SCREENINGS & MEANINGS
By Gerald Schmitz
More dramas of distinction from Toronto festival
Given a diverse presentation of nearly 300 narrative features from many
countries, overlooking some in compiling one’s personal highlights
is unavoidable. Among others, my anticipation grows for the following
I wasn’t able to see: The Hunt (best actor prize at Cannes), The
Impossible (a family survives the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami), No (the
1988 Chilean referendum on Pinochet’s rule), On the Road (the life
and times of Jack Kerouac), Chinese historical epic The Last Supper,
and Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep about the fate of fugitive
American political radicals in hiding for decades.
Inevitably too there are disappointments, including three “gala” presentations.
I expected better from Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Currently in theatres, Canadian Ruba Nadda’s Inescapable is set
in a dangerous Damascus (actually shot in Johannesburg) but fails to
be very convincing. The Italian family affair Twice Born, despite reliving
the Balkan wars and siege of Sarajevo, degenerates into overwrought melodrama
with some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard in a movie. And
then there’s the much-hyped Cloud Atlas, a nearly three-hour endurance
trial that, notwithstanding its time-shifting actor makeup Olympics and
precocious design, struck me as a monumentally pretentious marathon of
absurdities. Among the numerous literary adaptations on offer — including
creditable if unnecessary new British versions of Great Expectations
and Anna Karenina — this one should have stayed unfilmable.
Although the festival’s range surpasses particular themes, the
many varieties, joys and agonies of love is one that emerges in my top
picks. Another that surfaces is the arc and endpoint of life’s
journeys looking back and forward across generations. TIFF’s closing
gala Song for Marion featured British aging acting legends Vanessa Redgrave
and Terence Stamp. Another veteran actor, 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman,
presented his directorial debut Quartet, a wonderful story about retired
opera singers. Canadian Michael McGowan’s Still is a poignant love
story about an elderly couple (played by Geneviève Bujold and
James Cromwell) facing difficult choices in their rural New Brunswick
From the rest here are 12 that most impressed, beginning with two by
the master filmmakers who received the Cannes festival’s highest
honour in 2011 and 2012.
1. Amour (Love, Austria/France/Germany)
The last years of octogenarian couple Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant)
and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) in their Paris apartment are anything but
golden despite the concerned attention of their daughter Eva (Isabelle
Huppert). When Anne has a stroke and her dementia worsens, George’s
loving care faces the ultimate test. Michael Haneke directs these superlative
actors with extraordinary precision, depth and uncompromising realism.
2. To the Wonder (U.S., in English, French, Russian, Italian and Spanish)
Terrence Malick’s followup to The Tree of Life isn’t as ambitious
or awe-inspiring but it’s still a wonder for those willing to take
the journey. A man (Ben Affleck) and a woman (Olga Kurylenko) fall in
and out of love on two continents. A priest (Javier Bardem) struggling
with faith finds Christ in the suffering world around him. Amid the fragility
of these lives and loves is the mystery of a creation that strives for
transcendence. The only American film on this list is as far from Hollywood
as it’s possible to get.
3. Everyday (U.K.)
Director Michael Winterbottom’s innovative filmmaking never ceases
to amaze. Originally conceived as a television documentary on the prison
system, this potent story follows a fictional family of six over an actual
period of five years while the husband is incarcerated and contact is
limited to brief visits then day passes. The raw, realistic depiction
of the everyday challenges encountered by the couple in maintaining their
relationship and in raising four young children is simply sublime. (It’s
worth noting that Aniello Arena, the star of another TIFF selection,
Matteo Garrone’s Reality which won the grand prix at Cannes, is
serving a lengthy prison sentence, allowed out only for the filming of
this Italian exposé of a false, corrupting and celebrity-obsessed “reality” television
4. Out in the Dark (Israel/U.S.)
Israeli cinema continues to produce world-class features. Michael Mayer’s
accomplished directorial debut is a dangerous love story between closeted
young Palestinian Nimr studying in Tel Aviv, whose brother is an armed
militant, and idealistic Israeli lawyer Roy. A relationship that seems
destined for tragedy leaves open the possibility of hope. (Other noteworthy
Israeli dramas at TIFF were Zaytoun and Fill the Void.)
