Of all the filmmakers whose work is in the 63rd Cannes Film Festival — including the French lion Jean-Luc Godard, who growled at us yet refused to show his face, and the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who has seemingly metamorphosed into a Euro-style art-house auteur — none have had the impact of the man who could not attend. Jafar Panahi is an Iranian director who was asked to join the competition jury, but is currently in a jail in his country for his political views. On Tuesday, a message from him in which he asked to contact his family and speak with a lawyer, was posted on the Web site of the French journal La Règle du Jeu (laregledujeu.org). A scene from Xavier Beauvois’s “Of Gods and Men,” which takes place largely in a monastery.
“Finally, I swear upon what I believe in, the cinema: I will not cease my hunger strike until my wishes are satisfied.
“My final wish is that my remains be returned to my family, so that they may bury me in the place they choose.”
The gravity of Mr. Panahi’s statement only underscored the real and often calamitous world events that have informed a number of the films here, with selections touching on the American war in Iraq, the global financial crisis, religious fundamentalism, armed revolutionary struggles and the usual man’s inhumanity against man, women and children. At a Thursday afternoon press conference, an Iranian journalist asked the director Doug Liman — who’s here with “Fair Game,” about the former C.I.A. operative Valerie Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson — what he thought about the belief that the United States might soon lead an attack on Iran. The slightly surprised-looking Mr. Liman paused and then answered that, in contrast to the real Ms. Plame, he is not “a nuclear proliferation expert.” Next question.
Greeted with solid applause and a smattering of boos after its first press screening, “Fair Game” has an enjoyable opening hour before disintegrating into melodramatic hooey. Naomi Watts, bright and sincere at the press conference, plays Plame as a no-nonsense operative who’s always rushing, whether at home tending her family or in the dreary basement halls of the Central Intelligence Agency or on the streets of a foreign country. Sean Penn, who plays Ms. Plame’s husband, skipped Cannes to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the need for continued relief for Haiti.
Mr. Liman said “Fair Game” was the kind of movie he had always wanted to make (his previous titles include “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and the first Bourne movie), invoking the memory of his father, Arthur L. Liman, who served as the chief counsel to the Senate committee that investigated the Iran-Contra affair, the arms-for-hostages scandal that blew up in the Reagan years. Given the younger Mr. Liman’s stated goals and that the movie takes aim against the Bush administration and the complicit news media, it is too bad that the story insists on turning into a marital soap opera. That’s a familiar strategy in mainstream cinema, where real politics are generally avoided. But the bombs and deaths that are part of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson’s story demand more.
Hollywood productions have long found a place at Cannes, even if Hollywood now rarely returns the interest. “Fair Game,” it’s worth noting, was not made by one of the Hollywood studios, which right now appear averse to smart adult entertainment. For that, American viewers increasingly need to look to nonstudio distributors like IFC Films, which continues to skim the cream of Cannes. As of Thursday, it had bought two of the best-received films in this year’s edition: Olivier Assayas’s “Carlos,” a 5 hour 33 minute portrait of the militant turned mercenary known as Carlos the Jackal, and Mr. Kiarostami’s widely admired talky two-hander, “Certified Copy,” the first feature he has made outside his native Iran and the first with a European star.
That would be Juliette Binoche, who stars as an antiques dealer, merely identified as “she,” who lives in Tuscany. The film opens with a shot of a table on which two mikes have been placed, as if in wait for the two principals, who soon take their place in Mr. Kiarostami’s self-conscious exercise. The woman, after prematurely leaving a talk by a visiting British author, James Miller (the British opera singer William Shimell), agrees to drive him out of town for some sightseeing. During their adventure, they discuss his book of art criticism (titled “Certified Copy”), which explores the differences between originals and fakes, and slowly slip into an increasingly serious game by pretending to be a long-married couple.
The most appealing part of “Certified Copy” is Ms. Binoche’s generous, alternately uptight and loose performance, which pulls you close when her character’s unpersuasive actions turn you off. The cinematography by Luca Bigazzi is another draw, capturing the beauty of Tuscany without drowning it in the honeyed tones that often goo up the screen whenever anyone shoots in that part of the world. Although the film formally recalls Richard Linklater’s peripatetic love stories, “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” “Certified Copy” is very much a Kiarostami film in its blurring of fiction and nonfiction. I wish I believed that this woman would have tolerated this insufferable man for a single second; it might have helped if Mr. Shimell, who has an interesting, grave face, were a plausible screen performer.
Given the situation in Iran, this might not be the last time that Mr. Kiarostami, whose previous films include “Taste of Cherry,” ventures into European art-house cinema, of which this new film is certainly a “certified copy.” Mr. Kiarostami, seated next to a stricken-looking Ms. Binoche, opened his news conference by saying that he had received a message to call Mr. Panahi’s wife in Tehran and was hoping for good news. “The fact that a filmmaker has been imprisoned,” Mr. Kiarostami said, “is in itself intolerable.” He added that if the Iranian government continued to imprison Mr. Panahi, explanations were necessary, because he did not understand how a film could be considered a crime. When a journalist started crying while asking another question about Iran, Ms. Binoche wept as well.
“Certified Copy” remains a strong contender for the Palme d’Or, along with two other competition entries: Mike Leigh’s “Another Year,” about a happily married late-middle-aged couple (the movie has been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for distribution in the United States), and Xavier Beauvois’s quietly powerful “Of Gods and Men.” Based on a true story, “Of Gods and Men” largely takes place in a Cistercian monastery outside an Algerian village in the 1990s. The story involves eight French monks — played by Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale, among others — whose peaceable lives are threatened by Islamic fundamentalists soon after civil war erupts. (Another competition film, “Outside the Law,” from Rachid Bouchareb, about the Algerian fight for independence from France, has its premiere on Friday.)
Part of what distinguishes “Of Gods and Men” is its intelligence and topicality, its inquiry into questions of faith and fear. But much of its pleasure derives from its attention to the monks’ liturgical rituals, quotidian habits and manifestly deep love for one another and the world around them. In one scene, the abbot, played by Mr. Wilson, takes a long, meditative walk, stopping to lovingly pat an enormous tree, a gesture that brings to mind the communion between man and nature in Roberto Rossellini’s “Flowers of St. Francis.” The superb cast includes some of the most expressive faces in contemporary cinema — Mr. Lonsdale’s thick white eyebrows alone suggest a richly lived existence — which Mr. Beauvois tenderly frames in close-up during the devastating finale.
Like Mr. Beauvois, the South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong uses reserve to tremendous effect. Mr. Lee’s latest, “Poetry,” which is also in competition, centers on Mija (Yun Jung-hee), a grandmother raising her only grandchild, a teenage boy, in a small city. At first, this seemingly simple story concentrates on Mija’s daily habits, her visits to her doctor, her relations with her grandson, her poignant vanity. One day she decides to take a poetry writing course, a decision that, as the tale takes a violent turn, becomes our entry into a woman who’s far richer than her fussy habits and humble words suggest. With an understated visual style and perfectly paced narrative, Mr. Lee has created a portrait of a woman who has, by the end, become an extraordinary vision of human empat