Out on the media terrace at Cannes’ Palais des Festivals, film critic Ado Spiniello is sipping a glass of rosé, soaking in some daylight between two screenings.
For film critics, the Cannes Film Festival can be a trial of endurance, sitting through three, four, five or more movies a day and then writing up something clever about them. While some take notes during films, scribbling in the dark, others resent the distraction.
“Each day I write one or two reviews, right after the movies or the day after, but I never take notes,” says Spiniello, who has averaged three screenings a day this year. “Of course I forget some scenes, but the overall feeling stays with me and that’s what I want to convey.”
Dreaded by filmmakers, the festival’s notoriously pesky critics are very much a part of the movie experience in Cannes. It’s not uncommon for some to boo films or shout their disapproval. Those shared moments in front of the big screen can shape a movie’s reception as well as critics’ reviews.
“For me writing about movies is about presenting an experience of viewing,” says Spiniello. “Context is crucial.”
A veteran of this and other film festivals, Spiniello works for the movie website Sentieri Selvaggi, named after the Italian title for John Ford’s 1956 western “The Searchers”, which also runs its own film school in Rome.
Cannes is practically home turf for the large contingent of Italian critics who show up each year. National hero Garibaldi was born just a few miles down the coast, in Nice (then known as Nizza), and the border with Italy is half-an-hour’s drive away. The chatter of Italian critics is omnipresent in the long lines for press screenings. Italians also dominate the frenzied photo sessions, cajoling the stars with feverish gestures and shouts of “Girati ! Girati !” (Turn around!) and “Guardami !” (Look at me!), according to FRANCE 24’s red carpet photographer.
With its intoxicating blend of sun, sea, garish clothing and beach cubs blasting techno music, Cannes would make a perfect set for a trashy scene in a movie by Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino, a frequent guest of the town’s glitziest showcase. But Spiniello tends to skip the late-night partying to ensure he can keep up the rhythm.
“It’s a bit of a circus here,” he says, referring to the celebrity-swooning on Cannes’ famed red carpet and along the seaside Croisette boulevard. An habitué of other film festivals too, such as Venice and Berlin, Spiniello says Cannes remains a world apart, “like a temple with its codes and rules”.
Still the best?
While Spiniello prefers the big-city feel of the Berlin Film Festival, Cannes’ palm tree-lined seaside and the old town’s winding alleys never cease to charm Bangladeshi critic Rafi Hossain, an editor at the The Daily Star and a regular traveller to Europe’s top film gatherings.
“It’s always good to be in Cannes. I travel to many festivals, but Cannes is the best,” says the festival veteran, seated at a long banquet table for the traditional aioli lunch hosted by the mayor of Cannes. “I always tell people it’s like heaven, like a postcard. The natural beauty is really outstanding.”
After screening its very first Bangladeshi film last year, Cannes included a Pakistani feature for the first time this year. Saim Sadiq’s “Joyland”, a daring portrait of a transgender dancer, won the “Queer Palm” prize on Friday, for the festival’s best LGBT, queer or feminist-themed movie.
Cannes also made India its first-ever guest of honour at the film market which runs parallel to the festival, confirming what Hossain sees as a growing focus on South Asia.
“There were no films from Bangladesh this year but we were thrilled to see Pakistan being represented for the first time,” he says. “The festival is getting lots of attention back home and I believe we have the biggest (media) delegation yet from Bangladesh.”
Like other journalists, however, Hossain has had a hellish time dealing with the festival’s new online ticket portal, which coped during last year’s scaled-back edition but has proved woefully inadequate now that the event is back at full strength.
Travel has been another headache this year, with flight cancellations, train breakdowns and Covid restrictions that are still in place in parts of the world.
“It’s always great to be here in Cannes, but flying back home is likely to be a nightmare,” says Yuma Matsukawa, a Japanese film critic who is not relishing the prospect of having to quarantine upon her return.
Moviewise, Matsukawa describes her 17th Cannes Film Festival as a bit of an off year, with few gems, particularly in the main competition. Her favourite film was “My Imaginary Country” by Patricio Guzman, the veteran Chilean chronicler of the Pinochet regime, whose latest documentary focuses on a new generation of activists campaigning for social justice in his home country.
Rewarding political films
When it comes to the Palme d’Or race, Matsukawa’s top choices are Ruben Östlund’s “Triangle of Sadness”, a satire of the super-rich by the Swedish director who won Cannes’ biggest prize in 2017, followed by “Tori and Lokita”, a survey of Belgium’s immigration system by two-time Palme d’Or winning brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes. The latter film also ranks among Hossain’s favourites, along with Tarik Saleh’s “Boy from Heaven”, a thriller set in Cairo’s historical Al-Azhar Mosque, which explores crooked ties between religion and politics.
Overall, the festival’s increasing focus on politically-committed works is welcome news, says Matsukawa, praising organisers for giving ample space to the war in Ukraine, whose president opened the festival last week with a plea for cinema to stand up to the world’s dictators.
“The festival is in step with present issues, it’s very focused on what is happening in the world,” she explains. “As (Ukraine’s) president put it, cinema needs to be on freedom’s side. Cannes has made clear where it stands.”
Matsukawa points to Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda as an example of how cinema – and the Cannes imprimatur – can shape the political agenda, noting that his 2018 Palme d’Or win for the socially-minded “Shoplifters” gave him “a platform from which to criticise Japan’s government”.
This year’s Cannes jury is widely expected to reward similar fare. Early on in the festival, jury head Vincent Lindon, the French actor known for his politically-charged roles, stated his preference for “films that tell us something about the world in which they’re made”.
“With Lindon in the president’s seat, there’s a good chance the jury will want to reward a political film, like [Cristian] Mungiu’s ‘R.M.N.’,” says Spiniello, referring to the Romanian auteur whose latest drama explores questions of national identity in rural Transylvania.
Spiniello’s favourites include James Gray’s period drama “Armageddon Time”, David Cronenberg’s latest body-horror flick “Crimes of the Future”, and Mario Martone’s Neapolitan drama “Nostalgia”, all of which rank high up in the traditional critics’ grid compiled by Screen Daily.
As the competition wraps up on Friday, South Korea’s Park Chan-wook leads the grid with his elegant noir romance “Decision to Leave”. But when have Cannes juries ever listened to the critics?
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