The New York Times, 5/16/05

The 58th Cannes International Film Festival started on Wednesday, but for some of its attendees the event began in earnest three days later with the premiere of Michael Haneke's "Caché" ("Hidden"), the first important film to show in competition. One of the most vital filmmakers working today, the German-born Mr. Haneke has been at the festival seven times before, including with his most recent films, "Code Unknown," "The Piano Teacher" and "The Time of the Wolf." All are meaty, complex works and all but "The Piano Teacher," which features deviant sex and an unplugged Isabelle Huppert, received negligible attention in the United States.

It's too early to tell when and if "Caché" will make it to American art houses, partly because its willfully unglamorous subject is violence as it plays out in the field of memory and the culture of fear. Set in Paris sometime around yesterday, the film stars Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche (shown above) as professional intellectuals, self-professed "bobos," who come undone after they begin receiving anonymous packages containing drawings and surveillance videotapes. The drawings, rendered in crude strokes, are of a child with blood streaming from its mouth and a butchered chicken. The videos are far more unsettling because what is under surveillance, at least in the first tape, is the married couple's home. From the street, this bourgeois sanctuary looks positively banal; under surveillance, it assumes the appearance of guilt.

Who is guilty and why are the essential questions at the heart of this gripping moral thriller. A political film in which the characters discuss actual politics only briefly, "Caché" addresses the most urgent of issues - including terrorism both as an abstraction, as the monster under the bed, and as palpable reality. Mostly, though, this is about the return of the repressed. In one of the film's most powerful scenes, Mr. Haneke places a television showing images of routine violence in the Middle East - jostling crowds, bloodied bodies - in the center of the frame while the couple enters a perfectly calibrated, increasingly hysterical argument about their son. There, in their haute bohemian living room, surrounded by books and art, this enlightened couple retreat into a primal cave.

Mr. Haneke offers no palliatives in "Caché," which earns its power not only through its subject, but also through its pervasive ambiguity. Hours after the first press screening, critics continued to argue over its enigmatic last image, which may offer a clue as to who sent the videotapes. (My guess is that the videotapes were not shot or sent by anyone; rather, they simply exist, ontologically, as evidence.)

No such debate ensued after the press premiere of Marco Tullio Giordana's competition entry "Quando Sei Nato Non Puoi Più Nasconderti" or, simply, "Once You're Born." This latest film from Mr. Giordana, who wowed critics here two years ago with his television epic "The Best of Youth," was one of the most highly anticipated selections of this year's program and now stands to become one of its gravest disappointments.

"Once You're Born" kicks off nicely. The film centers on a prosperous northern Italian couple whose only child, Sandro, falls into the Mediterranean during a leisurely vacation sail. The infinitely resourceful Sandro is saved first by his life vest and then by a modern pirate, a skipper on a dilapidated tub nearly sinking under the weight of its illegal cargo: refugees from Africa to Eastern Europe who are on their way to Italy. What ensues is essentially a boy's adventure, a moral and political Outward Bound that brings Sandro new friends (two wary, uncommonly beautiful young Romanians) and a firsthand acquaintance with deprivation. Groaning under the weight of its own sincerity, "Once You're Born" has the virtue of good intentions, but little else to recommend it.

"Caché" and "Once You're Born," screened the same day, make telling bookends because each involves, to varying degrees, Europe's anxiety over its rapidly changing populations. Mr. Giordana takes an unfortunately didactic approach to the issue in his film, coming across like a depressed, politically liberal professor who, fully aware that the radical promise of the 1960's and the turmoil of the 70's (which consume swaths of "The Best of Youth") are long gone, hopes to guilt-trip his pampered students out of solipsism and into the world. Mr. Haneke's humanism is less hopeful but no less insistent. In the end, while "Caché" and "Once You're Born" could not be more dissimilar in execution and effect, they each serve the essential belief that film must be morally engaged or not be at all.

The urgency of an engaged cinema extends as well to films like "Sulanga Enu Pinisa" ("The Forsaken Land"), a moody, beautifully filmed Sri Lankan first feature from Vimukthi Jayasundara. With only a handful of characters and the rough beauty of the landscape to aid him, Mr. Jayasundara creates a portrait of a country still reeling from horrors. There is no story per se, just a series of interwoven set pieces during which little of consequence seems to happen, as men and women, having survived death, cling to life through casual sex, petty cruelties and small kindnesses. An old man feeds a child fruit and an old folk tale, a pregnant woman opens herself to a passing soldier, and in one scene a man stares at a pool of blood as it seeps into the earth like water.