For a while there was a risk that Marcello Mastroianni’s sly, rapacious glance on this year’s poster would be the only major Italian presence at this year’s Cannes film festival.
Plenty of films that had been talked up as possible candidates, including new projects by Mario Martone, Ermanno Olmi and Nanni Moretti, simply weren’t ready. One of the most eagerly awaited, Matteo Garrone’s “The Tale of Tales”, is looking increasingly like a Cannes 2015 contender, given that the director will start shooting it in Tuscany during this year’s festival, and both production and post are likely to drag on for a while.
Then out of nowhere came a pleasant surprise: Alice Rohrwacher’s film “Le Meraviglie”, which some had been tipping as a possible Quinzaine or Un certain régard entry, was selected for the main competition. This is only the second fictional title from an Italian director who made her debut in the documentary format. Her first dramatic feature, “Corpo Celeste” (Quinzaine 2011), was an original, uncompromising female coming-of-age story.
“Le Meraviglie” once again channels the viewpoint of a 13-year-old Italian girl, but this time it’s a more autobiographical trip: the film’s heroine, Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungucon) grows up with a German beekeeper father and an Italian mother, just like the director, and the locations in the extreme south of Tuscany are familiar from her own youth: Sovana, Sorana, Bagni San Filippo.
Cast alongside Monica Bellucci – the ‘white fairy’ of the fictional TV reality show that gives the film its name – are the director’s sister, Alba Rohrwacher, and Belgian dancer Sam Louwyck. They play the mother and father of a family whose search for an agrarian utopia has come face to face with financial problems and a taxing work schedule.
Festival director Thierry Frémaux is well-known for his objection to the idea of positive discrimination to favour female directors, so it could be tempting to read Rohrwacher’s competition berth and the choice of Asia Argento’s “Incompresa” (Misundertood) for the Un certain régard section as a triumph for women’s representation in Italian cinema.
In reality, it’s more a question of lucky timing, given the lateness or sheer unreadiness of so many of Rohrwacher’s male colleagues.
And for sure, there’s no lack of old white men at Cannes 2014.
Leading the pack is Jean-Luc God- ard with “Adieu au langage” (“What, is he stillalive?” was my wife’s reaction when I mentioned that the godfather of La nouvelle vague had a new film in competition).
Alongside a film that, if the trailer is anything to go by, promises to be one of the most hermetic, auterish 3D films ever made, are new offerings from a bunch of other male maestros in the over-sixty bracket: David Cronenberg, the Dardenne brothers, the British duo Mike Leigh and Ken Loach (this is the second time they’ll have gone head to head in Cannes) and US actor-director Tommy Lee Jones.
Another Cannes 2014 factoid – probably also the result of good timing, or the alignment of the stars – is the dominance of Canadian films over their US counterparts. Canada wins 3-2, with competi- tion entries from Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan (on the Croisette with the thriller “Captives”) and Francophone-area enfant prodige Xavier Dolan. At the age of just 25, Dolan is already on his fifth feature; his Cannes contender, “Mommy”, comes just nine months after the 2013 Venice festival berth for “Tom at the Farm”.
Michael Haznavicius’ “The Search” was always going to be a shoo-in, especially after the near faux-pas of 2011, when the festival initially as- signed “The Artist” an out of competition slot (it was moved into competition just a week be- fore kick-off).
His new film is a remake of a Fred Zinnneman title from 1948; that drama’s post- Holocaust divided-family theme is here transported to Chechnya, with the director’s wife and muse, Bérénice Bejo, playing an NGO operative who strikes up a friendship with a local kid.
African cinema is represented in competition by a single entry, but it’s likely to be less of a token presence than last year’s disappointing “Grisgris”.
Leading Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu” is based on a true story that took place in the north of the country during the recent Islamist occupation, when a young couple were stoned to death for the ‘crime’ of being unmarried. Sissako is up there as a pre-festival pundit’s favourite to lift the Palme d’or, alongside Argentinian director Damian Szifron, who is such an unknown quantity outside of his native land (where he has worked mostly in television) that seasoned film critics were reduced to looking him up on Google – especially after Thierry Frémaux stuck his neck out at the official selection press conference and praised Szifron’s competition contender “Relatos Selvajes” (Wild Tales) as “an incredible film”. Interest is also being piqued by the production involvement of PedroAlmodovar and his brother Agustin.
Among the other competition titles that could lift the skirt of a jury presided over by Australian director Jane Campion are two offerings by directors with one foot in Asia and one in Europe: “Leviathan” from Russian auteur Andrey Zvyagintsev (who picked up the 2003 Golden Lion in Venice with “The Return”) and “Kis Uykusu” (“Winter Dream”) by Turkish festival darling Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
And that’s just the competition. With directors of the stature of Jessica Hausner, Ryan Gosling, Roben Ostlund and Rolf de Heer in the parallel Un certain régard section, keen cineastes are going to have the usual schedule-screening issues this year. And then there are the two independent sidebars, the Quinzaine and La semaine de la critique.
The former continues its flirtation with genre cinema, serving up thrillers (“These Final Hours”, “Cold in July”), horror films (“Alleluia”) and even a good old- fashioned war caper (John Boorman’s Korean- War-set “Queen and Country”).
The Semaine will offer the usual lucky dip of first or second films by emerging talents, including Sicilian director Sebastiano Riso’s “Più buio di mezzanotte” (“Darker than Midnight”), a film inspired by the early life of famous Italian drag queen Davide Cordova, a.k.a. Fuxia.
The big festival teaser is always how much this golden shower of art-cinema riches will actually translate into box-office success.
Critical darlings like last year’s Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Colour” have a history of performing badly with real paying audiences.
That said, Cannes has always been good at leavening its more challenging titles with crowd-pleasers.
This year, more commercial prospects include opening out-of-competition film “Grace of Monaco”, in which Nicole Kidman channels actress-turned-princess Grace Kelly; wrestling drama Foxcatcher by US director Bennet Miller; DreamWorks animation “How to Train Your Dragon 2”; even David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars”, a wry satire on Hollywood child stars and their nightmare parents, starring Julianne Moore, Robert Pattison, Mia Wasikowski, John Cusack, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
At the very least, being able to put that Cannes Palme d’or logo on the poster adds a touch of class to any marketing campaign. And if the worst comes to the worst, a succés d’estime is better than no success at all.