one life can easily corrupt another. Radu is not Anakin Skywalker or Darth Vader. He's capable, as we all are, of being both.