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What makes a winner? CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

EVEN if you don't think competition should be the main focus of a cultural event, you can't help wondering who'll pick up the prizes at a sprawling jamboree like the Cannes Film Festival, which ended here recently. Will the winners be safe, commercially dependable products? Or will they be risky, forward-looking ventures by fresh talents? This year's answer turned out to be: all of the above.

And that makes it hard to draw neat conclusions about what kind of cinema the Cannes festival wants to encourage. Depending on the perspective you choose, the list of 1988 winners could indicate that today's movie world is characterized by a welcome diversity - or, just as plausibly, by a state of sheer confusion.

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The prizes at Cannes are awarded by a jury of cinema celebrities from several countries, chaired this year by Ettore Scola, the respected Italian filmmaker. The most luminous honor they had to bestow, the Golden Palm, went to ``Pelle the Conqueror,'' a Danish drama made by Bille August.

Viewed by itself, this seems to indicate strongly conservative leanings in the jury. ``Pelle the Conqueror'' is a resolutely old-fashioned film about an aging Swedish worker who travels to Denmark and tries to carve out a meaningful life in a harsh and hostile new environment. The title refers not to him but to his nine-year-old son, who's more vulnerable yet also more resourceful and promising than his beaten-down father.

``Pelle the Conqueror'' didn't impress me much. Max von Sydow's performance is sturdy but never surprising, and the screenplay moves doggedly from one event to the next, as if narrative detours or complexities would be confusing rather than stimulating. The characters are predictable, too. Who needs yet another two hours with stock movie figures like the lecherous farmer, the alcoholic wife, the barnyard bully, and their ilk?

The movie has its champions, though. Long before the prizes were announced, one perceptive American critic gave me a vigorous argument, defending it on grounds of tough-mindedness and sensitivity. And it's generally felt to have been a popular Golden Palm winner, earning polite applause from the sometimes cantankerous Cannes audience.

The trouble with ``Pelle'' as a prizewinner is that it doesn't point in a single unexpected direction. I don't mean every new movie has to blaze new trails - there's plenty of room for pictures that explore familiar territory in familiar ways, as long as they're skillful and sincere. But it seems redundant to bestow prestigious awards on films that seem proudly reactionary in style and story.

My advice is: Cheer for ``Pelle''; smile at ``Pelle''; shed a tear for ``Pelle,'' if you wish. But save your awards for movies that guide the art of film toward fresh pathways.

Which is exactly what the Cannes jury did in some of its other prize-giving categories.

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Perhaps most boldly, the award for ``best artistic collaboration'' went to ``Drowning by Numbers,'' by Peter Greenaway, an unorthodox British filmmaker. Always fascinated by number and alphabet games, Mr. Greenaway punctuates his latest film - a dark comedy about three women who murder their husbands - with all sorts of verbal and visual whimsies, from imaginary sports like ``dead man's catch'' to an elaborate way of weaving numbers into the backgrounds of his shots. Although it has a strong cast headed by Joan Plowright, the result is no more ``commercial'' than earlier Greenaway films like ``The Falls'' or ``The Belly of an Architect,'' which are still waiting for American theatrical release. But it represents the kind of audacious and individualistic spirit that festivals like Cannes most need to encourage.

In another venturesome move, Cannes gave its ``jury prize'' to a deliberately disturbing Polish drama. ``A Short Film About Killing,'' directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, tells the searing story of a young man who aimlessly murders a taxi driver, then is tried and put to death for the crime. Photographed with muted colors and subtly distorted images, the film makes a powerful statement against capital punishment by showing the villain's crime and execution to be equally horrific and coldblooded events. Its relentless story and unsettling visual style break the rules of standard moviemaking, but do so with a clear and unwavering purpose - marking Mr. Kieslowski as an important talent.

The award for ``best director'' also found Cannes straying from the beaten path. Argentine filmmaker Fernando Solanas won it for ``Sur,'' an unconventional drama that deals forthrightly with social and political issues without neglecting romance or even the insinuating beat of the tango. The movie would be more impressive if Mr. Solanas's last film hadn't covered similar turf in more startling and original ways; but ``Sur'' deserved a share of prominence at Cannes, and duly received it.

The jury played it safer in its remaining awards, honoring work that achieves excellence within basically conventional frameworks. Clint Eastwood's sweeping and entertaining ``Bird,'' about jazz musician Charlie Parker, earned the ``best actor'' prize for Forest Whitaker, a gifted American performer, as well as a technical prize for its sound track. Three women shared the ``best actress'' prize for their performances in ``A World Apart,'' a drama that attacks South African apartheid: Barbara Hershey from the United States, Jodhi May from Britain, and Linda Mvusi from South Africa. This film also won the ``special grand prize,'' a runner-up to the Golden Palm award. Chris Menges was the director.

A prize of special importance - because it looks to the future as well as the present - is the Golden Camera award for the best movie by a first-time filmmaker. ``Salaam Bombay!'' was the victor. The film, directed by Mira Nair of India, shows the hardships faced by a young boy after his parents force him out on his own. It's a strong film in terms of technique and performances. Yet it seems oddly soft at its center, painting a portrait of down-and-dirty street life that lacks the blazing urgency we've encountered elsewhere.

Looking to the Cannes lineup as a whole, 1988 was a year of few emerging trends or towering achievements. A hoped-for burst of brilliance by young Chinese filmmakers was less dazzling than some had expected. Such active moviemaking nations as Japan and France failed to offer prizewinners or even crowd-pleasers. When the competition came up with an utterly original, almost unprecedented film - ``The Cannibals,'' a superb opera-movie by Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira - it was completely neglected in the prize-giving.

In the end, the festival steered a middle course, giving its favor to the earnest clich'es of ``Pelle the Conqueror'' as well as the risky excitements of the Greenaway and Kieslowski experiments. There's room for both kinds of filmmaking, although one hopes the latter will predominate.

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