"L'Auberge Espagnole" ("Europudding", France, in competition) is a comedy. Zipping through the exposition with fast motion and split screen, director Cedric Klapisch follows the bureaucratic trials and tribulations of Xavier (a breezily engaging Romain Duris), an economics student in his twenty who, promised a job by a Finance Minister friend of his father's if he can get fluent in Spanish (and knowledgeable in Spain's economy), signs up for a European exchange program. He lands in a Barcelona apartment in the midst of a culturally diverse group of students who joined the same Erasmus program.
Much as he did in "When the Cat's Away" and "Un Air de Famille", Klapisch focuses on groups and locations. Barcelona is as fully-fleshed a character as the housemates who come from England, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Belgium and Andalusia -- a microcosm of the European community at its most chaotic, but also at its warmest, fuzziest, most affectionate (even when Kevin Bishop as an obnoxious Brit hilariously mouths off a string of cultural stereotypes). The youths hang out, study, party, and truly bond, thereby absorbing each other's influences and cultures in ways that colleges and universities never teach you to. A cultural mishmash that proves both nurturing and supporting that will allow Xavier to escape from Eurocrat hell and freely pursue his creative instincts.
The film sparkles when it observes the interactions within the group, but less so when it deals with Xavier's romantic entanglements (as the married woman with whom Xavie has an affair and as the visiting fiancée, Judith Godrèche and "Amélie"'s Audrey Tautou are surprisingly bland).
"Brats" is another kettle of fish. Zdenék Tyc's film (a world premiere, in competition) is about racism and ostracism as experienced by children. A family of five (mom, dad, three kids) leaves Prague and settles in a small Czech village hoping to find better air for the youngest child who suffers from asthma and, perhaps more to the point, a better environment for the two older Romani boys they have adopted. A fragile dream that is shattered when an elderly neighbor accuses one of them of breaking the windshield of his car. Inappropriately, as it turns out, but the damage is done. Trying to react as decently - and firmly - as they can, they soon face open hostility from the villagers...
Ashgar Massombagi's "Khaled" (from Canada, in competition) goes much further. Ten-year old half-Moroccan Khaled lives with his seriously ill mother in a cheap flat in Toronto's projects. Since infancy, Khaled has learned to trust no one. When his mother dies, he leaves her lying by the bed and pretends nothing happened. He pays the rent, mends his own pants, manages to avoid the landlord, the social worker who comes knocking on the door and the blind elderly woman who lives right above him. Khaled's quiet war against the outside world is both a thriller and a poetic riff on a child's ingenuity and resilience as death's presence (literally) gets stronger... As Khaled, Michael D'Ascenzo is so good he is scary.
What is an Albanian illegal immigrant to do in Italy in order to have the sort of life that always eluded him under Albania's Communist regime in the early nineties? Such is the problem confronted by Giorgio, nicknamed "The Italian" ("L'Italiano", in competition) because his Albanian grandmother got pregnant by one of Mussolini's occupation soldiers. At first, landing at night on an Italian beach and escaping Immigration "carabinieri", he makes his way to his grandfather's village, only to be told that the man died ages ago. Yet, thanks to a local, Silvester, and because he is a hard worker, Giorgio is adopted by the villagers (the international solidarity of the poor). All is well, until Giorgio falls in love with Silvester's fiancée. Reported to the police, he is sent back to Albania. Eight years later, we find him back in Italy, but now he has (or has had) to forsake his former ideals: he is caught in a net of local mafia mobs and prostitution rings and no, he won't be able to break out of the infernal trap. All of this could be pretty fascinating - if there was a true director at the helm.
There obviously one behind "The Star" (Russia, in competition). What you don't have is an ounce of originality. Slicky made, with pretty respectable production values, Nicholas Lebedyev's film, which takes place during the Second World War, is about a Red Army intelligence unit that steals behind the Polish border to report back to HQ the secret deployment of German forces. The short story by renowned soviet auteur Emmanuel Kazakevich is, one is told, remarkably devoid of romantic heroism. Not quite so for the film, which constantly brings back to mind such works as "The Naked and the Dead" and, why not, "Saving Private Ryan" (the second part). This comes in a large part from the fact that, talented as they might be, the actors are unanimously gorgeous, as if cast off fashion runways and glossy magazines. War by Max Factor, anyone?
"Cuckoo" (Russia, Horizons section) is exactly the opposite. No beauty contest here, but faces, and attitudes. It's still the Second World War, but at a different time (the last few days of the war) and on a different front. Finnish sniper Willie (Finland fought on Germany's side against the Russians) plans his escape to freedom. Ivan, a captain in the Soviet army who was arrested several times by the secret military police, decides to join him. The two men belong to opposite camps, they were both sentenced to death, they don't speak each other's language, yet they find shelter in a sort of no-man's land, a farm run by a Laplander woman, Anni. She deliberately views them not as archenemies, but simply as men. That's it, but under Alexander Rogozhkin's direction, that's a hell of a lot. "Cuckoo" has nothing to do with "One flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"; it is the nickname given to Finnish snipers during the war. It is also the secret name of a woman... Don't miss it if it comes at a festival near you.
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