Through the pain barrier

CANNES FESTIVAL
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The Independent Culture
Today we saw a three-hour film, Underground, about a band of doughty freedom fighters who emerge, blinking, into the sunlight after 20 years holed up in a dark cellar. Strangely, we all recognised the feeling after 10 days in the Cannes air-bubble, hearing only dim reports from the real world of a Labour statesman's death (uncannily, the same happened last year with John Smith) in Blighty.

Ken Loach's Land and Freedom remains the favourite here for a major prize, although Carrington and Ed Wood have their supporters and there is some enthusiasm (not from me) for Good Men, Good Women, a perfectly baffling film from Hou Hsiao Hsien.Unusually, too, in a festival which as a rule tops and tails its programme with obvious duds, there are two promising contenders yet to play: Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch's black-and-white Western with Johnny Depp and Robert Mitchum, and Hate, a French entry tipped by local critics.

A sturdy challenge has also been mounted by two films which, even as news breaks of the latest agony in Sarajevo, unfold against the backdrop of the Bosnian crisis. Both are extremely long. Both come from directors who might not have great box-office clout in Britain but who do tend to leave festivals with awards in their suitcases. Ulysses' Gaze by the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, is an old-fashioned art movie. Its alienated hero is an exiled Greek film-maker who returns to his homeland in search of rare lost footage shot by two brothers working in the Balkans early thiscentury. His odyssey takes him through Albania, Romania and Serbia, ending in war-torn Sarajevo.

The film asks the question: is the retrieval of these fragments from the dawn of cinema an absurd irrelevancy in a world where people are being massacred, or is it a vital quest for peace (the brothers' art cared nothing for national boundaries), understanding and collective memory?

Angelopoulos tells this languid melancholy story with his trademark long, long sequence shots, elegantly crafting every movement of the camera and characters with clockwork precision. There are some slack patches and a sprinkling of arthouse cliches but also some stunning sequences and even some moving ones.

Kustorica's Underground (the cellar film) replays history as black farce. A group of Yugoslav partisans are duped by one of their number into believing that their country is still occupied by the Nazis years after the war is actually over. Eventually they surface from hiding with bizarre and tragicomic consequences. Underground is an energetic, exuberant film bustling with big set-pieces staged to the strains of an oompah village band; its themes are of betrayal, self-delusion and the things that make brother turn on brother. I found it indulgent and infuriating, but in this unremittingly serious festival its colourful explosion of humour has clearly been felt as a huge relief. Gambling friends tell me that the smart money is here. We shall know the winners on Sunday night.

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