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Cannes Reviews: Of Gods and Women

”Polisse“ is thrown off-balance by its director’s strong presence; ”Habemus Papam“ grapples with faith and doubt

In today's reviews we have films about cops and children, gods and men. "Polisse," by Maïwenn Le Besco (who makes films under the single name Maïwenn), is one of the unprecedented four films directed by women to screen in the main competition; "Habemus Papam," by  Italian director Nanni Morreti, is a provocative and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny look at the power of organized religion.

Also read: Historic Change as Women Directors Leave Mark at Cannes

Maiwenn Le Besco"Polisse"

French filmmakers don’t appear to live under the same constraints as American filmmakers do.  They usually are given enough room to tell their story, however long they think that story needs to be told.

Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.  With Maïwenn Le Besco’s "Polisse," it almost works. While she needs a good editor and someone to tell her when to stop, there is much to applaud in the film – even if, in the end, it feels like too much to take in all at once.  

Part of the problem of the film is Le Besco herself, who feels the need to not only write and direct the behemoth, but also to star in it. It's admirable that she’s able to do all of this; very few female filmmakers have. But Le Besco – angular, tall and striking, with Mick Jagger lips and Charlotte Rampling cheekbones – is simply too strong of a force to play a side character. She stands out too much, and her movie seems to pull in two very different directions: the love story of Le Besco’s character, and the ongoing saga of the police department that deals specifically with crimes against children.

Le Besco’s film revolves around a team of hardened policemen and women whose lives are personally affected, every day, by the terrible situations they find themselves in. The film is hard to watch, as the crimes are graphic: fathers raping their daughters, mothers are unintentionally abusive. The team must cordon off their personal feelings, not get involved with victims, not act out against perps. Worse, they have to then go home and face their husbands or wives or children. How do they keep an open heart? How do they not completely lose their minds?

The film be a mini-series like "The Wire," which seems to be its role model for verité-style filmmaking and gripping dramatic tension. Unlike "The Wire," however, Le Besco takes it all too far, especially as it comes to the 90-minute mark, which is when it should have ended. That extra half-hour becomes problematic, as each character has to have a shrieking breakdown.  

Le Besco has found actors who are so good you almost wonder if you’re watching a movie or watching real life. But she overdoes it to the point where we become disconnected from the characters; that's unfortunate, because they are all worthy of our attention.

"Habemus Papam"

In "Habemus Papam" ("We Have a Pope"), Nanni Morreti appears to be questioning, albeit subtly, the power of organized religion on man’s will. Many who live faithfully by the Catholic church – make their decisions because of it, show up on Sunday to worship at it, obey all of its laws – will probably be offended.  But for those of us who have long since forsaken the church, or never had the church to begin with, it feels as if it treads too lightly on an institution that continues to be rife with controversy.

Habemus PapamThe film opens with a conclave to select Il Papa, the new Pope – but none of the Cardinals want to be chosen.  “Please God,” they pray, “not me.”  Finally, when one is chosen, he experiences a sudden identity crisis. He can’t remember who he was. He can’t remember ever having a life. He isn’t ready for the spiritual leadership that’s been handed to him.

The newly chosen Pope, played by Michel Piccoli, waits for God to speak to him, but he never hears that voice. Left to fend for himself, he flees, and wanders the streets of Rome in search of life’s meaning. If he can’t find life’s meaning, he’ll settle for some sort of reason to believe – to believe in himself, to believe in life. While he’s away, the millions of people who look to the Pope for leadership are lost.

Moretti juxtaposes the church with a theatrical production and a sports game – two scenarios that are created by and executed by people. Somehow these three notions of team-playing are connected. And yet, by the end, the Pope still cannot seem to find his way. 

If Moretti had wanted to give the audience what it so badly craves – a kind of "King’s Speech," Italian style – he would end this movie in a way you’d expect.  But what makes this such a good film is that it doesn’t do that. Like most of the films I’ve seen here in Cannes, it doesn't do much answering of life’s big questions; these filmmakers prefer to leave things open-ended. 

"Habemus Papam" sort of hovers in the middle of its ideas: it doesn’t really want to take a hard stand, and yet it can’t quite surrender itself to the notion of the church, God and power.  Resentment for the Vatican sneaks in often, and one gets the sense that there is much more Moretti really wants to say but can’t, given the power of the church in Italy today.

While that might make it a slightly unsatisfying sit, "Habemus Papam" is still one of the better films shown in competition here at Cannes. 

More of Sasha Stone's Cannes coverage can be found at Awards Daily.