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Of popes and poissons and Kim Ki-duk

It's Friday the 13th in Cannes, and that has got to mean something good. An overcast sky threatening rain means that there couldn't be a more perfect day to stay inside and watch movies.

The morning began with the 8:30 am press screening of Nanni Moretti's "We Have a Pope." Hmm...a comedy/drama about the Vatican by a self-professed Italian atheist? Moretti is known primarily for his wry, intellectual, and largely autobiographical approach to comedy in films including "My Diary" and "April, " but also for serious drama in films including his 2001 Palme d'Or winner "The Son's Room." Subjects he has often lampooned include leftist politics, psychoanalysis, water-polo, and the cinema itself.

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In "We Have a Pope," the funeral of a dead pope has just taken place and the College of Cardinals is convening to elect the new pontiff from among their number. Moretti goes to great lengths to represent this ritual gathering with great accuracy, but injecting an escalating number of comic moments as the film traverses from the ceremonial pomp of its opening scenes to take on a lighter tone.

As if the voting for a pope were an elementary school spelling test, the prelates cross out names on their ballots, look to heaven for guidance, and even cheat, some slyly spying on what a neighbor seated to the left or right is writing. After a few rounds of voting, the winner is revealed to be a candidate who was not even in the running, a stunned Cardinal Melville (surely Moretti's tip of the hat to iconic French director Jean-Pierre Melville), played by veteran French star Michel Piccoli.

Robed in his regalia, the moment comes for the new pope to greet the world from his balcony. He instead lets out a scream of terror and refuses. The film soon breaks into two parallel stories. When all efforts to calm the man's fears fail, and a medical exam reveals no physical ailments, a psychotherapist (Moretti himself) is brought in to address the problem. In the course of events, the pope manages to slip away from his keepers, but the doctor is forced to remain sequestered with the cardinals because he is privy to the secret proceedings, and the convocation cannot be officially closed until the pope is announced to the world.

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Moretti is the comic center of "We Have a Pope." His comic persona has remained consistent from film to film--he's the neurotic, highly opinionated know-it-all who likes to be the center of attention. The cardinals attempt to fill their time relaxing and working puzzles, but the doctor, whom they address as Professor, undertakes to instruct and entertain them, giving a deadpan lecture on the difference between sleeping pills and mood stabilizers, providing his non-believer's psychoanalytic interpretation of Biblical passages, explaining how bookmakers' odds work, and organizing the elderly clerics in a complex volleyball tournament pitting the cardinals from different continents against each other.

Meanwhile, the pope, who has long suppressed his ambition to become an actor, wanders the city anonymously, and falls in with the members of a theater company. Moretti creates a very funny scene near the film's conclusion in which the cardinals and the Swiss Guards, all in full ceremonial dress, converge on the theater company's performance of Chekhov's "The Seagull" in order to kidnap the pope from the balcony.

"We Have a Pope" has scores of droll comic moments, but a great deal of poignancy as well. Its characterizations are wonderfully acute and always nicely underplayed. The film is likely to make it to a few North American festivals, I won't reveal the ending. I found it to be a bit of a cop-out, but suffice it to say that Moretti leaves it open to interpretation.

In a film that hinges on a contest of another kind, "Miss Bala" by Gerardo Naranja, premiered representing Mexico in the "A Certain Regard" section of the festival. The story lays a deadly trap for a 23-year-old Tijuana woman who aspires to compete in a regional beauty pageant, and makes her fate as seemingly inescapable as that of Moretti's pope. There are no good guys on either side in this grim film, which portrays the borderland drug wars as the stuff of daily life in Mexico.

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Aiming to celebrate with her best friend at a club after the two have aced the pre-selection for the pageant, Laura is caught in the crossfire of a gang ambush. She escapes, but there's no sign of the other girl. Flagging down a cop the next day in an effort to discover the whereabouts of her friend, Laura is delivered into the hands of the very gangsters who shot up the club.