5. The Attack (Lebanon/Qatar/Egypt/France/Belgium)
A respected Palestinian surgeon living in Israel as a citizen is receiving
an award while he thinks his wife Siham is visiting relatives in Nablus
in the occupied West Bank. Called to treat victims of a terrorist attack
in Tel Aviv, his world is shattered when the identity of the female suicide
bomber is revealed.
6. Underground (Australia)
Of the five world cinema presentations accompanied by discussions with
academic experts this was the one that gripped me the most. Director
Robert Connolly (last at TIFF with the brilliant Balibo) does a superb
job of capturing the turbulent formative years of controversial Wikileaks
founder Julian Assange as an audacious teenage hacker (and father) in
Melbourne. Heralding a new era of radical cyber-activism, his challenges
to established authority began early and often.
UNDERGROUND — Director Robert Connolly
(left) and Ron Deibert, an expert and adviser on cyber security, cyber
crime, freedom of expression and access to information, discuss the
film Underground at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Sept. 10. (G. Schmitz photo)
7. Dans la maison (In the House, France)
Director François Ozon’s adaptation of a Spanish play is
a ferociously clever and witty dark satire in which a 16-year-old student,
with his teacher’s complicity, turns a school writing project into
an increasingly voyeuristic and emotionally tangled account of what takes
place in a classmate’s family abode. Kristin Scott Thomas as the
teacher’s sharp-tongued wife brings an added edge to the affair.
Winner of the FIPRESCI (international critics’) prize at TIFF.
FILM PREMIERE — In
the House director Francois Ozon with Kristin Scott Thomas at the TIFF
showing of the film, an adaptation of a Spanish play. (G. Schmitz photo)
8. Hannah Arendt (Germany)
Director Margarethe von Trotta explores the life of another remarkable
woman, the eponymous German-Jewish political philosopher who escaped
to America from Nazi Germany. Played by the great Barbara Sukova, the
focus is on Arendt’s famous coverage of the Jerusalem trial of
Adolph Eichmann and the controversies that erupted over her concept of “the
banality of evil” to explain how “nobodies” could commit
some of the century’s worst crimes against humanity. (Another excellent
film, Lore, tells the story of three children of Nazi parents, abandoned
following the collapse of the Third Reich, who must undertake a harrowing
cross-country journey to find refuge.)
9. Beyond the Hills (Romania/France)
Another masterwork from director Cristian Mungiu based on an actual case
of a girl from an orphanage who has become integrated into the austere
regimen of a remote Orthodox monastery. Her sheltering of a troubled
childhood friend proves fatal when the priest and nuns treat the latter’s
violent psychological breakdown as a demonic possession to be exorcized.
10. White Elephant (Argentina/Spain)
Ricardo Darín and Jérémie Renier are outstanding
as two Catholic priests, Rev. Julián and Rev. Nicolàs,
whose pastoral ministry to the needy and suffering is tested daily in
a real-life Buenos Aires slum menaced by murderous drug gangs, corrupt
police, greedy developers and politicians. Dedicated to the memory of
a priest assassinated there in 1974, director Pablo Trapero brings the
gospel to the streets with great sensitivity and explosive power.
11. Road North (Finland)
When Leo, the incorrigible and long absent father of Timo, a concert
pianist estranged from his wife, suddenly shows up it leads to an unexpected
uproarious road trip of revelations and regrets that ends with a bang.
It’s an irresistible ride from Mika Kaurismäki, brother of
renowned fellow director Aki.
12. Après Mai (Something in the Air, France)
Incorporating elements from his own experience of the radical student
movement and cultural ferment that rocked France after May 1968, director
Olivier Assayas (best screenplay at Venice) evokes the tempestuous atmosphere
of the times — from revolutionary politics to sex, drugs, rock ‘n
roll, to experimental art and cinema. He also explores these themes in
two brilliant essays recently published in English as A Post-May Adolescence.
TIFF was blessed by other fine new works by major French
directors — notably
Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, Claude Miller’s Thérèse
Desqueyroux (based on a classic François Mauriac novel), and Laurent
Cantet’s first English-language feature Foxfire: Confessions of
a Girl Gang adapted from the eponymous Joyce Carol Oates novel and filmed
in Sault Ste. Marie.
Schmitz is an ambassador member of the Canadian Film Institute.