CANNES: Sean Penn on Friday defended his new movie about aid workers in Africa starring his ex-girlfriend Charlize Theron against howling critics at Cannes, saying it offered a rare slice of “entertainment” tackling big issues.
“The Last Face” is Penn’s fifth directing effort and features the South African-born Theron and Spaniard Javier Bardem — both past Oscar-winners — as a pair of doctors struggling to keep their love affair going as their humanitarian work in war zones drives them apart.
The movie features brutal scenes of marauding rebels laying waste to villages and wailing orphans begging for medical assistance, but the film’s focus remains firmly on the two white lead characters.
The audience at a preview screening guffawed at wooden dialogue and improbable plot lines just minutes into the movie.
As the curtain fell, the crowd let out the biggest boos of the 12-day festival. Trade magazine The Hollywood Reporter called it a “stunningly self-important but numbingly empty cocktail of romance and insulting refugee porn”.
The Guardian gave it just one star out of five, under the headline “African conflict is aphrodisiac for white people in Sean Penn’s crass romance” while Time Out called it a “pompous, ethically bankrupt humanitarian aid drama”.
A visibly shaken Penn and a stony-faced Theron later faced questions at an awkward press conference about the vicious reception and the experience of working together before their high-profile breakup last year.
“I stand behind the film as it is, and certainly everyone is entitled to their response,” Penn said, praising his cast’s “great performances”.
“The gifts — the humility and the ego –- that the people around me gave are more valuable than a discussion of what’s difficult,” he said.
Penn said “too much of film today” was rooted in empty entertainment and cheap provocation that were “pulling us away from our humanity”.
“I think it’s important to entertain if entertainment is not synonymous with Donald Trump’s behaviour,” he said.
“To find beauty in things is the way to fix things. I just think that what we’re calling beauty today is largely a perversion of it. That is lamentable.”
Theron said Penn had tried to recreate the fraught atmosphere of refugee camps that he knew from his own humanitarian work.
“There were days that we had 5,000 extras walking through those camps and they were making fire, making their food there and we were all in that environment,” she said.
“There are beautiful moments captured in the film that just really happened.”
Penn’s flop at Cannes caps a rough period for the actor-director, who faced an avalanche of criticism for meeting Mexican drug baron Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman last October and then writing about it in “Rolling Stone” magazine.
“The Last Face” is one of 21 movies vying for the Palme d’Or prize, which will be awarded Sunday at the world’s biggest film festival.