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Cannes verdict: A bit less good?

CANNES, France -- Emir Kusturica, the jolly Serbian who headed this year's Cannes jury, stayed up late Saturday night at the beach party after the awards. He loved the fireworks, the Fellini music, and his new green shirt. He also sang with the band, as Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz danced "very savagely," he said, with, of all people, the festival president, Thierry Fremont. "Many girls told me they loved the green shirt," he said Sunday afternoon, as he joined the eight other jury members in their annual press conference.

Kusturica, whose opinions are forcefully expressed, was expected to be the dictator of this year's jury. Rumors Saturday night were that he clashed particularly with Agnes Varda, the French director, and Toni Morrison, the American author, who each headed factions backing a different film. Asked during the press conference if that was true, Kusturica said, no, it was a question of "four or five" films they all admired. This was later amended to "five or six" and then to "six or seven," before Kusturica decided there were "two or three" that covered both the "artistic and the public" aspects.

"Most of the films were a little bit less good than I expected," he said, and for the main prize, there were different opinions about what could have won."

Those three were apparently "L'Enfant," by the Dardenne brothers of Belgium, which won the Palme d'Or, "Broken Flowers," by Jim Jarmusch, which won the Grand Jury Prize and was known to be Kustarica's favorite, and "Hidden," by Michael Haneke, which won for best director and was said to be Varda's choice.

"One might think that Fidel Castro was president of the jury," Kustarica said, "but I am trying to reduce my reputation of dictatorship." Others on the jury decided he was "a sweet dictator."

The jury press conference is an innovation at Cannes, held for the first time last year. The nine jurors defended their choices, hinted at their negotiations, and fielded tough questions. One involved their award to Guillermo Arriaga for his screenplay of Tommy Lee Jones' "The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada." The movie tells the story of a border patrolman who kills an illegal Mexican immigrant, and then is forced by an American ranch hand (Jones) to dig up the corpse and travel with it deep into Mexico for reburial.

Doesn't this story, a woman asked, describe the kind of "vigilante simplistic macho ethic" that Toni Morrison and Salma Hayek have particularly decried?

"Not at all," said Morrison. "The film is always on the side of the people who suffer. It is about an ethical relationship and the last wish of his friend." And Hayek said, "In this film, only one man dies and the weight of his death takes over the entire film."

That caused Kusturica to recall the role of Mexico in his life, as he grew up in Yugoslavia. "Rock and roll was dangerous and could get you in trouble, because it was Western. Russian music was out because we had broken with Russia. So for us Mexican music was a sign of freedom. We grew up with the sound of mariachis."

Critics asked why such films as "A History of Violence," by David Cronenberg, and "Don't Come Knocking," by Wim Wenders, were passed over by the jury. "Last year," Kusturica said, "I came here and my film won nothing and I went home very sad, and the next day went back to work. Both of those films I would go to the theater and see again." He added enigmatically: "Our convention was to rediscover modernity of language very close to the content," which would seem to describe the Cronenberg movie perfectly, but apparently not.

Kusturica was poetic about the role of Cannes in providing an alternative "door into the cinema." When he came here 20 years ago with his first entry, he said, that door opened for him and launched his life as a filmmaker. "This place kills uniformity. To be global, to make a film that plays everywhere, you have to be slightly stupid."

That was the obvious moment to ask him about the Cannes premiere of "Star Wars," but alas the hour was up and the jury was on its feet, signing autographs, and edging toward the exit.

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