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Critics Agree: Cannes Was a Letdown

Films at this year's festival were more earnest and ambitious than exciting or entertaining

Critics thrive on differences of opinion, and I spent every day of the just-concluded Cannes Film Festival debating the merits of movies that my colleagues and I often disagreed on sharply.

But coming out of the festival's closing-night ceremonies, just about everyone I talked with had the same basic assessment of this year's event: It was the most disappointing in recent memory. The jury's prize-giving decisions confirmed this, honoring pictures that are more earnest and ambitious than exciting or entertaining.

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Not that the 12 days were entirely devoid of first-rate cinema. Jim Jarmusch's darkly poetic ''Dead Man'' and Ulu Grosbard's superbly acted ''Georgia'' proved that American independent film is flourishing. Zhang Yimou's fast-paced ''Shanghai Triad'' and Hou Hsiao-hsien's historically complex ''Good Men, Good Women'' led an impressive Asian contingent. Manoel de Oliveira's enigmatic ''The Convent'' and Terence Davies's richly emotional ''The Neon Bible'' showed major European filmmakers in excellent form.

But none of these received a nod when awards were bestowed by the 10-person jury, whose members ranged from distinguished actress Jeanne Moreau and celebrated author Nadine Gordimer to renowned cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and schlock-loving director John Waters.

The 'high-brow ticket'

The jury's choices of the festival's best offerings reflect what might be called the straight high-brow ticket, focusing on films with strong literary or political pedigrees.

The social-consciousness side of its agenda showed most clearly in the top award categories: the Golden Palm, which went to Yugoslavian-born filmmaker Emir Kusterica for his three-hour-plus ''Underground,'' and the second-place Grand Prize, given to Greek director Theo Angelopoulos for his equally imposing epic, ''The Gaze of Ulysses.''

There's no question that ''Underground'' contains a large amount of fiercely imaginative material. Beginning at the outbreak of World War II, the plot centers on a Yugoslavian hustler who retreats to a subterranean bunker, sets friends and family to work on profitable war-related enterprises, and refuses to tell them the war has ended. He then becomes a powerful figure in Yugoslavia's postwar society. Eventually leaving their hiding place, a couple of his comrades stumble into the environs of a movie production about the 1940s war they think is still going on. The last portion deals with the present-day chaos of what used to be their country.

Thoughtful as it is, ''Underground'' suffers from an imbalance between its large physical dimensions and its comparatively small arsenal of ideas. Its first half-hour is very powerful, using the destruction of a Belgrade zoo to symbolize the assault on civilized values by fascist aggression. The last half-hour is also striking, using fire and fratricide as metaphorical weapons. But there's a repetitious 132 minutes between these portions, making a few sociopolitical points over and over again, and seriously diluting the story's dramatic, philosophical, and polemical impact.

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''The Gaze of Ulysses'' stars American actor Harvey Keitel as an archivist tracking down a long-missing movie, shot decades ago by the first Greek filmmakers. Behind his quest is a conviction that the elusive film represents a state of lost innocence for both the cinema and his own jaded viewpoint in particular. As he travels from Greece to Albania to Romania to the former Yugoslavia, the audience is led to see that the world itself has lost whatever innocence it claimed to have possessed. No collection of images could begin to soften its tragic, violent failures.

Flawed screenplay

Gorgeous to watch and fascinating to think about, ''The Gaze of Ulysses'' is nonetheless marred by some pretentious screenwriting, and by Keitel's inability to get his mind or his mouth around the heavy-going lines he's required to say. I was moved by the film's visual eloquence, but these verbal shortcomings took a major toll on its credibility.

Also unfortunate was Angelopoulos's ungracious response to winning the second-place award instead of the top prize.

''I had a speech prepared for the Golden Palm,'' he muttered, ''but I've forgotten it.'' Then he left the stage with a mumbled thank you to the audience.

It's hard not to suspect that the jury honored these pictures for the nobility of their intentions more than the fullness of their achievements. Two other winning films also had strongly topical themes: ''Don't Forget You're Going to Die,'' a French production that received the Jury Prize for its treatment of AIDS-related issues, and ''Hate,'' which earned Mathieu Kassovitz the best-director award for his unoriginal look at violence in a French housing project.

Literary values ruled in the other categories. The only film to earn two awards was ''Carrington,'' about the longtime friendship between Dora Carrington, a pioneering female artist, and Lytton Strachey, an openly homosexual and proudly pacifistic author whose writing challenged traditional British values in the post-World War I era.

Jonathan Pryce's portrayal of Strachey deservedly took the best-actor award Price expresses more personality with his bushy beard than many performers can work up with their whole faces and the Special Jury Prize went to the film itself, costarring Emma Thompson and directed by Christopher Hampton from his own screenplay.

Helen Mirren was honored as best actress for her performance in ''The Madness of King George,'' another elegantly written drama rooted in historical fact.

Of all these awards, only the Special Jury Prize for ''Carrington'' was voted unanimously by the panel, reinforcing the impression that it's the movie most likely to appear on American screens in the near future aside from ''The Madness of King George,'' of course, which opened in the United States weeks ago.

''Underground'' and ''The Gaze of Ulysses'' may find their way to commercial release, but probably in shorter and more accessible versions. Certainly there's material in both that could be trimmed without detriment to their basic messages.

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