Politics were never far from anyone’s mind at this year’s fifty-fifth Cannes International Film Festival, which unfolded in a France still reeling from the shock of far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen’s victory over Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin during the first round of presidential elections in April. Over 30 percent of Cannes residents (including a substantial number of its elderly poodle lovers) gave their vote to Le Pen in the election’s second round. Few among the 34,000 industry types, stars, publicists and journalists from ninety-three countries who annually invade this quiet seaside retirement community may have noticed the offices of Le Pen’s party, the Front National, a mere block away from the congested, glittering Palais des Festivals. But the shadow of Europe’s rightward shift did make itself felt obscurely.

Le Pen’s cultural program (less abstract art, more nature paintings) contained little mention of cinema. But it’s doubtful that this resolutely cosmopolite media spectacle, with its requisite scandal–this time, bad boy French director Gaspard Noë’s Irréversible, a skillful but ultimately sophomoric meditation on time and violence, in which the beautiful Monica Bellucci is forcibly sodomized for about nine minutes–fits Le Pen’s definition of a wholesome art “that respects our national identity and the values of our civilization.”

In fact, the idea of a film festival in the south of France was first conceived in 1939 as an alternative to Venice, then under the sway of Mussolini. (Eerily enough in these unstable times, the current organizers included a selection of films that had been slated for competition at that first Cannes festival, an event annulled by the outbreak of war.) And the twenty-two films in competition this year, as well as the hundreds of others screening in parallel sections and in two simultaneous independent festivals, the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week, offered a heteroclite and truly global definition of cinema. In a single afternoon, one might take in nonagenarian Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira’s latest recondite opus or a crowd-pleasing sex farce by French director Catherine Breillat, beside films by fresh or unknown talents from Thailand, Chad and Tajikistan.

The festival’s top honor, the Palme d’Or, went to Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, a cumbersome and uneven but oddly fascinating work of memory. Polanski, the son of Polish Jews living in France who returned home two years before the onset of World War II, drew upon childhood recollections of a shattered Krakow for this adaptation of the memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (played by Adrien Brody) who survived the Warsaw ghetto and spent the rest of the war in hiding. What begins as a very conventional Holocaust drama gathers strength from an accumulation of detail drawn from the ghetto’s microhistory, and then shifts registers into a horror film, as it follows Szpilman’s solitary transformation into a hirsute and famished specter.

At the film’s press conference, someone asked Polanski if his hero’s voyeurism and enforced passivity–Szpilman witnesses the Warsaw ghetto uprising from the window of his apartment hideout–reflected his own choice of filmmaking as a profession. “That’s one of those questions you’d need to ask my psychiatrist, if I had one,” the director quipped acerbically. No one asked line producer Lew Rywin (who also worked on Schindler’s List and Aimée & Jaguar) why big-budget Holocaust features seem inevitably to highlight stories of Germans saving Jewish lives, and thus to flout the grain of history.

Less hullabaloo surrounded documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s brilliant fiction debut, The Last Letter, a one-hour feature screening out-of-competition. Filmed in rich black-and-white, Catherine Samie, an actress from the Comédie Française, performs a text drawn from Russian author Vasily Grossman’s novel, Life and Fate–a chapter consisting of the last letter that a Russian Jewish doctor in German-occupied Ukraine writes to her son, who is behind the frontlines in safety. Visuals reminiscent of German Expressionist film–the actress’s physiognomy and the shadows surrounding her figure–combine with the pure power of language to conjure up the lost world of the ghetto (the poor patients who pay her with potatoes, the neighbor in an elegant linen suit, wearing his yellow star like a camellia). Using these subtle and minimalist means, Wiseman’s film builds to an emotionally devastating conclusion.

But that’s Cannes, where the purest cinematic pleasures coexist beside a rare degree of hype and glamour. Where else would a jury including surrealists (president David Lynch and fellow director Raoul Ruiz) and powerful babes (actresses Sharon Stone and Michelle Yeoh) assemble to judge the fate of world cinema? They gave this year’s critical favorite, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past, the Grand Jury Prize, while its star, Kati Outinen, took the award for Best Actress. A tender and whimsical portrait of a man who, having lost his memory after a beating by street thugs, finds himself reborn into a world of homeless people living in industrial containers by an abandoned Helsinki port, The Man Without a Past seemed to distill Europe’s hope for redemption from a turbulent past and uncertain present with lyricism, gentleness and beauty.

