It was a triumph for good judgment. And for the belief that size counts, or at least length. Winter Sleep by Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Golden Palm for Best Film at the 67th Cannes Film Festival. The longest film in competition at three and a quarter hours, it was also the most spellbinding.
Lauded three years ago for the similar-length Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which won the 2011 Cannes Grand Jury Prize, Ceylan delivers another magisterial story of faith, hope and tragedy. This time the epic landscape is Cappadocia, land of cave dwellings: surely a symbolic setting for the three main characters, an ex-actor turned philosophising hotel keeper (who pens essays for a coterie journal), his embittered sister, his beautiful, unhappy wife.
They have all tried to hollow a space for “culture” and “civilisation” in the primitive landscape of incertitude that is human life. Life, though, as always, fights back. Guilt, memory, even local hatreds – the hero-landlord’s impoverished tenants – reassert the feral, the atavistic, the punitive. Sometimes mellowing with comedy, sometimes majestic with tragic crescendo, the film is marvellously achieved. Even the long conversation scenes transcend staginess to find a Bergmanesque cinematic power.
Jury president Jane Campion, the only woman Golden Palm winner in history with The Piano (1993), came close to surrendering her own record. The runner-up Grand Jury Prize went to Alice Rohrwacher’s Le Meraviglie (The Marvels) from Italy. It wasn’t a critics’ favourite, this magic realism-lite tale of a beekeeping family. Rohrwacher overdoes the rural prettiness and coming-of-age currents while underdoing the plot. But Team Campion may have warmed to the determined female bias of the dramatis personae: four main women characters (including three daughters), topped off with Monica Bellucci spoofing herself, skilfully and funnily, as a bimbo TV presenter.
The acting prizes went west. Britain’s Timothy Spall won for impersonating the title painter, with panache and a wonderful wounded intensity, in Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner. Hollywood’s Julianne Moore won for her narcissistic, vainglorious film actress in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars.
Other prizes scattered themselves around a larger map. Best Screenplay went to Andrey Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin for the Russian drama Leviathan. Best Director went to Foxcatcher’s Bennett Miller, providing a hit Hollywood true-life thriller-drama. The Jury Prize was shared between Jean-Luc Godard’s French-Swiss cine-essay in 3D Adieu au Langage – barmy or beatific according to taste (for me mostly the former) – and Xavier Dolan’s French-Canadian Mommy, an inventive, mordant, helter-skelter tale of family love.
The map of prizes, nonetheless, didn’t reach far outside Europe and North America. Asia had a disappointing year, even with a Palm victor from bi-continental Turkey. Latin America and Australasia were nowhere. Africa won attention only with the quiet, medium-powerful Timbuktu from Abderrahmane Sissako, gong-less except for the Ecumenical Jury Prize.
This isn’t the way we want the movie world to be. In art, as in industry and commerce, every country and continent benefits from strong performances by other countries and continents.
Those with the tiger economies, though, aren’t necessarily those with the tiger cultures. The cycles of artistic momentum and renewal are still strongest in Europe and the US. Even Japan, once home to Ozu, Kurosawa and Oshima, looks short of mojo in 2014. Its competition entry, Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water, was a mystagogic mess about life, death and shamanism on an island. China sent Zhang Yimou. But even “fail-safe” filmmakers can sometimes fail. Zhang’s contribution was the sentimental if well-crafted Coming Home.
Perhaps these longer pauses in creativity on some continents herald stronger comebacks when the creativity re-happens. If so, roll on, Cannes 2015 and beyond. Whatever one says of world cinema and its restlessly changing power rankings, the world’s best and most powerful showcase for cinema is, has been and for all foreseeable time will be this festival in a small French town on the Côte d’Azur.
Cannes Film Festival: festival-cannes.com