To characterise the 36th TIFF, it is probably most relevant to invoke the phrase that seemed to be making the rounds in the press lounge this year: The Austerity TIFF. There were small but clear indications throughout the festival events that economic hair-cutting was the order of the day. Sponsored events were fewer and further between, and the previous year’s more magnanimous gestures were dramatically cropped at this still humongous and prestigious film festival. The big money seemed to be ring-fenced for the impressive Hollywood band-wagon that inevitably arrives for three or four days and sets the city’s residents into a celebrity frenzy usually held in check by their cautious Canadian personae. Come festival time, all restraint is thrown to the wind. This year they had George, Johnny, Madonna, Bonehead – sorry that’s Bono – Francis, Martin, Vigo, Keira, Ryan, Brad et al to rubberneck at.
As for the films themselves, there were the usual number of high-profile premieres of American productions as well as the more interesting hundreds of international features, documentaries and shorts. This report concentrates on films that remain in mind after dozens have slipped into the muddy streams of visual unconsciousness.
I had the privilege of eavesdropping on distributors as they hotly enthused and kept deepening their pockets for the rights to William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, a nasty little number that features Matthew McConaughey – in a career-stretching role – as a Dallas cowboy-cop who moonlights as a very cool and ruthless hit man. He is hired by a bumbling trailer trash family to kill their no-good mama in order to inherit her insurance money – a good example of a staple trope of classic noir being resuscitated and transplanted into a neo-noir (or film soleil, as some would dub it). Friedkin, who knows a thing or two about chase sequences (The French Connection, 1971) treats us to a good one here, and the only criticism that might really be raised is the rather gratuitous stretching out of the final bloodbath. Adapted from a 1993 play by Tracy Letts, the film introduces a fried chicken leg in the starring role as a blowjob recipient – made problematic by the nasty circumstances under which it is delivered. But Killer Joe sees the veteran director William Friedkin in a real return to form of sorts, after several below par outings in the last years. Coen Brothers meet Tarantino.
The coming-of-age adolescent film is well-mined territory and coming up with even a slightly original slant is difficult. Jens Lien in Sons of Norway accomplishes just this by inverting the scenario. The relatively straight-laced 14-year-old Nikolaj (Åsmund Høeg) and his younger brother live with liberal hippy-ish parents. His father, Magnus (Sven Nordin), is a super-energetic eccentric character with yellow crash helmet and crazy souped-up bike to match, who falls into a depression when his younger son is killed. When he snaps out of it, his eccentricity and diatribes against capitalism are heightened and young Nikolaj searches for a way to rebel to gain attention as well as find out who he really is and emerge from young adolescence. Difficult to do when your father approves and encourages all and every kind of rebellion. Nikolaj finds an outlet in neo-punk and The Sex Pistols music. Executive-produced by none other than John Lydon, who makes an appearance in the film, Sons of Norway is in the same vein as Fucking Amal (1998) or C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) and as such is a charming sleeper that deserves distribution. Another charmer is the Filipino film Fable of the Fish, directed by Adolfo Boringa Alix Jr. (Adela , Chassis , Presa ). Seamlessly stitching together naturalism, magic realism and Filipino folk tales, it follows the travails of the childless, middle-aged couple Miguel (Bembol Roco) and Lina (Cherry Pie Picache) as they move from impoverishment to scavenging for their existence. Lina becomes miraculously pregnant and instead of bearing a child gives birth to a milkfish. She soon becomes a local celebrity but Miguel is humiliated and ashamed, and we see the schism between the two as she becomes happier and full of life and grace while he sinks lower and wants to deny the ‘child’. This satire is played straight and is always sympathetic to its characters, who emerge as good and kindly human beings. A fine achievement and a strong addition to the growing number of quality low-budget films emerging from the Philippines.
