CANNES, France — Though the Festival de Cannes thrives on the new, there are things about it, pleasant things, you can count on recurring. Like the warm sun in the afternoons or the cool jazz, the sound system that cheers those rising early enough to make the 8:30 a.m. media screenings. Pleasant things like the singular films of Ken Loach -- thoughtful, well-crafted, socially conscious -- that show up almost every year in the dramatic competition.
This year's film by the dean of British independent filmmakers, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," debuted Thursday night. It is, the self-effacing director admits with reluctance, his eighth at the festival, following such efforts as "My Name Is Joe," "Sweet Sixteen" and "Raining Stones."
"It's a lot," he says of the total, a bit embarrassed.
Two things set this powerful film apart from most of Loach's work: It's only his second (after "Land and Freedom") set in the past, in this case Ireland in the early 1920s. And it stars not Loach's usual nonprofessionals but the gifted Cillian Murphy, an actor "at the top of his game," in the director's words, as one of two Irish brothers involved in the struggle for independence against Britain and the dread Black and Tans military forces.
Given his great interest in the here and now, what caused Loach and his frequent screenwriter Paul Laverty, to go to Ireland's past?
"We hear so much about the problems in Northern Ireland, but there's no context in which to understand them," he says. "Eighty-five years after, it's time."
What Loach has gone back to is not simply the drive to get Britain out of Ireland, a situation that virtually no one argues about today. Rather what especially fascinates him is what happened afterward, when the Irish had a choice of continuing a brutal war or accepting Britain's offer of independence with major strings attached, strings like the separation of Northern Ireland from the South, which continue to reverberate today.
"If a group is united against oppression, when the oppressor goes, all the splits and divisions emerge," Loach says. "If you were alive at that time it must have been an agonizing choice. There were no good people or bad people, all responses to the situation have a logic -- that's the terrible dilemma.
"It's an event which illuminates the present so completely. It shows how a colonial power trying to protect its interests in the short term screws up the next 100 years. The treaty imposed by the British has been a disaster by any measure for the people involved. It's one of those events which has many parallels in the present where there are struggles against colonial power."
Though there are numerous gun battles and deaths in "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" (the title comes from a pro-independence poem), Loach was "anxious not to glorify killing, not to have exploding body parts. A lot of films claiming to be antiwar enjoy blood and guts all over the screen."
Loach's decision to avoid all that came as somewhat of a shock to the special effects people hired to help with the battle scenes.
"These people come with all kinds of ways of making heads explode, they're all prepared for you to want to do it in slow motion. I said I didn't want to do any of that. They were a little surprised."
What Loach also didn't want to do was let audiences off easy in scenes showing Black and Tans torturing Irish fighters, specifically pulling off fingernails with old pliers.
"That's well based on fact; they actually did much more," the director explains. "And if you went through the scene frame by frame, you don't see anything.
"We don't want people to underestimate the effects of torture. It's not just a cinematic convention, it's deeply shocking and appalling. You want the audience to be just as shocked as we were when we read it. In Guantanamo, in Abu Ghraib, torture is going on today."