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Cannes winners share theme

CANNES, France -- No films could be more different than the two top prize winners in this year's Cannes Film Festival. And no directors could have accepted the awards more differently - one with joy, the other almost defiantly.

The Palme d'Or for best film went to "Eternity and a Day," by Theo Angelopoulos of Greece. Climbing morosely to the stage, he said, "If I had not won, I would have made the same speech." Everyone in the Palais knew what he was referring to: how, three years ago, when his "Ulysses' Gaze" was passed over for the Palme and given the Grand Jury Prize instead, he spat into the microphone: "I have prepared a speech - but not for this prize!"

This year, the Grand Jury Prize, which is essentially second place, went to "Life is Beautiful," by the Italian comic actor Roberto Benigni. And his acceptance had the entire theater rolling with hilarity, and the jury laughing and crying at the same time.

Benigni, a thin, hyperactive clown with an unruly head of hair, used all of his gifts to show how happy he was. He threw his arms in the air. He crossed them over his chest. He blew kisses to the balcony. He kissed the feet of Martin Scorsese, the president of the jury. He embraced all the members of the jury - and for good measure all the members of the short film jury, who were also on the stage. He pretended he thought he had won the Palme d'Or. He got a standing ovation.

And then came the award for Angelopoulos, which played more like an anticlimax. It was as if Benigni had demonstrated the correct way to win second prize.

But it is not that simple, because Angelopoulos and Benigni are not, after all, the same person. And the differences in their personalities are reflected in the contrasting natures of their films.

"Eternity and a Day" tells the story of a man who expects to check into a hospital tomorrow, and probably will die there. It stars Bruno Ganz (of Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire") as a great Greek writer who has abandoned his hopes of writing an epic poem and now faces the possibility that in working so hard on his art, he missed his own life.

And then something happens to keep him from leaving life too easily. In a masterful single shot, Angelopoulos shows "red light boys" - poor kids with squeegees who clear windshields at traffic signals - racing out to wash some windows. Then the hero's car enters from the right, and drives a block to another light. It stops, and another gang of boys comes to wash his windshield.

Behind him, as the camera rises up, we see several boys from the previous light running down the street, chased by police. The hero opens the door of his car and gestures for a boy to get in. They drive off, and he has saved the boy from arrest.

This boy turns out to be a homeless refugee from Albania. The dying poet and the boy will cross paths during the day, until finally the demands of the boy's life take precedence over those of the poet's death. There is a lot more, but that is the heart of the film, which is muffled in darkness, rain and fog.

Now consider "Life Is Beautiful," which was written and directed by Benigni and stars him as an Italian Jew who, in the 1930s, woos and wins the woman of his dreams. Gradually, almost as a surreal intrusion into normal life, the horror of World War II slips into a story that began as a romantic comedy.

Anti-Semitic laws are passed; Jewish stores are closed. Finally the father and his son are herded onto a train for the concentration camps, and the wife, who is a gentile, insists on coming along with them.

In the camps, the father, whose only gifts are as a clown, uses humor and fantasy to try to shield his little boy from the horror of the Holocaust. He invents a game: For 1,000 points, the kid will win an army tank. The game includes hiding from the guards, and the kid plays so well that he becomes the only surviving child in the camp.

Both films, then, are about similar themes: adult men using their art and experience to protect little boys from a world that wants to kill them because of their ethnic identity. But Benigni uses laughter and satire, and Angelopoulos uses existential defiance; it tries to cut a deal with despair.

Thinking of the films, I understand completely why the two men accepted their awards in such different ways. Angelopoulos, like his hero, is weighted down with his art and his mortality. Benigni, like his hero, whistles defiantly into the face of destruction. For one, horror confirms the tragic human condition. For the other, it exists to be defied. Both films are true to the natures of the men who made them.

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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