A Reason to Celebrate

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Cannes is a convention city, which means the people coming for the world's largest movie conference, the Cannes Film Festival, are in their seats for the morning's major screening by 8:15. Cannes is also a Riviera resort, which means the town comes alive at night. Debonair folk in evening clothes stroll the Croisette until just before dawn. The discos (including the one directly under our hotel room) blast their pounding sounds nonstop to 3 or 4 a.m. (which may explain why the prose of this night owl is sometimes on the jagged side). Critics, who want to be part of both scenes, figure, hey, they'll sleep when they get back home — unless some film is kind enough to be terminally lulling.

Just after midnight tonight, as thousands of the film faithful waited to trudge up the red carpet for a 12:15 feature, a giant BOOM punctured the clear night air. Everyone understood its import. No, not a terrorist device; not even the soundburst of boos that greeted Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette in its world premiere here Wednesday. The noise heralded a 10-minute display of fireworks over the beach, its multicolor spume spraying the Palais' top balcony.

Why the fireworks? In Cannes, the response to any question about the town's fondness for excess is: Why not? (Actually, the pyrotechnics were for the Marie Antoinette beach party.) The films in competition for the Palme d'Or tend to be a solemn lot, so any spiking of the punch bowl is welcome. The occasional midnight screenings of non-competing films is also a chance for the locals to snag a few free tickets, put on their best duds and see a movie. On the red-carpeted steps usually reserved for directors and stars, hundreds of Cannes residents snapped photos of hundreds of others.

The film, a Taiwanese thriller called Silk started a half-hour late, but the audience didn't care. They applauded director Su Chao-pin as he entered the auditorium with his cast, applauded the 30-sec. film (of steps emerging from beneath the sea and up to the stars, to the swirling, twinkling music of Camille Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals), snapped more photos when the Festival logo appeared on screen and stayed through nearly two hours of conventional ghost-story frissons. When the audience walked out at 2:40, they looked ready to go partying.

No matter how slick and ordinary Silk might have been, I was in a party mood because of the film I'd seen just before it: Paolo Sorrentino's A Friend of the Family. Sorrentino's The Consequences of Love, a gorgeous-looking dark comedy about a fastidious hit man, was one of the lovely surprises of Cannes 2004 and a winner of the Best Film, Screenplay and Director prizes at the Donatello Awards, Italy's equivalent to the Oscars. The new movie trumps the earlier one, creating a small-town Italian cosmos where love and greed, Venus and venality, are ever on a collision course.

It begins with the closeup of an old lady's craggy face. Pull back a little, and see she is wearing a nun's wimple; back a bit more, and discover that she is buried up to her neck on the beach. Cut to the image of a pretty, sad-eyed young woman who's nearly run over by a bus. Then to shots of a girls' volleyball game, their grace and strength italicized by being filmed in slow motion. All this to Antony and the Johnsons' "My Lady Story," a dreamy-sounding, gentle massage of a ballad with scalpel-sharp lyrics ("My lady's story / Is one of annihilation... / I'm a hole in love / I'm a bride on fire / I am twisted / Into a starve of wire").

We are well into this fascinating movie — about a crafty old tailor and money lender named Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo — before we realize that the old woman is the aged mother Geremia dutifully cares for, the young woman is a Romanian refugee whom a matchmaker tries fruitlessly to fix up with Geremia, and the volleyball girls are his one erotic release in an otherwise mean existence.

This tiny, troll-like creature likes to be called Geremia Heart-of-Gold, and he certainly has a florid line of patter for the desperate townspeople of Agro Pontino who come to borrow money at 100% interest, telling each woman, "My last thought in life will be of you." (He's proud of his old-school manners, telling the matchmaker, "My tool of seduction is my charming mode of speech." She corrects him: "Your only tool of seduction is hope.") But when repayment is overdue, Geremia has no heart at all. He strips one young couple of every piece of their jewelry, plus a coffeemaker, and if the debtors try to avoid him, Geremia sends out his enforcer, a sad-eyed cowboy named Gino (Bill Murray lookalike Fabrizio Bentivoglio).

Sorrentino's inspiration is the Grimm tale of Rumpelstiltskin, the dwarf whose skill as a tailor (he could spin straw into gold) ensnared a greedy miller and his beautiful young daughter. Here the miller is a middle-class man over hid head in debts for the wedding of his daughter Rosalba (glamorous, poised Laura Chiatti). Geremia lends the family more money than they can afford to pay and then, on the wedding day, extracts from Rosalba his own predatory pound-of-flesh interest on the loan.

There is more, much more duplicity to come, in a movie that manages to find a parcel of pity for Geremia without ever sentimentalizing him. Geremia knows his limitations; he says, "I don't believe in God. If He believed in me, he'd have made me a little more handsome." His ugliness is a burden he tries to bear with dignity, like the live-in millstone that is his mother. And in Rizzo's portrayal, Geremia becomes more than an ogre; he is any man who realizes that beauty is something that will never be given him. He must buy, steal or try to destroy it. The other characters, especially Rosalba and Gino, are not mere stooges for Geremia; they are by turns victims and connivers, whom Geremia inadvertently inspires to dip into his book of tricks. By the climax, Geremia is "a hole in love," Rosalba "a bride on fire."

Handsomely filmed, in a rich style that enhances both the comedy and the pathos, A Friend of the Family is the best film in the current Cannes session. To me, Sorrentino is the young hope of Italian cinema. He doesn't turn 36 until next Wednesday, and I couldn't imagine a happier or better deserved birthday present than a Palme d'Or. Then he, like the residents (and sometimes the journalists) of Cannes, could party all night.

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