In the annual City to City strand, which this year featured Buenos Aires, I took a shining to Pablo Giorgelli’s very slow-burning, poetic road movie Las Acacias – the tale of a hitchhiking woman Jacinta (Hebe Duarte) and a baby who are picked up by a curmudgeonly truck driver, Ruben (Germán de Silva). The story is told mostly within the cab of the truck with little dialogue and no non-diegetic sound – there is just the constant background sound of the truck’s engine. Simplicity and a tutorial in elegant filmmaking that relies on camera work and facial insinuation and gesture rather than an abundance of text (or excessive music for that matter): a strategy often utilised by small-budget filmmakers to compensate or over-compensate for some perceived lack of action or motion in their straightened economic conditions. Las Acacias moves at its own measured pace with the drone of the truck engine and the slowness of the characters in exchanging conversation providing the viewer with the perception of a near real-time experience. Giorgelli is to be commended for his commitment and vision to what might be called ‘slow cinema’. This no-frills, realistic film is a deeply human and humane piece of work, all the more notable and laudable for being the director’s first feature. It was a deserving winner of the Caméra d’Or at Cannes this year, which has been followed by wins for the director at San Sebastian, Mumbai and London Film Festivals.
Among other Argentine films to feature at Toronto were an interesting pairing from 2011 and 1969. The latter is a little seen Argentine classic, Invasión (Hugo Santiago), which tells a futuristic and fascistic dystopian story of invasion from the rebels’ point of view. It is an allegorical tale about a group of guerrilla intellectuals attempting to halt and reverse the onslaught of an invading force in a city named Aqueila but looking for all the world like Buenos Aires. The script was co-written by literary luminaries Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares and their collective paranoid sensibilities in Invasión presciently anticipate the coming military junta. Invasión has been called an Argentine Alphaville and on this viewing one can see why. Perhaps losing some of its political edginess in current times, this is no less a major work of cinematic art in both the Argentine context and in its obvious adoption of French New Wave and Godardian form and content. And while it is often commented that contemporary Argentine cinema has lost its appetite for engaged political films, an exception to this observation can be found in the Santiago Mitre film, The Student (2011), which takes as its subject the remnants of Marxist and committed socialist politics as encountered by a young bourgeois non-political student, Roque (Esteban Lamothe). His political pilgrim’s journey takes him from apathy to commitment to disillusionment. The same can be said of the arc of his love affair with Paula (Romina Paula), a much more sophisticated and informed political siren. As engaging as the film is, it is difficult to see how it might transcend its obvious Argentine-specific sources and travel outside the country. Nonetheless, a fine pair to see back to back to compare and contrast the socio-political lay of the land.
A noticeable theme in recent European cinema has been the issue of the impact of mass illegal migration upon the shores of Eurozone countries, especially focusing upon the ‘problem’ of Africa. Two such films screened in Toronto explore these issues as they affect small island communities trapped between maintaining history and tradition on the one hand and globalisation and tourism on the other. Color of the Ocean is the story of a Canary Island cop, José (Alex González), whose job is to decide the fate of the hundreds of African boat people who wash ashore onto this idyllic ocean paradise. When sun-soaking bikini-clad German tourist Nathalie (Sabine Timoteo) witnesses the sight of bedraggled and suffering refugees as they stagger ashore, she begins to help out and makes a connection with one of the refugees and his young son. Against the wishes of her husband, Paul (Friedrich MÃ¼cke), who wants her to keep out of it, she helps to effect an escape for Zola (Huber Koundé) and his son Mamadou (Dami Adeeri) from the local internment camp. But rather than assisting she unwittingly makes it more difficult for him as he becomes involved with criminal smugglers. As Nathalie gets more deeply involved, she comes to the attention of policeman José and both find that they have issues to address in their own lives as well as making sure their actions will create positive rather than negative change. As the tag line has it, to free someone, you may have to free yourself.
