In a politically turbulent year when several of the films at the Cannes Film Festival explore America's controversial foreign policy, one film in competition delves into the more subtle economic and cultural wars that are being waged between America and the rest of the world.
American filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter's 21/2-hour odyssey through the world of wine -- from Burgundy to Florence to California to Argentina -- has emerged as one of the sleeper hits of the festival. It was upgraded from a non-competition to a competition slot as the festival started, and it received a standing ovation at its evening screening.
The film is one of two documentaries in competition, the other being Michael Moore's much-anticipated "Fahrenheit 9/11," a scathing critique of the Bush administration's actions through the war in Iraq. Though "Mondovino" is not overtly political, it is just as topical as "Fahrenheit." Through the prism of wine, Nossiter explores the problems of globalization, the encroachment of big business and the tensions in the transatlantic relationship between America and Europe.
Sitting in a rickety chair on a sunlit patch of grass, the rangy, dark-haired, 42-year-old director explains the connection between wine and the bigger picture. "You might at first think, 'Who cares about wine? It's just a luxury product,' " he says. "But because every aspect of society is reflected in the wine world -- rich and poor, left and right, peasant and aristocrat -- if you take the temperature of the wine world, you're taking the temperature of the world at large."
Nossiter spent three years preparing and shooting "Mondovino." In a sense, though, he's been preparing for this film all his life. He grew up in France, England, Italy, Greece and India, and speaks six languages. (His father, Bernard Nossiter, was a Washington Post correspondent for 25 years.) The director's curiosity about cultural displacement and his empathy for outsiders weave through his three previous feature films. His first, "Resident Alien" (1991), is a documentary about English man-about-town Quentin Crisp. "Sunday" (1997), which won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival that year, is about a homeless man's fortuitous but meaningful encounter with an aging actress. "Signs & Wonders" (2000) is a moodily atmospheric drama, set in Athens, that stars Stellan Skarsgard and Charlotte Rampling as a married couple drifting apart.
Nossiter is also a trained sommelier who has prepared the wine lists of many New York restaurants.
He shot "Mondovino" with a hand-held camera, accompanied by two friends who helped him with camerawork and sound. The film, which feels like a combination of road movie and fresco, takes us through the sun-dappled vineyards of Burgundy, the corporate headquarters of California wineries, and the gorgeous palazzi of the Tuscan nobility.
The stakes in the wine world are high, and revolve around what prominent American importer Neal Rosenthal calls, in the film, "the Napa-ization of wine." By that he means the ever-increasing popularity of California wines: wines that are generally broader in flavor, more accessible to the layman, and produced with more technological intervention (wine consultants, laboratories and the like).
On the other side are wines (often European) produced in vineyards that go back centuries, where the emphasis is on cultivation of the vine, and where the taste can be far more individual and idiosyncratic. Since many European winegrowers (especially in Bordeaux) are rushing to emulate the successful American model, what's at stake is the homogenization of taste, the survival of the small winegrower, and the potential loss of a way of life.
Nossiter was astonished, he says, by the degree of access that he was accorded to some of the most colorful, opinionated and legendary figures in the industry. "In political terms, it was as if I were able to get inside the White House and spend a day hanging out," he says.
Among the gallery of characters is wily Michel Rolland, self-professed "flying winemaker," who is the wine consultant of choice in 12 countries, including the United States. Then there's Robert Parker, the enormously influential American wine critic, who often likes the wines shaped by Rolland, and whom Nossiter interviews at home in Monkton, Md. Parker considers himself an Everyman who democratized the wine industry by going with his own tastes, even if it meant criticizing venerable French wines. "If there's a legacy for Robert Parker, it's that he leveled the playing field," he says proudly.
But to figures such as Aime Guibert, a crusty winemaker in Languedoc, France, the power that Parker and Rolland wield signals the possible end of an art form. "Great wines can be made by everyone now," says Guibert, ironically. "There's just one rule: Consult Rolland." In fact, Guibert took up arms against the hegemony of taste and the encroachment of Napa-ization when he thwarted the Mondavis, the reigning American wine dynasty -- and clients of Rolland -- from acquiring land in his native village.
Both Guibert and Hubert de Montille, a renowned Burgundian winemaker, see the battle as drawn between big business and branding on the American side, traditional cultivation methods and love of the land on the French side. "Brands are part of the Anglo-Saxon mind-set," says de Montille. "In Burgundy, we focus more on the place of origin."
However, Nossiter is careful to show that the conflict cannot be defined just as Europe vs. America, old vs. new. Rolland, one of the architects of Napa-ization, is, after all, French. And there are vocal Americans, such as Rosenthal, who are strong supporters of European wines made in the old way. The line of demarcation is rather, as Nossiter says, "between those who want to preserve diversity and individual dignity, and those who are leading us toward a brave new world of homogenization."
There are no clear-cut villains in the film, though the Mondavis, in their urge to extend their sway globally, may not find "Mondovino" flattering. (Robert Mondavi's son Michael says at one point, "Ten, fifteen generations from now, it would be great to see our heirs making wine on some other planets.") Still, Nossiter says, "I tried to respect everyone I talked to, to give everyone their day in court." This leads to some shocking moments -- such as the scene where two young women from the prominent Antinori wine family explain to a dumbfounded Nossiter that Italy still enjoys many great things (they don't specify which ones) brought about by the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
Nossiter is quick to draw the parallels between the world of wine and the current global political situation. "I think we're hurtling toward something incredibly dangerous," he says. "It's an Orwellian time right now in the States, where truth is continually being inverted and those in power are trying to impose a completely monolithic way of thinking."
The director dedicates the film to his parents, and credits his journalist father, who died in 1992, for his own refusal to accept preconceived notions. "The origin of this film was quite personal," he says. "I realized that winemaking, which is often a family business, was the perfect arena in which to explore the question of what we inherit from our parents, and what we pass on."
He hopes that the film will have a much more universal appeal than simply to wine aficionados. "I dislike the whole snobbery of wine connoisseurship," he says. "I wanted to make a film for people who don't know anything about wine. This three-year adventure across three continents has been a search to understand my own place in the world, my own roots, and perhaps it can help other people in that, too." He smiles. "After all, wine is the only thing that has as much complexity as human beings."