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The standouts so far: monks and burlesque dancers

Finally, at the halfway point of the Cannes Film Festival, comes a rival for Mike Leigh's front-running competitive entry, the wry ensemble drama Another Year. The new contender: Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men, based on real events in the mountains of Algeria in 1996, when a handful of Cistercian monks were confronted by Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas. Philosophical and suspenseful, Beauvois's film has the kind of nuanced craft and timely inspirational message that film juries can rarely resist.

Otherwise, this has been a festival shaped more by absence than presence. The economic downswing has resulted in just 19 films in competition, and only one American entry. Terrence Malick's highly anticipated Tree of Life wasn't ready in time. Ridley Scott, recovering from knee surgery, didn't make it. Sean Penn chose to attend a Washington political meeting instead of promoting the political thriller Fair Game, screening on Thursday. And the king of auteurs, Jean-Luc Godard, blew off a press conference for his non-competition film Socialisme because of "the Greek situation."

The competition has featured no outright bombs or reasons for exultation - just a salty mixture of flesh and crime. On the flesh front is French actor Mathieu Amalric's Tournée, a lively trifle starring the director as a neurotic impresario trying to return from America to Paris, accompanied by a gaggle of Yankee burlesque queens. If only the dancers' characters were as well-rounded as their figures (or what Almaric's press notes called "non-conformist" bodies). There's also lots of flesh on display in director Im Sangsoo's The Housemaid, a slick and nasty Fatal Attraction-style thriller that falls well short of the 1960 Korean original. French veteran Bertrand Tavernier's picture-book-pretty La Princesse de Montpensier is full of court intrigues and heaving bosoms, but nothing unexpected.

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On the crime front, there was the Chinese entry, Chongqing Blues. From Wang Xiaoshuai ( Beijing Bicycle), it follows a middle-aged sea captain and father, returning home to learn the truth about the police shooting of his son. This is the kind of hard-boiled tale of family and personal disintegration you might expect from Clint Eastwood. But Wang is on record as saying even a Palme d'Or won't likely to improve his distribution chances in China.

Best-actor prize could go to Javier Bardem in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful, in which he plays a terminally ill petty hustler and single father working the mean streets of Barcelona (although the film suffers from Gonzalez's worst tendencies toward melodramatic piling-on). For a sharply different outlaw perspective, Japanese director Takashi Kitano's deadpan Outrage sees the Japanese maestro of mayhem returning to a yakuza drama after ten years and finding disturbingly funny, fresh uses for utility knives and dentist drills.

Other contenders for the big prize at Cannes are Abbas Kiarostami's first European film, Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche. But it proved more of an ingenious amusement than a tour-de-force. And there are respectful reviews coming in for the Republic of Chad entry (which I have not seen), Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's A Screaming Man, about a middle-aged hotel pool man who loses his job to his son.

Still to come are Doug Liman's Fair Game, along with entries from celebrated Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Russia's Nikita Mikhalkov, Ken Loach's Iraq-set drama Route Irish, and dark-horse entries from Korea, Italy, Ukraine and Hungary. Barring any big surprises, though, the forecast for Of Gods and Men now looks distinctly Palme-y.

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Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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