The Italian director of Respiro (2002) and Golden Door (2006), Emanuele Crialese, covers similar issues in Terraferma, his take on the timely topic. Set on the island of Linosa, off of Sicily, the film focuses on the trials and tribulations of the centuries-old fishing community as they grapple with the realities of the global age. Tensions rise within a family as the patriarch refuses to give in to the new demands of tourism and face up to the harsh realities of depleted fish stocks, while his son and daughter embrace the new realities facing the island. The familial tensions are exacerbated by boatloads of illegal immigrants suddenly appearing on their shorelines. As the fishermen try to uphold an ancient tradition – to rescue anyone in distress upon the high seas – they find it almost impossible not to come to the aid of the struggling refugee families from North Africa. The patriarch and his family’s lives are turned upside down when they find themselves aiding and abetting a young pregnant African woman. The law states that they must turn her in but they are in a quandary about this and have radically different ideas about what to do. A thoughtful and provocative film, it raises questions about the issue without bludgeoning the viewer into siding with one or another of the possibilities articulated in the smart script. Again, the issue of ‘liberal’ tourists, their near-decadent appearance in the world of the local inhabitant and their need to not be subjected to the reality of beaches ‘besmirched’ with desperate refugees are seen in a fair but complicated light. Two thoughtful accounts then, of the same phenomenon, though I lean to Color of the Ocean as the marginally superior film.
The docu-drama Always Brando was a poetic and reflective film by the Tunisian director Ridha Behi (Bitter Champagne , Swallows Never Die in Jerusalem ). A very interesting storyline mixing fact, fiction and speculation, Always Brando is described by programmer Rasha Salti as ‘at once a loving and lucid elegy to the cinema, and the director’s naked, uncontrived meditation on its imperious allure and cruelty’. And that description is little short of the truth. Behi’s film weaves a meditation on his unlikely relationship with Marlon Brando – who unexpectedly and after many years of solicitation from Behi, summoned him to his Hollywood home to work on a script – and Behi’s meeting with a Tunisian actor, Anis Raache, who bore a striking resemblance to the young Brando. This gave the director the idea to make a fictional film about this Brando lookalike and how this opportunity to work on an American movie being filmed in Tunisia deludes the actor into thinking he will achieve fame and fortune in Hollywood. Exploited and seduced by a middle-aged man who promises to cast him in a Brando biopic, Anis is led on a downward spiral that ends in futility and failure. Meanwhile, in real life the idea of a collaboration with the real Brando, which was being worked on in the actor’s Mulholland Drive mansion, came to an abrupt end with the death of the great man. From these fragments from Behi’s life, he has made a film that is ‘specifically tailored to the two Brandos’. This is cinema that is thoughtful and intriguing and shot through with possibilities.
Less thoughtful and intriguing – in fact the biggest disappointment of the festival – was the new quasi-vampire/horror flick Twixt by The Man Formerly Known as Prince (of directors), namely Francis Ford Coppola. In Twixt, Bruce Dern, who is almost always in overwrought and over-acting mode (Ã la Nicolas Cage), plays the part of a local sheriff who has fantasies of co-writing a novel about the mysterious death of a local young girl. He pitches his idea to down-on-his-luck visiting thriller author Hal Baltimore (embarrassingly played by Val Kilmer). When the near-delusional Baltimore has a visitation from the girl’s ghost, the preposterous filmic story commences. As the writer hallucinates and confuses dreams with reality, we are taken on an unwelcome journey with him as he starts hanging out with a resurrected Edgar Allan Poe, who gives Baltimore pointers on the finer aspects of horror writing and detection. I kid you not. Po-faced, or should I say Poe-faced Coppola’s once mentor, Roger Corman, has done far better service to Poe – and the horror genre – than Coppola has here. Corman’s Gothic at least had style and panache. This film is plodding and cringe-inducing and I would have liked to see a dozen young filmmakers split the budget of this real-life horror film between them and see what they would have come up with; surely something livelier and more engaging. And the few minutes of 3D spectatorial (non) glories to be glimpsed halfway through the film and in the inevitable and predictable bloody ending were gratuitous and ill-advised. Not one from the heart then, but one from the faint-hearted. Forget about it.
James B. Evans