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Life begins at 60. At the 60th Cannes Film Festival there was something almost shocking – yet heroic – about the way a venerable culture event lifted its skirts, revealed its frilly knickers and cannes-cannes’d all the way to this year’s biggest surprise of all. The Golden Palm went to a film that actually deserved it.

Believe me, this doesn’t happen often, even with a film like Romania’s Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days which had been a critical favourite from day one. As an up-close-and- harrowing drama about illegal abortion, its strongest scenes make Vera Drake seem like Mary Poppins. As a portrait of the Ceausescu era it is art as social history. As a calling card from a new filmmaker, Cristian Mungiu, it bespeaks a brilliant realist. Mungiu’s fly-on-wall observation style sees human beings as exactly that: flies on the wall. In a just society, we walk around on the ground on two legs, thinking, feeling and choosing. In an unjust one we are insects scattering to the corners, seeking any place where there may be cracks in the regime.

Lead performer Anamaria Marinca must have been a Best Actress contender. But that prize went – justly – to Do-Yeon Jeon in South Korea’s Secret Sunshine. As the single mother of an abducted and killed child, Jeon goes through every emotion, from lissom lightness before the tragedy to depth-plumbing grief, with an interlude for poignant folly
as the victim of a religious group’s spurious comforts. Lee Chang-Dong’s late-showing film, like Naomi Kawase’s The Mourning Forest from Japan, which won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize for its touching tale of an old man’s journey to honour a departed wife, demonstrated that Asia is still a force in world cinema.

America’s Julian Schnabel won Best Director for the French-language drama The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Russia’s Konstantin Lavronenko won Best Actor for broody work in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Banishment. German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin won Best Screenwriter for the earnest globalisation epic, Edge of Heaven. And with Mexico’s Silent Light – Carlos Reygadas’s love story set in a Mennonite sect – sharing a Jury Prize with Marjane Satrapi’s French-Iranian animated satire Persepolis, there was a growing sense on awards night of “fair shares for all”.

Fair, except in two cases. The Coens went prizeless for No Country for Old Men, the competition’s second best movie. (See my first dispatch.) And there was no bauble for Aleksandr Sokurov’s admired Alexandra. This nuanced war fable, in which an officer’s granny, visiting a Russian camp in Chechnya, learns that the “enemy” may be the motherland’s mind-washed troops rather than the natives she meets on a truant trip to town, stars Galina Vishnevskaya, no less. The ageing opera diva, garbed in extra legend as the widow of Mstislav Rostropovich, lends the film a surreal gravitas. As Callas was to Pasolini in Medea, she is the avatar of an old culture – and an old championing of liberty through art – conferring benediction on the new.

A follow-up Russian soirée gave the ex-Soviet Union the festival’s last, reverberant word. Andrei Nekrasov’s documentary Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case was screened out of competition, hot from the cutting room and hot in all senses. A scorching indictment of Vladimir Putin, it ransacks history for crimes of cruelty and corruption, murder and embezzlement, committed and covered up by the premier (Nekrasov insists) to help autocracy masquerade as a democracy.

Litvinenko’s widow was in the audience. By the close of the film, which incorporates a long interview with her husband, she was dabbing a handkerchief to her face. The rest of us found time for a gallows smile during another, shorter interview section, with suspected polonium purveyor Andrei Lugovoi. When Lugovoi courteously asks the director, “Would you like a cup of tea?” Nekrasov replies very quickly, “No, thank you.”

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