The world's documentary makers provide some much-needed perspective to the madness of Cannes.
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17 May 2010 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 1:02 PM

As of Sunday, Day 5, two American documentaries -- Inside Job by Charles Ferguson, a brilliantly distressing primer outlining why the recent financial meltdown "was not an accident," and Countdown to Zero (pictured), Lucy Walker's spooky analysis of why all extant nuclear weapons must be eliminated -- leave one wondering why it had seemed like a good idea the other day to endure a 3 hour and 1 minute long Romanian film (Christi Puiu's Aurora) about just one disgruntled man.

If the legitimate ire aroused by these two docs could be harnessed, we'd be well on our way to shrinking our carbon footprint with the alternative fuel that is fury.

Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger carries the same message: We're all gonna die! But somehow the concept of the Grim Reaper appearing at the appointed hour is preferable to being obliterated in a fireball hotter than the sun. Which is what could very well happen, Walker's high-profile interviewees agree, if just one determined terrorist got his hands on highly enriched uranium or plutonium.

On Sunday, former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson -- played by Naomi Watts in Doug Liman's yet-to-unspool fact-based thriller Fair Game -- joined such luminaries as Jordan's Queen Noor at an informative and faintly eerie Countdown to Zero press conference so scantly attended that you couldn't help wondering whether a nuclear accident had somehow already vaporised the journalists who "should" have been there.

Ferguson's second documentary after No End in Sight spells out the consequences of deregulating the once closely monitored financial sector and letting morally bankrupt power brokers literally bankrupt individuals and, in the case of, say, Iceland, once-thriving nations.

These are galvanising works which, with luck, will register at least as strongly as did An Inconvenient Truth. You're free to question the looming danger from global warming as laid out by Al Gore, but it's difficult to poke holes in the notion that a nuclear device exploding in a major city would be truly apocalyptic. (Panelist Gro Bruntland, the Norweigian doctor, politician and environmental activist behind the notion of sustainable development, said that An Inconvenient Truth was certainly the deciding factor when the folks in Oslo decided to award Gore the Nobel Peace Prize. Who says movies don't matter?)

In Oliver Stone's entertaining Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, various characters keep saying "It's not about the money" but it most certainly is. (An interviewee in Inside Job cites research proving that the thought of money lights up the same portion of the brain where the receptors for cocaine reside.)

In keeping with the fest's unofficial theme of craven and venal exploitation of ordinary citizens so as to keep those money-cum-cocaine circuits blazing, Italian satirist Sabina Guzzanti's Draquila: Italy Trembles shows the aftermath of the April 6, 2009 earthquake in the historic Italian town of Aquila. Some 300 people were killed and the surviving 70,000 inhabitants were forced to abandon their homes -- including those that remained viable -- so that Berlusconi could award construction contracts to his cronies and run experiments in squashing civil liberties.

Much as Wall Street regulators failed to do any regulating when it came to sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps, so did Italy's Civil Protection service completely fail to heed seismic warnings or prepare any sort of emergency plan to save lives and property. In Berlusconi's Italy, as on Manhattan's Wall Street, nobody seems to grasp the concept of conflict of interest.

Michael Douglas reprises his signature role of Gordon Gekko in the Wall Street sequel. Two excellent sight gags accompany his release from prison, where he was sent in 1993 to serve an 8-year sentence. In 2008, the shameless capitalist who once decreed "Greed is good" lectures on the topic "Is Greed Good?" "The mother of all evil is speculation -- leveraged debt," explains Gekko to eager young people who, he says, belong to the Ninja generation. "No income, no job, no assets."

The characters in Mike Leigh's Another Year are gainfully employed but in the market for love and companionship. Leigh regular Lesley Manville gives a standout performance as a single woman of a certain age who doesn't really understand how she ended up a single woman of a certain age.

Relationship signals are also crossed in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, a London-set tragi-comedy with a talented cast.

If the modern women played by Gemma Jones, Naomi Watts, Lucy Punch and Freida Pinto make misguided choices, at least they enjoy the option of messing up their own lives.

Set in 16th century France, when Catholics and Protestants were busy eviscerating each other in the Lord's name, Bertrand Tavernier's The Princess of Montpensier keenly depicts a time in which a woman was supposed to keep her virtue until being married off to the male whose standing would be most advantageous to her family, and then, having done as she was told in her father's house, continue doing what she's told in her husband's house.

It's not about the money? Yeah, right.