Against her will she's made complicit in the disposal of bodies, only the first of a chain of events that not only trap Laura and her family, but drag her deeper into a scenario that includes brutal murders and chaotic firefights. In the plot's darkest twist, the gang leader who holds her prisoner has already purchased her win of the pageant with threats and bribes.

I was anticipating that "Arirang" by Korean Ki-Duk Kim would involve a significant amount of violence. Eccentric director of films including "Dream," "3-Iron," and "Bad Guy," he is prone to create characters with an amoral some-live-some-die approach to life. The credits in the press kit for this new film seemed a little strange: written and directed by Ki-Duk Kim; starring Ki-Duk Kim; produced by Ki-Duk Kim; cinematography by Ki-Duk Kim, and on and on.

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At the screening, festival director Thierry Fremaux introduced Kim onstage. [Lest you think I'm being familiar, the last name comes first in Korea, as in much of Asia, so Kim is his last name.] My French is limited to about 50 words, so when I caught the phrase "poisson de Pusan" (fish of Pusan), for a silly moment I wondered if Fremaux was making a punning joke in French. (Try it to the tune of La Plume de Ma Tante.) James Quandt, senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto, who was sitting next to me, assured me that he was actually referring to a seafood restaurant in which he'd eaten with Kim while attending the Pusan Film Festival.

Kim's remarks were translated into English. He said, "I was asleep but Cannes woke me up," a statement that only made complete sense after seeing the film. "Arirang" is a feature-length self-portrait that evolves into a confessional ritual and an exorcism of the filmmaker's equivalent of writer's block.

The camera records Kim's daily life living in a tent inside a primitive cottage on a mountainside overlooking a town. He collects water, bathes from a plastic container, chops wood, eats, drinks heavily, and performs the basic functions with only the most basic means at his disposal. When he trains the camera on himself in earnest, it is to act as judge, jury, and accused through the intercutting of video images.

Kim's career came to a halt in 2008, when during the production of "Dream," an actress nearly died accidentally in a scene in which her character was being hanged. Shocked and badly shaken, the director relates that he suddenly lost his nerve and the will to work. In one of his tearful close-ups he confesses, "I had thought of death as a mystical dream, a door to pass through. After 'Dream,' I realized that death could be a crime cutting short someone's expectations."

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"Arirang" is film that will likely have specialized appeal to those who are familiar with Kim's work, but it is gripping stuff. His terror, self-accusation, and remorse provide and intimate look at a soul turned inside out. The invitation to Cannes brings Kim out of his self-imposed exile, so in a very real way provided the wake-up call he noted in his introduction.

The screening of Israeli competition film "Footnote" by Joseph Cedar ("Beaufort") provided a bookend experience to a day that began with "We Have a Pope." Like Moretti's film, "Footnote" is a comedy/drama which also touches on religious institutions, and the film has an ending that is similarly open to the viewer's speculation.

In "Footnote," Eliezer Shkolnik, a curmudgeonly professor, and his son Uziel are both well-known Talmudic scholars and researchers. Uziel, however, reaps awards and honors galore, while his jealous father has suffered a career of being overlooked.

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Uziel wins a major academic award in their mutual field, but through the mistake of an office assistant, Eliezer is informed that he is the winner. When the awards committee attempts to solicit the Uziel's help in rectifying the situation, he pleads his father's case and demands that they honor the mistake. Instead of glorying in the prize he has long sought, Eliezer uses it as a platform to publicly denigrate his son's career, widening the gap between them.

The film starts out with a jaunty air, advancing the back-stories of both characters briskly through the use of parallel images and amusing graphics and animation. As the rivalry heats up, the plot is occasionally stalled in long scenes of argumentative dialogue. There were times when it seemed this otherwise flawlessly slick film couldn't decide whether it was a comedy or a drama. Fortunately, the strong performances of Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Ashkenazi as father and son manage to bridge the gap.

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