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By Jeremy Mathews | May 16, 2004

Check out Jeremy’s previous reports as he braves the 2004 Cannes Film Festival>>>

On Thursday night, the Cannes Film Festival saw what will likely be the biggest red-carpet fuss during its entire duration for Brad Pitt and his costars at the screening of “Troy.” The movie, however, hasn’t received as much discussion or warmth as the four competition films that have screened.

Perhaps “Troy” was a bit too ambitious a project to ever be a perfect film. Wolfgang Petersen, whose “Das Boot” is one of the finest war films ever made, directed this $175 million epic in an attempt to capture one of the most legendary battles of all time, and indeed recreates it on a grand scale, with mixed results in the ensemble character drama tucked into the film.

No effort to show all political angles of this complicated story could have been particularly focused, but this one makes a valiant effort to look at the noble soldiers and plotting politicians of the Greek government as their king finds an excuse for war. Rather than fault the film for not being a classic, it’s easy to enjoy the its positive qualities, like Petersen’s sweeping recreation of the battle and some great dramatic scenes, most notably the riveting nighttime meeting between King Priam of Troy (Peter O’Toole) and Achilles.

The less involving drama is between Paris, prince of Troy (Orlando Bloom) and Helen of Sparta (later of Troy, of course) (Diane Kruger), who runs away with Paris to his homeland, infuriating her husband, King Meneleus. In their scenes, we get the typical whining about forbidden love, although thankfully not as much as in “The Attack of the Clones.”

Pitt plays Achilles, a heroic fighter who hungers for the glory of battle, but has no desire to help petty kings like Agamemnon (Brian Cox). Agamemnon uses his brother Meneleus’s jealousy after Helen runs away to launch 1,000 Greek ships to the land of Troy and take down the kingdom’s walls.

Petersen and screenwriter David Benioff dispose of the use of Greek gods as figures in the story, as they were in Homer’s Iliad, from which the film is “inspired.” Their only presence comes from human beings’ interpretation of them, in the temple of Apollo that Achilles desecrates or the priests who have allegedly received signs of which side will win the war (both believe theirs will, of course). The goal here isn’t to portray the myth, but to present the battle closer to how it might have happened, without deities whispering in people’s ears or Achilles being invincible all except for that pesky heel.

The film looks great, and the production design captures the details of the armies’ uniforms, ships and weapons. The walls and chambers in Troy all feel authentic, offering a unique glimpse into the ancient Greeks’ way of life. By the end, the sweeping shots become a bit repetitive, but the early ones inspire admiration.

Eric Bana does well as Hector, Paris’s older brother who has encountered the horrors of war first hand and is therefore less akin to rushing into battle than the older kings, who talk about their battles from conference rooms and tents far away from the deaths of young soldiers. Petersen manages to paint similarities and contrasts between the prominent figures on each side, succeeding more through the sum of his scenes than their individual value. He leaves “Troy” with an interesting and detailed look at war, even if each dramatic moment isn’t as impressive as its creators had hoped.

Emir Kusturica’s “Life is a Miracle!” explores the turmoil of life during wartime with humor and grace. Kusturica is a longtime Cannes favorite, and here he combines social commentary and humanity in a beautiful work of art.

It begins in Bosnia in 1992, shortly before war breaks out. Luka (Slavko Stimac) is a Serbian train technician from Belgrade setting up railroad tracks in a small Bosnian village. Luka uses the unfinished tracks for his car without tires, and the eccentric mailman and others make use of it as well, although sometimes a suicidal goat gets in their way. The town innocently plays music and looks at railroad models while politicians plan to make a profit smuggling goods during the war.

The first part of the film simply displays the charming life of the small town while contrasting it with inscrutable plotting. Luka has no idea that war could actually cause a problem as he goes about his ignorant life. When his son Milos, a talented soccer player who hangs out with friends who are much wilder than his father realizes, is sent to the army, Luka reacts casually and offers a toast to the ceramic bust of his veteran father. His wife, a mentally ill former opera singer, however, realizes the implications and begins to act even more erratically, which is saying something once you witness her ridiculous dancing and overdone singing at the railroad’s inauguratory ceremony.

The second half of the film involves a love story that unites the Muslim and non-Muslim cultures and sees the war invade everyday life more and more. Kusturica creates an intimate town, then reminds us that it and its inhabitants hang on a thread of luck instead of being rooted in solid earth.

Before “Mondovino” screened for the press on Thursday night, the festival announced that the movie, originally scheduled as an out-of-competition selection, would compete for the Palm d’Or. This last-minute decision could have come from a reassessment of the film’s strengths or simply a desire to prove that documentaries by filmmakers other than Michael Moore could get into competition. (Last year, even Errol Morris showed “The Fog of War” out of competition.) Jonathan Nossiter‘s film is a lively kaleidoscopic jumble exploring the dangers and implications of the growing global wine market.

The film travels a bumpy handheld path around the world, visiting wineries everywhere from small French and Argentinean towns to large corporations in Nappa, Calif. that tried to buy land in southern France and were shut out. We meet old traditional winemakers who believe that it takes a poet to make a great wine as well as very friendly people who pose a threat to the small winemaking families trying to stay on their land.

Michel Rolland, who says he has his dream job, flies everywhere from Europe to South America to advise people on their wine, usually telling them to “micro-oxygenate” it. It all seems OK until you realize that the taste of American wine critics and people like Rolland are influencing winemakers to alter their wines to be more like others so that they can get good reviews, fit in and can compete instead of having a distinct flavor.

The editing, also by Nossiter, includes zoom-in refocusing, awkward framing and unruly camera movement, sometimes out of a moving car, as Nossiter keeps his HD camera on at all times and portrays both the unique areas behind the wine and the people who grow, sell and market it for love, profit or a combination of the two.

The inclusion of two documentaries in competition this year may be a sign of more attention to docs in years to come, and based on the strength of works like this, it would be a welcome change.
Check back for further coverage of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Until then, let’s hear some Back Talk>>>

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