Exit Escapism — Cannes Film Festival Is A Reality Show

Now playing at Cannes: ordinary people, modern times, and crimes and misdemeanors.

Escapism is out of style in the French Riviera film festival’s showcase competition. Midway through the 12-day festival, it’s all about tough realities, true stories, documentary-style filming and nonprofessional actors.

Though there has been light, fun fare at Cannes, like “Kung Fu Panda” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” those movies aren’t eligible for the top prize, the Palme d’Or.

Among the films in the main competition, an overarching theme has emerged: Reality bites.

“Lion’s Den,” an Argentine film shot in real prisons and using inmates for some acting parts, is the fictional tale of a pregnant convict. “24 City” of China, part documentary and part fiction, tells of factory workers who lose their jobs when their plant is closed and transformed into luxury apartments.

It’s telling that one of the most optimistic films so far is set in a Brazilian slum. “Linha de Passe,” co-directed by Walter Salles who made “The Motorcycle Diaries,” and “Central Station,” is among the strongest showings competing at Cannes. It tells the story of four brothers trying to reinvent themselves and avoid slipping into lives of crime.

Real-life touches abound. Weeks before shooting, actors moved into a run-down house in a poor neighborhood and got to know their neighbors, who appear in a party scene. Motorcycle chase scenes were filmed in ordinary traffic, not closed-off streets. Most of the actors weren’t professionals.

Salles said the emphasis on reality is probably partly Cannes’ choice, and partly something in the zeitgeist.

“The world is facing very important challenges in the social and political arena,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And the films resulting from this chaos are actually very much influenced by the reality that we’re living through.”

Globalization might have something to do with it, with bland, homogenized studio fare leaving moviegoers hungry for something real, said “Linha de Passe” co-director Daniela Thomas.

“We’re so walled in and overwhelmed by the standard, and now we want to know about the specifics of these people we’re interested in,” she said. “It’s a kind of curiosity about idiosyncrasies, as opposed to how airports and McDonald’s look all over the place.”

Cannes has often rewarded socially conscious movies. Last year’s top winner was “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” a harrowing, low-budget Romanian film about an illegal abortion.

Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, who have won the Palme d’Or twice with tales of working-class life, “Rosetta” and “The Child,” are back this year with “Lorna’s Silence,” inspired by the directors’ conversations with an Albanian immigrant. The movie tells of a woman who allows thugs to arrange a sham marriage for her to gain Belgian citizenship.

Italian director Matteo Garrone came to Cannes with a picture that’s far from the usual slick Hollywood vision of organized crime. Critics compared it to Italian neo-realist cinema.

“Gomorra,” about Naples’ Camorra crime syndicate, is based on a book by Roberto Saviano, whose investigations forced him to go under police protection.

Garrone believes moviegoers have become numb to typical Mafia movies.

“We’re tired of the folkloric images of crime,” he said.

Even the competition’s lone animated film deals with harsh realities. “Waltz with Bashir,” an early critical favorite, is a genre-defying animated documentary in which Israeli director Ari Folman investigates his long-repressed memories of his time as a soldier in Lebanon in the early 1980s.

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