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Cannes 2023: The Pot-au-Feu, Kidnapped, A Brighter Tomorrow

For a long, long while, there is not much to "The Pot-au-Feu" other than watching renowned French actors (Juliette Binoche, Benoît Magimel) prepare some of the most exquisite-looking cuisine ever committed to film—but that, readers, is cinema. The director Tran Anh Hung ("The Scent of Green Papaya") has made a movie that might seem familiar or middlebrow in its contours, but it is served with such delicacy that the craft behind it is easy to overlook.

The film's inspiration is an enduring French novel by Marcel Rouff that was published in English as The Passionate Epicure. That epicure is Dodin (Magimel), who has worked with Eugénie (Binoche), his cook, for 20 years. They also live together and sometimes sleep together, but Eugénie has consistently rebuffed Dodin's marriage proposals. The dynamic between them transcends so ordinary an arrangement, and formalizing their cohabitation could never be as satisfying as a properly prepared turbot or the textural sensations of a baked Alaska. In an early moment, Dodin quizzes a potential apprentice, Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), to see if she can name the long list of ingredients in the sauce in front of her. She discerns most—but not all—of the nuance. Only close study or the mind meld that Dodin and Eugénie have could reveal it all.

"The Pot-au-Feu" does not have much plot. Dodin accepts a dinner invitation from a prince and winds up at an eight-hour meal that still leaves him hungry for Eugénie's cooking. Eugénie's health begins to fail her, although she tries to hide it from Dodin. But what is sensational—in the most literal sense—about the movie is the loving attention it devotes to the meal preparations. The cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg ("The Death of Louis XIV") makes extraordinary use of natural light, whether it's the sun streaming into the kitchen or the candlelight that sets the atmosphere during dinners. The first time we see Dodin reiterate his marriage proposal to Eugénie—in a nighttime, postprandial conversation outdoors—Tran's camera almost floats between Binoche and Magimel. He gives the actors the space to craft their performances organically, just as their characters would demand of their food.

The first two of three Italian features in competition have debuted. (Alice Rohrwacher, who made the third, won't get her premiere until Friday, when the festival will be over for most people, at least mentally. The same lousy placement for Kelly Reichardt's "Showing Up" last year doomed it, in my opinion, to being an afterthought here instead of the critical favorite it ultimately became.)

First up was Marco Bellocchio with "Kidnapped," which finds the "Fists in the Pocket" and "Vincere" director in the color-bleached historical mode he has favored of late. But if the film isn't going to win any style points, it is authentically, compellingly angry, which is no small feat considering it's about a much-discussed case that occurred in the 19th century, the Mortara affair.

As the film tells it, in 1858, church officials arrived at the house of the Jewish Mortara family in Bologna and informed them that one of their sons, Edgardo (Enea Sala), then six years old, had been baptized and therefore could not live with them. Edgardo is taken from the Mortaras and raised as a Catholic, and he is, in effect, rewarded for acting pleased with his own captivity. The circumstances of the baptism—whether it actually occurred, whether it counted, why it came to light when it did—are just the tip of the iceberg of matters that Edgardo's father (Fausto Russo Alesi) must deal with while navigating church and government politics and the press. (The case became an international flashpoint.) The film builds to a powerful scene between Edgardo and his mother (Barbara Ronchi) that drives home how completely the abduction altered who Edgardo was.

Nanni Moretti is, for the most part, less consequentially angry in "A Brighter Tomorrow." He's angry at Netflix, angry at a film industry that produces mindless entertainment, and angry that few people around him seem to recognize the unimpeachable wit and wisdom of Nanni Moretti. He is also, more potently, angry at the current direction of Italian politics (the far-right-wing prime minister Giorgia Meloni took office last fall), which allows him to end the film on a bitter punch line (see title) that is more biting than anything that preceded it. Moretti plays his usual alter-ego-type role, a film director named Giovanni who is trying to make a historical movie about the Italian Communist Party. It was charming when Aki Kaurismäki paid tribute to his favorite directors in "Fallen Leaves," but Moretti's brand of name-dropping is painful. At one low point, his character pretends to call up Martin Scorsese to seek his thoughts on violence in cinema. He then tells onlookers that the call went to voicemail. Of course, it did: Scorsese was in Cannes.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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