The Cannes Film Festival usually starts with a movie that's light and goes down easy. So Wednesday's dark, apocalyptic opening film seemed a puzzling choice - even to the movie's director.

"Blindness," by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, ("City of God," "The Constant Gardener"), is about an epidemic of blindness that strikes suddenly and inexplicably, with victims shunted off to a squalid institution. The film is a Canadian-Japanese-Brazilian co-production, with a screenplay written by Toronto's Don McKellar.

Compare that to past opening night films that have generally been festive or crowd-pleasing - like "Moulin Rouge" or "The Da Vinci Code."

"To be honest, I still don't think that this is the best film to open the festival," said Meirelles, whose movie stars Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal and Danny Glover, and is based on a novel by Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago.
Luckily, Jack Black was in town with a little comic relief.

While critics pondered the symbolism of "Blindness" in a darkened cinema, paparazzi hit the beach to capture the funnyman pulling a publicity stunt for "Kung Fu Panda," DreamWorks' tale of a pudgy panda with a love of martial arts.

Black made a dramatic Cannes entrance by boat, then hopped onto a pier alongside 40 people wearing giant panda suits. Black, who provides the voice of the panda, quickly went into character.

"They just said, go down that red carpet and say something, so I just started doing some kung fu," Black said. His movie screens Thursday.

Eva Longoria, Cate Blanchett, Faye Dunaway, Aishwarya Rai and Mischa Barton were among the stars on the red carpet Wednesday. The festival honoured jury president Sean Penn with a video tribute at the opening ceremony. Singer and guitarist Richie Havens - who opened Woodstock - sang, giving Penn a hug afterward.

Toronto's Atom Egoyan is also back at Cannes, this time with "Adoration," centred on a youth who reinvents himself in cyberspace.

Angelina Jolie, Harrison Ford, Woody Allen, Penelope Cruz and Robert De Niro also are expected in town during the 12-day festival, while Madonna and Sharon Stone are to turn up at an AIDS benefit dinner on Cannes' sidelines.

Cannes prides itself on offering something for everyone - from Hollywood blockbusters to the art films that are the festival staple. But that doesn't stop critics from grumbling that Cannes has succumbed to Hollywood.

This year, the big question is whether indie movies will be overshadowed by Indy's movie - "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," which plays here this weekend.

The festival's dual nature is apparent for anyone strolling down Cannes' main drag, the Croisette.

On one side is Cannes' official poster: indie filmmaker David Lynch's arty photo of a mysterious blond bombshell. On the other is a hotel facade dressed up for "Indiana Jones" festivities to look something like a plastic temple of doom.

"Kung Fu Panda" and "Indiana Jones" are not competing for prizes.

The jury, led by Penn, the Oscar-winning American actor and director, ("Into the Wild"), and including Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men"), American actress Natalie Portman ("The Other Boleyn Girl") and comic book artist-director Marjane Satrapi ("Persepolis"), will hand out awards at a ceremony May 25.

Penn said he didn't have any particular guidelines for his jury.

"The idea is to be wide awake with an empty bladder at the beginning of every film," Penn joked.

He also made clear that he wouldn't be biased for or against Clint Eastwood's competition film, "Changeling," a missing-child drama starring Angelina Jolie. Eastwood directed Penn in "Mystic River," which won him an Academy Award for acting.

"How many movies would we say (Eastwood has) made since I was born in 1960? So that's a lot of movies. In fact, he's only offered me one," Penn quipped. "So I don't think there's a bias involved."

Like "Changeling," "Blindness" also is up for the top prize. Moore plays a woman who can see in a world of the blind. Pretending to have lost her vision, she accompanies her husband, a blind eye doctor (Ruffalo), to a filthy institution neglected by the authorities.

The themes of mayhem, mass hunger and displacement in "Blindness" evoked familiar events, including Hurricane Katrina and the world crisis over skyrocketing food prices. Meirelles said the movie is about "the fragility of civilization."

Moore, who also appeared recently another bleak apocalyptic film, Cuaron's "Children of Men," said it's no coincidence that such movies are getting made.

"I think that there is sometimes something in the zeitgeist . . . there's a tremendous amount of tragedy right now, physical tragedy and man-made tragedy," she said. "And we are feeling anxious, and we're paying attention to it."


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