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Several of strongest offerings play outside film festival mainstream

CANNES, France -- The 57th Cannes Film Festival heads into its closing weekend with no clear favorite for the Palme d'Or, and with critics generally agreeing there have been good films but no sensation that has pulled ahead of the pack. The most rapturous reception was for Michael Moore's Bush-whacking documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," but the applause was as much for its politics as its filmmaking.

The best film I've seen so far is not even in the official competition. That would be "Moolaade," by the 81-year-old Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene. It's a richly textured drama about the ritual circumcision of women, told against a backdrop of modern African village life. I wrote about it earlier.

Three other strong films played outside the main competition. Playing in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, Shona Auerbach's "Dear Frankie" stars Emily Mortimer as the mother of a 9-year-old made deaf by an abusive father. She has left the father, but hides the news from her son, telling him his dad is a sailor, and writing the boy letters under his name from HMS Accra. When that very ship docks in their town, she realizes she has to produce a father and recruits a total stranger (Gerard Butler) to play the role. The man and the boy (Jack McElhone) are cool at first, but become friends, complicating the situation wondrously.

I also admired Nicole Kassell's first film, "The Woodsman," starring Kevin Bacon in a brave and nuanced performance as a child molester released after 12 years in prison. He gets a job in a lumberyard and has a sudden affair with a bold co-worker (Kyra Sedgwick), but is he free of his sexual obsession? And will the secret of his past be discovered? The film shows him skirting close to danger in a morally murky landscape. With this film and "Mystic River," Bacon reminds us of his considerable talent.

"The Woodsman" was in the Director's Fortnight selection, and so was "Mean Creek" by Jacob Estes, which I've already written about. The story of a boatload of kids and a revenge prank that goes wrong, it's unusual in the way it doesn't simply focus on the action, but shows the young characters seriously dealing with the moral consequences of what happens.

Sean Penn gives another powerful and implosive performance in Niels Mueller's "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," set in 1974 and based on the true story of Sam Bicke, a man who loses his job and family, and slowly goes mad with discouragement and loss of esteem. Finally he attempts to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House, not so much because he wants to assassinate the president as because he wants to strike a body blow against the society that ignores and devalues him.

One of the best festival entries, "Look at Me" ("Comme Une Image") by Agnes Jaoui, is also about a character who feels ignored. Lolita (Marilou Berry) is the plump, plain adult daughter of a successful writer and publisher with a sexy second wife. Her father ignores or casually insults her, and the men in her life seem attracted by the opportunity to meet her father.

She has a wonderful singing voice, and in one heartbreaking sequence, her father walks out during her solo to make a cell call, and later at the party says nothing to her, but chats up one of her attractive ensemble members. The film is complex and observant about unspoken messages and body language, and Berry may have a chance at the best actress award.

For best actor, the front-runner seems to be the Italian actor Toni Servillo, who plays a solitary, distant man who has lived for years in the same hotel, in Paolo Sorrentino's "The Consequences of Love." I've already written about the film, which made a strong impression early in the festival and figures among the favorites.

There was an enthusiastic reception Wednesday for "Motorcycle Diaries," by Walter Salles, the Brazilian director of the Oscar nominee "Central Station." It's inspired by a diary kept by Ernesto "Che" Guevara in 1952, when he and a friend set out on an epic motorcycle journey around South America. He embarked as a bourgeois medical student and returned with his social conscience awakened; he would later be the key associate of Fidel Castro. But the film is made as if it knows nothing of his future, and regards only his present, as a young man forever changed by the sights he sees.

I wrote earlier about "Nobody Knows," by the brilliant Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose "Maborosi" and "After Life" I've praised. His story involves four children, the oldest about 12, left on their own by an indifferent mother and trying to care for themselves in the big city. The film is touchingly observant of the ways the kids cope, led by the oldest, who feels the weight of the world on his shoulders. But at 141 minutes, it loses some tension and might benefit from judicious editing.

Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers," a glossy martial-arts adventure by the leading Chinese director, was a superior example of its genre, but did not transcend it. Shots and scenes that would have been astonishing a few years ago have become commonplace in the age of special effects, although a battle scene set in a bamboo grove is astonishing in the way it uses trees as human launching pads and sharpened stakes as weapons.

Two other official entries left me more than indifferent. Both "Sud Pralad," from Thailand, and "Woman Is the Future of Man," from Korea, were reluctant to reveal a structure or purpose, and meandered through artsy nothingness. The Korean film at least centers on three characters we're free to speculate about as they drift through a reunion, but the Thai film was a meditation on portentous but incoherent themes.

By contrast, the Korean film "Old Boy," which I've already written about, was clear and direct in its story of a man held captive for 15 years for no apparent reason. But its level of sadism and savagery was unredeemed by the material, and a squid was definitely harmed during the making of the picture, by being eaten alive. Not a pretty sight.

Of the films set to play on the last three days of the festival, one seems endangered. Press screenings for the eagerly awaited "2046" (2005) by the major Chinese director Wong Kar-Wei, were canceled because the film's editing was not completed in time. The festival still hopes to fly a print from the labs in Paris to make the Thursday night official screening. Since "2046" is considered a plausible candidate for the Palme d'Or, festival history may hinge on its arrival here.

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