An imperfect world

In its first week, Cannes offers a glimpse of the troubles plaguing our planet

Pain And Glory. (Photos © CANNES FILM FESTIVAL)

Even on the ground at the Cannes Film Festival, what people seemed to be anticipating most on Monday was, well, the final episode of Game Of Thrones. No, it wasn't being shown at the festival (how unbecoming that would be), but isn't it a sign of our times that a TV episode has the Valyrian-steel nerve to dominate global discussion and upstage the world's biggest film showcase?

Cannes, its head held high, is unperturbed. Nor should it be; cinema has weathered the assault of new media for over half a century, from TV to VHS, from laser disc to cable and now streaming. And while the fate of Jon Snow and his Dragon Queen aunt may rule your newsfeed this week, Cannes carries its status as a totem of theatrical experience with pride and joy. Not that all films shown here are faultless, of course, but the 10-day assembly of world cinema and auteur expression still turns up some fine stuff that serves to measure the pulse of the world.

And that world is far from perfect, according to some of the titles shown here in the past week. The scourges of humanity include, for instance, zombies, neoliberalism, dislocation, exploitation, or in the case of Antonio Banderas in Pedro Almodóvar's sensitive and melancholic Pain And Glory, good old-fashioned back pain. Almodóvar's film has had a good reception -- some have put it as a front-runner for the Palme d'Or -- with its semi-autobiograhical narrative about an ageing film director (Banderas, in salt-and-pepper glory) nursing his physical decline while ruminating upon his childhood (Penelope Cruz plays the mother), homoerotic awakening and successful yet lonely career. Its heart beating loud and clear, Pain And Glory plays like a high-end melodrama about a man who realises that his future is now shorter than his past; it's probably one of his best films in recent years. And while some of us may miss the subversive wackiness of his earlier films, the Spanish maestro shows that, like himself, his filmmaking has aged pretty well.

Bacurau. CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

Which, to me and quite a few others, is also the case with Ken Loach and his latest effort, Sorry We Missed You. Say whatever you want, but you can't fault Ken Loach for doing the Ken Loach: exposing with heartfelt fury the evils inherent in capitalism that reduce the hard-working men and women of Britain to modern slaves. Set in Newcastle, Sorry We Missed You follows Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a former construction worker who's contracted to drive a delivery van for a productivity-mad depot boss-cum-slave master. In the opening scene, when the boss cajoles Ricky into signing the paper and assures him that it's the best decision he's made for him and his family, we know without a shadow of doubt that it most definitely is not, and that Ricky is actually signing a pact with the neoliberalist devil. Sure enough, it's only downhill from there for Ricky, his wife and their two children.

Sorry We Missed You. CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

You can't deny the film's power to inspire fury, though Loach's approach can sometimes be ham-fisted, with the inevitability of Ricky's compounding misfortune a little force-fed. Still, we're looking at a filmmaker with a steadfast dedication to portraying working-class life. Loach in his 80s is free of cynicism and irony, and that's refreshing. I don't think he should win his third Palme d'Or with this film but Sorry We Missed You is an important film, one that helps to expose what's so blatantly wrong with the world.

Didn't I mention zombies earlier? Yes, the undead have returned as a central metaphor for the world's current ills. Cannes opened last Tuesday with Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die, a parodic zombie film that takes a jibe at … what? Consumerism? Trump? American mindlessness? More zombies have turned up in at least two other films at the festival. In Matti Diop's Senegal-set Atlantique, the boys who die while crossing the sea to Spain return to possess the bodies of their friends.

A coming-of-age story with a delicate feminine touch, Atlantique is neither a zombie nor horror film, but Diop uses supernatural intervention and folkloric ghost-myths to comment upon the state of youths in Senegal: disenfranchised in life, maybe they have a better chance to reclaim what's theirs in death.

Zombi Child. CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

A more literal and intriguing zombie film is Bertrand Bonello's Zombi Child, shown in the sidebar Directors' Fornight section. Bonello, a French filmmaker best known for Saint Laurent and Nocturana, goes back to the roots of zombies -- you know, Haiti, sugarcane plantations, voodoo, the whole black magic gamut. That, plus zombification as a commentary on slavery, the founding of the French Republic and its values. Zombi Child is set alternately between Haiti in the 1960s, where we follow a man resurrected from death to become farm labour, and in a present-day, elite, all-girl boarding school in Paris where a Haitian girl has recently joined this all-white institution, supposedly founded by Napoleon himself. At once a high school adventure, an art house drama and a Wes Craven horror, Zombi Child manages to become a study of colonial legacy, its ritual, its myth and its invisible traces in the Western world. Forget the White Walkers, the dead here carry more historical weight than anything in Westeros.

But Cannes has also given us a rare case when the exploited claim cinematic justice, in the bloodiest fashion. One of my favourite titles so far is Bacurau by Kleber Mendoca Filho and Juliano Dornelles, in which a small village in a remote corner of Brazil experiences a surreal invasion by a mini spaceship and a band of American human-hunters. Mixing lo-fi grindhouse aesthetics with parodic formalism, Bacurau morphs into a Western revenge story complete with a siege, brain-spattering gunfights and a guitar-strumming village crooner. Above all of this stylised construct is an allegory about a place where government officials and capitalist bloodsuckers conspire to pack the poor and defenceless off to the slaughterhouse -- I suppose the film will mean more politically and culturally to Brazilians than to the rest of the world.

Cannes Film Festival runs until May 25. We will have more report in the coming days.