May 24, 2004 05:00 PM

It’s all over except for the shouting at the 57th annual Cannes Film Festival. The loud debate over Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, has only intensified since it was awarded the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) at the festival on Saturday.

Is the Bowling for Columbine director’s latest documentary, which takes a withering look at President George W. Bush and the Iraq War, really the best movie among the 19 competing for the top prize?

Lumping it with the feature films is like comparing apples and oranges – or, more to the point, a TV news magazine show with a dramatic series. Fahrenheit deals with real people, policy and politics and is intensely of the moment. It is passionate, astutely assembled and exhibits enormous humor and heart. How can fiction compete?

Stateside viewers will have a chance to make up their own minds about whether it’s art or agit-prop when the movie opens this summer. Fahrenheit still lacks a U.S. distributor, but Moore has said he hopes to have the film in theaters in July and available on DVD before the November presidential election.

Controversy over the awarding of prizes is nothing new at Cannes. The array of films shown at the festival, and the range of opinions on them, guarantees disagreement. Take, for example, the special citation that the nine-member jury, headed by Kill Bill director Quentin Tarantino, inexplicably awarded to Tropical Malady. Tropical is a Thai film – the first ever compete at Cannes – so slow and meandering that audience members left in droves during a press screening. Sure, it may be art, but art that speaks only to an itsy-bitsy few, though clearly to enough members of the jury.

Also sure to cause some grumbling is the runner-up prize going to Old Boy, an intriguing but excessively violent Korean film that’s tailor-made to Tarantino’s taste. It tells the story of a man imprisoned in a room – he has no idea by whom or why – for 15 years. When released, he sets out to seek revenge. Sure-to-make-you-gag scene: our hero consuming a squiggling, wiggling live octopus and cutting out his own tongue.

Overall at Cannes, it was a year in which Hollywood films made a comeback (Shrek 2 and The Ladykillers screened in competition, while Troy, Kill Bill – Vol. 2, Bad Santa and Dawn of the Dead were shown out of competition), Asian films were strongly represented (look for The House of Flying Daggers, a dazzling period martial-arts drama from China that already has a U.S. distributor), and impressive movies from South and Central America (including The Motorcycle Diaries and The Holy Girl) made a vivid continental claim.

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