CANNES, FRANCE — Some movies positively fly from the Cannes Film Festival to American theaters, and some are already on US screens when the festival unveils them - like "Mission to Mars" and "I Dreamed of Africa," which had their European premires at Cannes last month.
But others dawdle, taking months to move from the prestigious Palais des Festivals to stateside movie houses. This month, a flurry of belated arrivals from last year will allow American viewers to finally learn what the excitement was about.
None is more controversial than the French drama L'Humanit, by Bruno Dumont, which was roundly booed by Cannes audiences - and promptly honored by the festival jury, which gave it the second-highest prize, as well as acting awards for both of its stars, neither of whom had appeared in a movie before.
At the heart of the brouhaha was the movie's unusual content. The main character is a provincial French policeman trying to solve the horrifying murder of a young girl. His investigation is drawn out over 2-1/2 hours of aggressively slow cinema, culminating in a deliberately ambiguous ending that suggests the stubbornness of human sin and the possibility of spiritual transcendence.
Admirers find the movie a philosophical study in the manner of Robert Bresson, a towering French filmmaker with strong religious interests.
Detractors find it a bore, and a sexually graphic one at that. While critics have been divided over it, thoughtful commentators have commended the seriousness of its concerns even when they've found its pacing problematic and its acting less compelling than its festival awards suggest. It may irritate and even infuriate the American audience that's about to discover it, but it will give them plenty to think and talk about.
Time Regained borrows its story and themes from "Remembrance of Things Past," one of this century's greatest novels - and one of the most unfilmable, if only because its introspective tale takes thousands of pages for author Marcel Proust to tell. Some hardy cinastes have taken a crack at it, though, including Harold Pinter, who wrote a 3-1/2-hour screenplay that has never gone into production.
Not long ago, director Raoul Ruiz would have seemed an unlikely candidate for this enterprise, since he used to specialize in quick, inexpensive pictures. He has turned to more elaborate projects, though, and "Time Regained" is the most lavishly produced yet. Its cast is expertly chosen, and its images are splendidly photographed.
What's missing is a sense of Proust's profound human understanding and Ruiz's freewheeling cinematic energy. In short, each artist seems held back by the other. One wishes Pinter's version, which is more intuitive and impressionistic, would somehow reach the screen.
Look at the coming attractions for Sunshine and you'll think William Hurt is the movie's shining star. He actually has a small role, though, taking second place to Ralph Fiennes, who plays three characters in this epic tale of a Hungarian Jewish family coping with the convulsions of 20th-century history.
It was directed by Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo, who won an Oscar for the more interesting "Mephisto" years ago. He gives the new movie a lot of passion but little originality or imagination. Regrettably, each of its three hours seems longer than the last.
*'L'Humanit,' not rated, contains sex and violence. 'Time Regained,' not rated, contains adult themes. 'Sunshine,' rated R, contains sex and violence.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society