CANNES: The message from the Cannes Film Festival juries was clear: Romania rules.
In its closing ceremony Sunday night, the festival bestowed two of its most important prizes on Romanian films, affirming the vitality of this recently emerging cinema.
The top award, the Palme d'Or, went to Cristian Mungiu for "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," an unsparing yet humane look at life during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.
And the jury for Un Certain Regard, a sidebar to the main competition, gave its highest honor to "California Dreamin,' " a first feature by Cristian Nemescu set in Romania during the Kosovo war of 1999. It was a poignant victory, because Nemescu died in an automobile accident last year at the age of 27.
The audience in the Palais des Festivals was audibly delighted by Mungiu's victory. His film, shown early in the festival, had enjoyed ardent critical support from the start. It follows the ordeal of two female university students as one tries to help the other obtain an illegal abortion.
Harrowing and brilliantly acted, the movie presents a stark image of life under totalitarian rule without political grandstanding or sentimentality. Through meticulous formal control, Mungiu generates almost unbearable suspense and also shows, in sometimes graphic detail, the consequences of abortion and also of its banning.
While most of the other awards went to films that had received wide critical acclaim, the biggest surprise of the evening was the Grand Prix (the second prize, in spite of its name) for "The Mourning Forest" by the Japanese director Naomi Kawase. A quiet film, full of nature imagery, about a woman who goes to work in a retirement home after the death of her child and befriends an old man, "The Mourning Forest" played late in the festival as momentum seemed to be flagging.
Another head-scratcher was the Best Actor award given to Konstantin Lavronenko for his stone-faced performance in "The Banishment," a Russian film directed by Andrei Zviaguintsev, who accepted it on the actor's behalf. One of many films in the competition to explore themes of religious faith, "The Banishment" had not roused great passion among critics.
One film that did arouse passion - both negative and positive - was Carlos Reygadas's slow and sublime "Silent Light," which shared the Jury Prize with the animated film "Persepolis." Adapted from her memoirs of the same title by Marjane Satrapi (who co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud), "Persepolis" charmed many with its whimsically rendered images and with its use of the voices of Dannielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve and her daughter Chiara Mastroianni.
This year's selection was notable for its many strong female performances, though, unusually for this French film festival, most kept their clothes on. The monopoly on sexual display was held by Asia Argento, the tattooed, snaggle-toothed love goddess of Cannes 2007, who did everything from tongue-kiss a Rottweiler (Abel Ferrara's "Go Go Tales") to lick the blood from a wounded lover's chest (Catherine Breillat's "Une Vieille Maîtresse"). She won many hearts, and a fair amount of notoriety, but the best actress prize went to Jeon Do Yeon for her exquisite and ferocious performance as a grief-stricken woman in the Korean film "Secret Sunshine," directed by Lee Chang Dong.
Further proof that this festival belonged to actresses - four of them served on the nine-person jury headed by the British filmmaker Stephen Frears - came from Julian Schnabel as he accepted his award for best director for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." "I thought I was making a movie about a paralyzed guy," said Schnabel, "but I was making a movie about all these women."
He then asked the principal female cast members, including Emmanuelle Seigner and Marie-Josée Croze, to stand. They play various attendants and lovers of the main character, Jean-Dominique Bauby, on whose memoir the film is based. Immobilized by a stroke, he has only one working eye, but at least it is filled with feminine beauty.
The prize for best screenplay went to Fatih Akin for "The Edge of Heaven." Akin's last fictional feature, "Head-On," won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2004, and like that film, this new one takes place in both Germany, where Akin was born, and Turkey, where his parents came from. "The Edge of Heaven" seems especially timely given Turkey's current political situation and the mutual ambivalence brought about by its desire to join the European Union.
"I'm told by all of you people who come here every year that this has been a good festival," Frears said at the start of the ceremony. And it was almost as if Cannes, to mark its 60th anniversary, had willed the community of international filmmakers to bring forth some of their finest work.
It was especially gratifying that so much of that work came from directors in the early or middle stages of their careers, a shift from this festival's frequent reliance on an aging old guard. Gus Van Sant, born in 1952 and the winner of the Palme d'Or in 2003, who took on the role of old master as he accepted a special 60th Anniversary prize for his new film "Paranoid Park."
Mungiu, the newest Palme d'Or winner, was born in 1968 and has directed only two previous films. At his moment of glory, he struck a note of unforced modesty. "One year ago we didn't have any idea about this project, and six months ago we didn't have any money," he said, looking a bit stunned. "I hope this award will be good news for small filmmakers from small countries."