Cannes Gets Political; Jafar Panahi Not Released

By J. Hoberman in FestivalsThursday, May 20, 2010, at 12:09 pm


Political drama took center stage as the 63rd Cannes Film Festival entered its final act, with a pair of non-competitive epics, Olivier Assayas’s Carlos and Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, combining for 8½ hours of screen time.

A three-part telefilm, made for the widescreen, Carlos evokes the thrilling days when militant crazies brought bazookas to the airport and blew up planes on the runway. The movie tracks the career of the Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (“Carlos the Jackal”), from his first pro-Palestinian bombings in London and Paris through the spectacular hostage-taking of the OPEC oil ministers in Vienna to his capture, two decades later, in Khartoum.

Carlos is a controlled tumult, not unlike Assayas’s thrillers demonlover and Boarding Gate; not much psychology (or historical perspective) but Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez is convincingly authoritative as a rock-star terrorist–as well as world-class womanizer, putting a succession of pretty young actresses under “revolutionary discipline” or getting them to, literally, lick his grenade. Destined for an American opening, most likely by way of the New York Film Festival, Carlos is gripping stuff, despite its incongruously fashionable rock soundtrack and a grossly over-played final section. The extended account of the OPEC caper includes the festival’s best hour of filmmaking this side of Godard’s Film Socialisme and would make a terrific movie in its own right.

Carlos has inevitably been bracketed to Steven Soderbergh’s Che but it’s an unfair comparison. Che is a far more serious enterprise–a superbly structured tragedy as well as an objective meditation on the process of “making history.” Carlos, by contrast, is an outrageous political gangster film. So too, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu–although this three-hour assemblage of official newsreels and home movies depicting the reign of Romania’s last Communist dictator is also sui generis.

Various juxtapositions and a slyly inserted pop song aside, filmmaker Ujica makes no overt comment on the material. The footage of mass rallies, bogus pageants, and ceremonial visits with foreign leaders from de Gaulle to Nixon to Queen Elizabeth attests to Ceausescu’s power. No less than Carlos, Ceausescu was a criminal megalomaniac enabled by all manner of regimes. One might have to read between the lines to appreciate the technology of deception on display but one need only follow the subtitles to grasp the Romanian leader’s increasingly absurd bombast.

As political melodrama, the lone U.S. movie in competition, Fair Game, was pretty predictable stuff. Doug Liman’s account of the Valerie Plame case offers a bit of CIA hijinks, ample Bush-Cheney chicanery, and plentiful Capraesque posturing, mainly by Sean Penn who, only barely acting, plays whistleblower Joe Wilson with the smugness of a Senator–and even more gravitas. (Naomi Watts is blameless as Plame.)

Still to come: Ken Loach’s Iraq film Route Irish, and the competition’s two designated political scandals, French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb’s Outside of the Law and Nikita Mikhalkov’s World War II movie Burnt by the Sun 2, as well as Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives–seemingly apolitical but hailing from demonstration-racked Thailand.

Meanwhile, the Iranian government did not release director Jafar Panahi. On the contrary. According to a surprise statement that shocked the press conference for the Abbas Kiarostami film Certified Copy, Panahi’s prison sentence was actually extended. When she heard the news, the movie’s star Juliette Binoche cried.