In the Official Selection, refugees and genocides were everywhere: from the boat filled with survivors of the Shoah heading toward the shores of Palestine in 1948 during the mesmerizing opensequences of Kedma, Israeli director Amos Gitaï’s alternately moving and unwieldy existential drama about the first days of Israel’s founding amid the confusion of war between British, Arab and Jewish forces; to the hordes of Armenians fleeing Turkish forces in Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, an overly intellectualized evocation of Turkey’s 1915 extermination of its Armenian population (which came complete with a condemnation by that government); to the Kurds massed along the boundary between Iraq and Iran in Bahman Ghobadi’s Songs from My Mother’s Country, a letter from an ongoing genocide; to the largely unseen immigrants heading secretly north across the border in Chantal Akerman’s From the Other Side, a bracingly experimental (if ill-paced) documentary exploration of the frontier between the United States and Mexico.

Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami provided a triumph of minimalist style in Ten, a film shot in digital, in which a divorced woman driving hectically through the streets of Teheran picks up a series of passengers–including an elderly peasant, a prostitute and her own young son–whose conversations illuminate her own condition in Iranian society. At the film’s emotional climax, she stops her car to talk, and we suddenly feel the losses that have propelled her relentless forward motion. In an Official Selection routinely dominated by male directors, Ten was one of a mere handful of films to address women’s experience.

It was a good year for gallows humor and dark comedies. Nebraskan satirist Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt (an adaptation of the novel by Louis Begley) was notable both for its mordant wit and for Jack Nicholson’s restrained performance as a retired insurance executive suddenly confronted with the meaninglessness of existence. A far wackier vision of America emerged from Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, the first documentary to screen in competition at Cannes in forty-six years, which received a special prize from the jury. At times hilarious and biting, Moore’s film ropes together the 1999 high school shootings in Colorado, the Oklahoma City bombing and an incident that occurred near Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, where one 6-year-old shot another, to raise the question, Why is gun violence endemic in America? Officials of the Lockheed Corporation, members of the Michigan Militia and Timothy McVeigh’s brother James (a gun-toting tofu farmer) weigh in with their suggestions. There are a few surprises (a sheriff, for example, who thinks workfare should be abolished), but as an interviewer Moore is overly fond of the rhetorical question, and his film founders when it encapsulates the history of American foreign policy as a unique series of bloody coups and massacres. (Even the liberal French daily Libération took issue with Moore’s anti-Americanism, which it deemed too much in the spirit of France today.) And so we’re left to wonder, is it something in our water or in our DNA?

Alas, even a cursory glimpse at the festival’s other selections showed violence to be far from an American exception. There was Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’s fast-paced favela epic, City of God, in which trigger-happy children devastate the slums of Rio. And there was Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, a comedy set (miraculously) on the West Bank and in the town of Nazareth, where he was born. Playing E.S., a figure like himself, Suleiman melds Buster Keaton’s melancholy and Jacques Tati’s precision into a film whose plot revolves around a father’s death and Palestinian lovers who meet at a checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. But this slim story is merely a thread upon which to hang a series of inane gags–a discarded apricot pit that blows up a tank, a Santa Claus stabbed by a knife–that poetically encapsulate the absurdity, paralysis and rage-filled fantasies underpinning contemporary Palestinian life. Suleiman finished his script two years ago, just before the West Bank exploded. Though he considers himself a pacifist, at least a few of the dreams of his character have since become realities. During the festival’s closing ceremony, in which winners evoked a variety of political causes–from the plight of Belgian actors to that of the people of Mexico–Suleiman (whose film took the Jury Prize) made a short speech noteworthy for its absence of polemic. He thanked his French producer.

Two offerings from different parts of the globe suggested that the best course for artists is to steer clear of politics. Italian auteur Marco Bellocchio’s My Mother’s Smile is a psychological thriller about a middle-aged painter, an atheist and a leftist, who suddenly realizes with horror that his deceased mother is being considered for canonization. (“Wouldn’t it be useful for our son’s future career to have a saint for a grandmother?” his estranged wife asks him, with what certainly appears to be an excess of calculation.) The film seemed a visionary nightmare, from a member of the generation of ’68, about the state of contemporary Italian society.

And from Korea, Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon provided a lusty and inspired portrait of the legendary painter Ohwon Jang Seung-Ub, who sprang from common roots to dominate nineteenth-century Korean art. Ohwon (who apparently incorporated the worst qualities of both Van Gogh and Pollock) was never sober for a day, and kept a constantly changing series of mistresses filling his cups; he negotiated the intricacies of chaotic Chosun Dynasty politics with the proverbial delicacy of a bull in a china shop; yet his precise and remarkably vivid scrolls and screens filled with fog-covered mountains, wild beasts and flowers seemed to surge forth endlessly from some hidden well of creation. The 66-year-old Im (who shared the directing prize with American Wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson for his Punch-Drunk Love) is perhaps the most prolific filmmaker on the planet, with some ninety-eight features to his credit, including dozens of studio genre pictures from his salad days as a hack, before his conversion to high culture. “In art,” he said in an interview, “there is no completion, but only the interminable struggle toward it.”