It's truly a pleasure to plunge into the jarring bustle of the Croisette once again—though Cannes, with its predilection for pomp, inevitably feels less like a familiar friend than an acquaintance that periodically seems to forget you exist. Still, for a non-veteran like myself, the luster has yet to fade—and if Cannes does, indeed, go on the offensive, it will be a more than welcome change. The excitement is high, the potential for failure, even higher, but the chances of a serendipitous discovery—the kind of cinematic encounter that makes, or should make, every festival experience worth it—are perhaps highest of all. At the very least, it’s a chance to learn some new names.
First, though, an instantly recognizable one: Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, here with the aptly, if rather lamely titled Everybody Knows, his first Spanish-language film and the first Cannes opener to be in the main competition since Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom in 2012. As with The Salesman, which won the Best Screenplay prize back in 2016, the film opens with a portentous overture: the interior of a bell tower, a cracked clock-face and the fluttering escape of a flock of pigeons. But the following 30 or so minutes, which chart the homecoming of Laura (Penélope Cruz) from Argentina to a wine-growing region of her native Spain, are, for a time, fleet enough to allow the ominous symbolism to resonate as something more. Laura and her sister Ana’s (Inma Cuesta) drive through the central town square, surveyed from vantage points (and by personages) high and low, is an annunciation; as is the revel that follows, which observes Ana wedded, like Laura, to a town outsider—hitting “the jackpot” in the parlance of some of the town’s women. This early section thrums with energy, raucous and celebratory, with its dynamics—of character, class and location—firmly rooted in decades-long familiarities and past histories. Farhadi’s camera follows suit, its movements turbulent and on edge, as if the story could rupture at any moment. (An emblematic moment: a cut from a minor wedding disruption to two young lovers ascending the bell tower staircase.) And indeed it does: when Laura’s flighty daughter Irene goes missing in the middle of the night.
A vibrant color palette, courtesy of cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, gives way to rain-soaked, monochrome grays and blues. Meanwhile, various potential story threads are filtered through the structuring absence, the main one between Laura and Paco (Javier Bardem), a relationship memorialized by a pair of initials carved in the bell tower wall and, more contentiously, by a brokered deal on the land that Paco now tills with his wife, Bea (Bárbara Lennie). But what remains, instead of clarified emotion is a series of emphatic, oddly ungrounded dramatic turns anchored by strenuously literal symbolism. Early on, the officiating priest requests donations “to help with the facade” of a crumbling church, establishing Farhadi’s interest in matters both fiscal and temporal. But by the halfway mark, it’s evident that Everybody Knows possesses neither the fulsome pleasures nor burnished insight of its melodramatic contours. All that remains is to count down the minutes.
At first glance, one might say the same of Dead Souls, Wang Bing’s mammoth documentary on China’s anti-rightist campaign, which, at 496 minutes, is the longest film to ever play in Cannes’ Official Selection. But Wang’s ambitions, far from being rooted in a sense of inflated self-importance, are firmly grounded in an act of witnessing that, in its attention to the power of testimony, might recall Claude Lanzmann’s landmark documentary Shoah (1985). Shot over more than a decade from 2005 to 2017 in locations across China, and split into two parts, Dead Souls devotes the bulk of its length to interviews with the remaining survivors of the Jiabiangou and Mingshui re-education camps in the Gansu Province of northwest China, as well as with their families. It’s a moving image document whose urgency lies in direct proportion to the relative historical obscurity of the period—which stretches from 1957 to 1961, a few years before the Cultural Revolution—and its continuing lack of memorialization.
“They were no longer human,” says more than one individual in an attempt to convey the harrowing accounts of starvation and abuse imprinted on the victims’ memories and bodies. But Dead Souls is a film that resists summative statements and distilled impressions—necessarily so; its essence is in the fullness of its attention. Which is not to say that Wang refuses to editorialize—an account that progresses, with brief cuts to black, from the harsh light of day to the orange glow of night in a single location, is the clearest evidence. But, systematically and thoroughly, the storied Chinese documentarian does ensure that the attention rests squarely on the words and gestures of those on-screen. A former mathematics professor recalls his journey to the camp as “a farce” of bureaucracy and deception; a survivor performs funeral rites for his “companions of misfortune.” The cinematic “effects,” if they can even be called such, are fully the products of circumstance: a momentary flight of the camera occasioned by a shot change; the furious vibrations of the frame, from the harsh winds of the Gobi desert; the flecks of dust and grime on the lens of a camera as it ascends a mountain, observing a funeral procession.
“In novels, everything is told in detail,” says a solitary survivor, whose discomfiting presence and prickly reticence serves as a firm rebuke of spoken platitudes and hollow gestures. “It wasn’t easy, but what’s the point in telling you all that?” The harrowing final passage—in which Wang’s camera wanders across the unmarked, windswept site, restlessly and desperately, pausing at each of an untold number of unearthed skeletal remains—offers a tentative, mournful response. Bracing and monumental, Dead Souls is a film to reckon with. Here’s hoping that the remaining films aspire to the same.