It turns out that Loach — an unflinching social realist whose subjects have ranged from troubled teens ("Kes") to illegal immigrants ("It's a Free World") to the Irish war of independence ("The Wind That Shakes the Barley") — is a passionate believer in what one character in the film calls "the great god of football."
Loach puts his love of soccer on-screen in "Looking for Eric," his sweetest, funniest film in years. It's the story of a depressed mailman (Steve Evets) who turns to his sporting idol, Cantona, for guidance.
The director said Monday that soccer played a vital role in many people's lives.
"People, particularly men, find it hard to express their feelings, often," Loach said. "But at the game you go from despair to hope to triumph to sadness to elation within an hour and three quarters.
"If a film could achieve that, it'd be some film."
Loach's movie is one of 20 competing for Cannes' top prize, the Palme d'Or, an award the 72-year-old director won three years ago for "The Wind That Shakes the Barley."
"Looking for Eric" earned warm applause at a screening Monday — and Cantona's appearance at a news conference sent journalists scrambling for autographs and photos.
Cantona, 41, is more than a soccer star. He's a demigod to fans, especially in Britain, where he spent five years in the 1990s playing for Manchester United. His status comes both from his skill on the pitch and his reputation as a sporting sage, famous for cryptic pronouncements. "When the seagulls follow a trawler," Cantona once told reporters, "it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea."
He was also a passionate and volatile player who was suspended for nine months in 1995 for karate-kicking a fan who had heckled him.
In the film, Cantona plays himself, as a sort of imaginary spiritual guide conjured up by Evets' character Eric, a Manchester United fan driven to breakdown by guilt over the wife and child he abandoned 30 years before.
With Cantona's help, Eric gains the courage to confront the ghosts of his past as well as an external threat posed by his stepson's involvement with a local gangster.
The film is a warmhearted crowd-pleaser and a change from the downbeat tone of many Loach films.
"We'd done a couple of films that were really quite tough," Loach said of the filmmaking team that includes his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty and producer Rebecca O'Brien. "We thought it might be nice to do a film with a smile on our faces.
"A comedy is a tragedy with a happy ending, and the story in this film could go in many different ways," he added. "It could be a tragedy, but equally it could be a comedy."
Loach said that if the film succeeded, it was due to the actors, who include John Henshaw as Eric's friend and Gerard Kearns as his wayward stepson. "They played it dead true, and sometimes that's funny and sometimes it is sad."
Much of the humor comes through Cantona, who gets lines like, "He that sows thistles shall reap prickles" and "I am not a man. I am Cantona."
"I like laughing at myself," said Cantona. "It's very important. It's a good weapon."
Cantona retired from soccer at 30 because, he said, he'd lost his passion for the game. He took up acting, with parts in the 1998 costume drama "Elizabeth" and several French films, as well as producing. Cantona is credited as an executive producer on "Looking for Eric."
Cantona said he planned to keep making movies "as long as I feel passion for acting," but said it was up to viewers to decide whether he was any good.
Loach had no doubts.
"He acts like he plays football," the director said. "With flair and creativity."
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