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A sense of urgency -- and edginess

CANNES, France -- There are two species of journalists at Cannes, described by the festival as critics or chroniclers. The critics review the films. The chroniclers write the gossip, review the fashions, attend the press conferences and pray for scandal. One year, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren (remember them?) got in a pushing match on the steps of the Palais, and the chroniclers dined out for a week. The critics, however, savor moments of quieter savagery, as when Dogma founder Lars von Trier didn't win the top prize from a jury headed by Roman Polanski, and accepted his lesser award ''with no thanks to the midget.''

Everything is so urgent at Cannes. Films seem so supremely important for a week. There is a major scandal when a three-hour documentary about the Cinematheque Francais and its founder, Henri Langlois, ends in 1977 with Langlois' death, and horreurs! does not mention those who ran the Cinematheque in later years. ''The Cinematheque cannot attack it publicly, because they have invested in it,'' one overhears from the row behind, ''but they will have their people at Le Monde attack it for them.''

Civic Pride

The Cannes city hall has an entire wall covered with a photograph of the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, whose competition opener ''Bad Education'' is a thriller about a gay movie director approached by a sometime transsexual who claims to be an old school chum. (Imagine Chicago's City Hall plastered with photos of John Waters, the director of ''Hairspray.'')

The Almodovar is followed by fireworks, which thundered in the wee hours of Friday morning, after a drag show and lots of food and wine. The party seems to continue on the screen Friday morning, with ''Life Is a Miracle,'' the new film by Emir Kusturica, which takes place in Bosnia in 1992 in a district where most of the locals travel by rail. But not in trains.

No, the local line doesn't have a locomotive, so they use pushcars and autos fitted with steel wheels. A lovesick mule, not knowing the trains have stopped, stands on the tracks trying to commit suicide. Dogs, cats, ducks, pigeons and chickens occupy the houses along with the characters.

The hero is a soccer star whose mother, an opera singer, is going mad, and sings passionately during a match where players appear and disappear in the fog. Drunken locals shoot bottles off each other's heads.

There is a party that lasts all night. The local band is everywhere, providing an oom-pah-pah soundtrack for the revelry. Then war breaks out, the soccer star is taken prisoner, his family takes an enemy woman as prisoner in revenge, his father falls in love with her, and I heard someone wondering in the dark, ''Is the real subject of this movie alcoholism?''

I plunge out of the vast Lumiere theater, with 3,000 seats of rabid cineastes, and into the American Pavilion behind the Palais, where the waiters are film students who cheerfully try to network with the customers.

A discussion with two students: Does it teach you better discipline to shoot on film and edit by hand, instead of with a digital camera and computer editing? By all means, we agreed. It focuses the mind wonderfully to be aware of the money going through the camera.

Not a Seat in the House

Then it's down the Croisette to the Noga Hilton, where the Directors' Fortnight occupies a big theater seven flights of stairs below ground level. A disagreement breaks out with a festival guard, who tries to make us sit in the balcony when we all want to sit on the ground floor. ''The ground floor is full!'' he intones. ''There are hundreds of empty seats!'' we cry, for that is manifestly true. He replies with a masterpiece of French logic: ''It is full for the moment.''

The movie is "Mean Creek," by the American director Jacob Aaron Estes, and it is powerful and good. It tells the story of five friends who take a middle-school bully on a boat trip, and how their idea of a prank goes wrong.

But it is much more subtle than that. The bully had beaten up a smaller kid (Rory Culkin), and so his older brother, his girlfriend and two other friends plan the revenge. But then they all take pity on the bully (''We didn't know he would be so nice''), except for the oldest kid, who wants to follow the original plan. When the bully is almost spared, he unwisely explodes with violent insults, attacking the very one he should avoid. And then all of the kids have to deal with a hard and frightening moral choice.

I've seen a lot of movies about teenagers who are violent and amoral ("River's Edge" and "Elephant" come to mind), but never one that commits so fully to kids trying to figure out the right thing to do in an impossible situation.

Back to the hotel for a power nap, and then to the Bazin screening room in the Palais for the best film I've seen so far, "Moolaade," by Ousmane Sembene, the legendary veteran from Senegal. It's in Un Certain Regard, a sidebar section. ''In the old days,'' observes Telluride Film Festival director Tom Luddy, ''it would have been in the main competition, but now they want something edgier."

An Audience in Ecstasy

Edgy -- one of the qualities Cannes has in overabundance. The Sembene film is set in a rural village in the present day. Four little girls come running to a local woman, asking for protection. They do not want to submit to ritual circumcision. The woman is known for having refused to let her daughter be mutilated. She grants them protection, or ''moolaade,'' over the protests of her husband, but with the support of his first and third wives.

The village men are much disturbed; no man will marry an uncircumcised woman, they declare. But many girls bleed to death after the surgery, performed by a band of fearsome witches. There is a standoff, much complicated by the return from Paris of a local man scheduled to marry the heroine's daughter, only to learn she has not been cut.

At a time when ritual mutilation is under attack in Africa, when Islamic leaders have tried to explain it is not required by religious law but is a local custom, ''Moolaade'' is a strong, true and useful film. And it is magnificently beautiful, with its African vistas and brilliantly colored costumes, its full-throated music, and its faces of women who are real and have seen life and know their own strength.

Then it's down to the Croisette again, to a happy hour hosted by the famous Bollywood director Subhash Ghai, the Spielberg of India, who's had 12 of the biggest blockbusters in India's history, including ''Taal.'' That you have not heard of it does not mean millions did not love it. I saw it in a vast theater in Hyderabad, where the audience was in ecstasy.

At Cannes, Shah shows scenes from his work in progress, ''Kisna, the Warrior Poet,'' about a ''love that lives across two continents'' between an Indian man and a British woman in the early 1940s in the foothills of the Himalayas. The lovers demonstrate an extraordinary ability to take heroic stances high on jagged peaks in front of dramatic orange sunsets, and one is reminded that Bollywood remembers what Hollywood forgets, that there is a hunger among audiences for the grand romantic gesture.

And then to the Debussy, merely 2,000 seats, to see the new Korean film ''Old Boy.'' The Croisette by now is jammed, boys perched in trees, some fans with their own stepladders, for a better look at the stars ascending the red carpet for the official showing of the Kusturica movie. Inside the Debussy, ''Old Boy'' is a bizarre film by Chan-wook Park, about a drunken man who awakens to find himself held captive for 15 years by faceless jailers who will not reveal their reasons. There is a scene where a man's teeth are pulled out by the stumps, one at a time, that makes Laurence Olivier's dentist in "Marathon Man" look like Painless Parker. But you have to concede: The movie is edgy.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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