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There are more than 30 named characters in "The White Ribbon," the latest and largest film from acclaimed Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, which won the Palme d'Or on Sunday night.

Shot in a luscious black and white (replete with stunningly rigorous composition that visually furthers his themes) and again in his native German after a series of successful films in French, "Ribbon" depicts life in a small Protestant village in northern Germany just before World War I. Like most of Haneke's films, it comes with an uncompromising moral point of view attached.

Sony Pictures Classics has U.S. rights and will benefit from the Haneke mini-craze that has swept the art film circuit since the director's films "The Piano Teacher" and "Cache." It's a superb cinematic work and an appropriately serious one given its subject matter and intentions. Still, its stately pace and purposely dedramatized scenes might keep it from attaining the boxoffice figures of the director's previous, perhaps flashier, forays in the U.S. and European markets. What will help in the States is SPC's wise decision to release it with its extensive voice-over spoken in English.

The film is narrated by its central character, a young teacher, decades after the events depicted. Although the many children have names, the adults — further extending the film's symbolic implications — tend to be known mostly through their generic roles, e.g., the baron, the pastor, the farmer, the doctor and so on.

Life in the village is strictly hierarchical, and everyone knows his or her place. An inhuman, never-questioned moral code holds sway, especially over the children, who are constantly punished — physically and psychologically — for the slightest infraction. The women are similarly brutalized and under the thumb of the village's unabashed patriarchy. The adult males, on the other hand, engage in clandestine acts of evil and cruelty that are kept hushed.

One day, the order of things begins to unravel. First, the doctor, on horseback, is tripped by an invisible wire. His injuries put him in the hospital for months. Then several children, including the son of the baron and the retarded child of the doctor's mistress, are severely beaten. Later, the baron's barn is set on fire. Who are the guilty ones? It is the teacher who finally figures out, to the surprise of no one, that the children are wreaking the havoc, partly out of revenge for their mistreatment and partly because they have totally internalized the sick values of their parents.

On a more symbolic level, though Haneke is too much the serious artist to spell it out, it's clear that this portrait of a sick society is meant to explain, at least partially, the horrendous war that breaks out at the end of the film and the fascism that quickly followed in its wake. (partialdiff)
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