Things we've never seen before

One of the reasons critics get addicted to Cannes is the rush of seeing something thing they’ve never seen before, an experience that’s increasingly rare in the weekly grind of the multiplex. These things aren’t always pretty, or even worthwhile. Tonight I saw Serbis (Service). a shabby piece of video verite from the Philippines, which has being inexplicably placed in the main competition. Directed by Brillante Mendoza, it’s set in a dilapidated movie theatre that plays old soft-corn porn, but which mostly serves as a site for gay sex and prostitution—a grindhouse, as Tarantino would say. The irony is that the name of the cinema on the marquee is FAMILY, and that this forlorn theatre/brothel is, in fact, a family-run joint, the dysfunctional home to three generations trying to make ends meet. While hustlers ply their trade in the darkened theatre, a mother does laundry and a small boy wheels around on a tricycle and spies on his teenage sister, who preens naked in a front of a mirror, practicing romantic moves. There are interludes of graphic sex in the film, which is not uncommon on the taboo-busting frontier of a film festival. The blow job is the new French kiss. But the film does show us something we never seen before [warning: sentence contains adult situations!]: a young man, engaged in what what appears to be unsimulated sex with a young woman, asks to shift positions, because of a large, painful boil on his butt—which (brace yourself) he later bursts using the mouth of an empty bottle. Whether by coincidence or design, this year’s programming at Cannes seems to be developing have a daily thematic bent. The festival kicked off with a series of movies about incarceration. Today we saw two films about dysfunctional working class families struggling to survive in large urban centres, while crime threatens to engulf their children’s lives. The other example was Brazil’s Linha de Passe, which is set in San Paulo. Directed by Walter Salles (Central Station, Motorcycle Diaries), it’s far superior to Service. But there are some uncanny parallels. Both films are kinetic, neo-realist dramas about a crumbling family tethered to a stubborn matriarch. And, weirdly, in both films there are scenes of sons taking charging by using a plunger to try clear a plugged drain—literal instances of kitchen sink drama. But really there’s no comparison between the two films. Salles has made a gripping, if un-commercial, drama, exploring faith and desperation with mix-and-match themes of religion, soccer and race. The peformances—all but one  by first-time actors—are magnetic. The long-sufering matriarch is a pregnant single mother who works as a maid and smokes and worries. Her children include an aspiring soccer star angling for a break who figures he’s washed up at 18, a gas station attendant devoted to street-corner evangelism, a motorcycle courier who gambles his life by threading between transport trucks, and sunny young kid who rides the bus all day, dreaming of being the driver. But Linha de Passe’s most haunting character is the city of San Paulo itself, a city of 20 million. We saw glimpses of it in Blindness. Here it plays a central role: a gray, high-rise landscape of traffic and concrete that seems to extend into infinity, alien and anonymous. Another case of world cinema showing us a place we never imagined existed.

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