Cannes 2011 Diary #2: ‘Habemus Papum’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Miss Bala’

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Slightly disappointing (given his usual record), the latest from Nanni Moretti has turned out to be a relatively safe affair. Habemus Papam (for those who are not catholic or their Latin is rusty, We have a pope) is being sold as a comedy, rather than a light-as-air drama about the existential crisis of a newly elected pope.  Moretti plays a shrink summoned to the Vatican to solve the pope’s issues. Given that Moretti is an atheist, and this follows his very acid political comedy Il Caimano, many were expecting a devastating expose on the hot button issues that the church is facing these days; it turns out to be a very gentle portrait of the pope as a very average man doubting if he will be up to the job somehow randomly assigned to him. Veteran actor Michel Piccoli delivers a very nice, subtle performance that will surely bring him some awards.

Hyped all over (even on these pages), Julia Leigh’s debut Sleeping Beauty turned out less than stellar.  Emily Browning makes bearable the tale of a detached young woman who seems to have no interests whatsoever and goes to school or fucks strangers mostly for inertia. Lily needs money, though, we never really know why, as she has a job at an office, a second job at a restaurant, plus paid lab tests every now and then.  Being young and pretty, a new job fulfilling fantasies for old men is soon offered to her, and she accepts with the same lack of enthusiasm she does everything else she does.

Cinema has always had a hard time portraying prostitution; often glamorized, or seen as the ultimate living hell, it is rare to find a film about it that is remotely close to reality. That’s not always a bad thing: one of the best films on the subject, Belle de Jour, totally goes after the fantasy angle of it.  The problem with Sleeping Beauty is that it is equally disconnected from any recognizable reality yet it insists of being a “frank” depiction of certain themes. Some of the dialogue is simply ridiculous: “My vagina is not a temple” says the protagonist when she is informed that no client will penetrate her, which is no more than a pretentious update of the Pretty Woman motto of “No kissing.” Originally a novelist, Julia Leigh’s mise-en-scene has some interesting ideas, but a lot of the film’s more appealing moments appear to be more the product of chance than a well articulated aesthetic choice.

On a completely different level (and worthy of the Competition berth taken by Beauty), Gerardo Naranjo’s follow-up to his excellent Voy a Explotar also depicts a young woman who gets involved accidentally in some really serious stuff. As opposed to the cold, distant Lily, Miss Bala’s Laura is full of life and energy, and wants to win the local pageant so she can make so money to help her little brother go to school.  At the wrong time in the wrong place, she gets involved with a very dangerous drug lord and the hours that follow are a literal trip to hell for the aspiring beauty queen. Corruption and violence in current Mexico are never shown in a sensationalistic way, but rather as a (sadly) common thing some regions have to cope with.  It is gripping, intense and hard to watch, but also bizarrely beautiful and really well shot (a shootout near the end rivals Michael Mann). A must see.

Eduardo Lucatero

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