'Family values" have become a cultural clich and a political football in the United States, and movies often respond to this atmosphere by treating them superficially. But if any trend has emerged at this year's Cannes International Film Festival - continuing a development visible at other recent filmfests - it's a tendency for filmmakers to give family issues the dignity and seriousness they deserve, while also recognizing their connections to knotty political concerns.
This doesn't mean all the family-related films shown here have been capably made. Just about every critic at Cannes, for instance, agrees that Johnny Depp's directorial debut, "The Brave," is a failure. But it does mean that many of today's filmmakers are paying welcome attention to such matters.
Perhaps the most unusual take on a family subject came in "Welcome to Sarajevo," a Miramax release due on American screens this fall, when theaters will make their usual turn from summer fantasies to more sober interests.
Set in Sarajevo during the 1992 siege that captured headlines everywhere, it focuses on a group of journalists covering the Bosnian war. The stars include Woody Harrelson as a brash American newsman, Marisa Tomei as an international aid worker, Kerry Fox as a TV producer, and Stephen Dillane as a British correspondent based on real-life reporter Michael Nicholson, whose book "Natasha's Story" inspired the movie.
The picture's first hour seems far removed from family subjects, as the reporters dash through one danger zone after another to gather news on harrowing events - the shelling of civilians in a marketplace, the incarceration of "ethnic undesirables" in concentration camps, and so on. These scenes gain extra urgency from authentic news-video footage spliced into the story, which has fictional elements but is based on actual experiences.
The plot acquires a new focus when one reporter visits an orphanage housing a large group of children. Deeply moved by this, he launches a campaign to keep the orphans' plight at the top of the news despite the fresh barrage of front-page material that confronts him and his colleagues every day.
Deciding his commitment should be personal as well as professional, he then promises to help at least one child escape from the inferno Sarajevo has become. This means adopting the girl himself, with the cooperation of his family back in England - and of the girl's own mother, who turns out to be alive, concerned about her daughter's welfare, and reluctant to entrust her to a stranger from a foreign land.
With its mixture of fiction and documentary elements, "Welcome to Sarajevo" falls into a tradition of fact-based movies like "Circle of Deceit," which took place in Lebanon, and "Man of Marble" and "Man of Iron," which chronicled Poland's revolution. What gives the new movie an unusual amount of emotional power is its ability to integrate the public events of a war with the private considerations of an individual man's conscience. Cannes critics received it warmly, with particular praise for director Michael Winterbottom.
Among family-related movies from other lands, "Kini & Adams" is one of the festival's most likable. Set in southern Africa and directed by Idrissa Ouedraogo, whose "Yaaba" and "Tilai" have played well in American theaters, it tells the bittersweet tale of two friends whose dream of starting their own taxi business is disrupted when one of them decides he can support his household better by taking a managerial job at a local quarry.
On one level, the film is a parable of the temptations brought to a rural nation by modernization and corporatization. On another, it's a poignant study of how commitments to friendship and family may lead to conflicting loyalties and moral dilemmas.
Fluid, unpretentious filmmaking and a rowdy sense of humor are among the virtues that should bring "Kini & Adams" success with commercial audiences after its Cannes debut.
"Journey to the Beginning of the World," the last movie completed by the late Italian superstar Marcello Mastroianni, centers on a middle-aged actor who makes a personal pilgrimage from France to Portugal, hoping to discover family ties in the country of his ancestors. There he meets an elderly aunt who could satisfy his craving for family lore - if she can overcome her impatience with his "trivial" profession (he's a TV star) and his refusal to speak Portuguese (which he's never managed to learn).
Directed by one of Portugal's greatest filmmakers, Manoel de Oliveira, the drama starts slowly but develops great emotional depth.
There's less resonance in "Marius et Jeannette," a well-meaning French drama by Robert Guediguian. The promising story - about romantic love between a drifter and a widow with two children - is smothered in sadly sentimental formulas.
And few in Cannes had anything but scorn for Depp's disappointing movie, "The Brave," about an American Indian who decides to lift his wife and children from poverty by bargaining with a death cultist who gives him $50,000 for the right to murder him. The story is nonsensical, the filmmaking is monotonous, and the acting - aside from Marlon Brando's brilliant cameo as the cultist - is weak.
Depp apparently hoped to use his Hollywood star power as a vehicle for attacking Indian poverty and celebrating the values of a hero who puts family above every other consideration in life.
But good intentions won't suffice if artistic maturity isn't on hand to back them up. Depp simply isn't ready to make movies on his own, and Hollywood did him no favor by allowing him to take the plunge so prematurely. Family values deserve more thoughtful treatment. Fortunately, they received it from many of the other pictures on view here.