Now happily settled into its multi-million dollar purpose-built home, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the statistics alone give some indication of the scale the Toronto International Film Festival has reached now. Of the 4,143 total submissions from 72 countries, 372 feature films in total were ultimately screened and, as the official fact sheet notes, that is 30,918 minutes of film. A dutiful film critic would have to attend 37.2 features a day to come to grips with the entire festival – a sobering thought for audiences and filmmakers alike. It is near impossible to venture an overall opinion as to the tone or theme that arose, though an observation is that the quality of the films, not unexpectedly, ranged from adequate to very good, with a dearth – for this writer – of anything in the future ‘classics’ category. For me, some much-anticipated films were a bit of a let down, notably the heroin-chic, self-conscious style of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. What the world doesn’t really need is another ‘name’ director having a go at the vampire genre. Nevertheless, critical opinion was divided on this one. It was, however, a bumper year for documentaries and these were standouts: Burt’s Buzz (Jody Shapiro), Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich), When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig), Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story (Barry Avrich) and Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Marcel Ophuls). Below I take a look at some of these and some other highlights from the festival.
iNumber Number (Donovan Marsh, 2013)
Expect loads of action, shoot ’em ups, and fast paced – though occasionally over the top – scenes of brutality and violence in this South African crime thriller. This is a grimy world where corruption among police officers is not the exception, and the story of Chili and his partner Shoes is one of straight cops trying to do their best and play it right, but getting screwed at every turn. Deciding that honesty does not pay, Chili decides to infiltrate a gang who are planning a heist and then taking the money when it’s done. But in a taut and well-paced scene, the gang members discover his identity and subsequently kidnap Shoes. Very well edited, the many killing-spree scenes build to a tremendous if over-wrought finale. Sheer exuberance and energy define this film, and director Donovan Marsh deserves credit for putting together a great cast: the leads are convincing and the secondary characters are well-drawn and provide enough eccentricity to add a touch of black humour to the proceedings. Donovan has studied his Tarantino but learned to trim some of the excess fat; one can only hope that was an aesthetic and not a budgetary lesson. Ultimately, we’ve seen the plot loads of times, but the setting adds a new dimension to the narrative and style.
Watch the trailer for iNumber Number :
Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof, 2013)
This Iranian film about a surreptitiously printed manuscript, which details the truth behind a failed government plot to kill 21 writers and journalists in a staged bus accident, is a searing indictment of the Iranian regime and its ruthless attempts at censorship and control of the truth. It follows two impoverished men working for the regime as assassins, who are tasked with getting back the three extant copies of the manuscript in question. The two have been hired to find – and eliminate – the remaining writers who have the scripts and to return them to the government offices. Their task is no more, no less than to silence any opposition to the official government line. The matter-of-fact way that they go about their business while in pursuit brings to mind the mundane conversations between the hitmen in Pulp Fiction, though with less ironic patter and more of a ‘just making a living’ urgency. Beautifully shot in wintry colours, the sense of desperation of the oppressed victims and the moral and ethical dimensions of the script are wonderfully realised by director Mohammad Rasoulof. A superior meditation on state violence, oppression, censorship and morality in contemporary Iran, the film won a Fipresci prize at Cannes this year.
Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, Kabozia Partovi, 2013)
The unstoppable Jafar Panahi has made his second film since being sentenced to house arrest for six years and banned from filmmaking for twenty years. His earlier feature, This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran to Cannes in 2011. Two years later the tone of his new film is darker, more claustrophobic and has overtones of death wishes – Panahi films a fictional suicide of himself as part of the narrative. Establishing the mood of the film with his everyday ritual of taking in the groceries and then blacking out all his windows from spying eyes, we the audience are trapped with him in his beach house, where he lives among his memories of better days, his film posters and scripts. That narrative arc is abandoned by the abrupt entry into his house of two absconding young people…Who are they? Why are they there? Are they undercover Revolutionary Guards? As the elliptical mystery unfolds, no one – least of all Panahi – are even certain that they are not figments of imagination or projections of his cracking psyche. This is a brave and imaginative film given the circumstances of its production, and the extremely limited means and freedoms within which the director is forced to work. It would be churlish to gripe too much about insignificant technical or formal details given this situation, and better to state that it is a successful and, in its own way, life-affirming piece of work. Let’s hope the new regime will see the folly in keeping him under arrest and cinematically speechless.
Watch the trailer for Closed Curtain:
Palestine Stereo (Rashid Masharawi, 2013)
The production credits say much about the state of funding for Palestinian films. It is a Palestine/Tunisia/Norway/United Arab Emirates/Italy/Switzerland financial pudding – but nonetheless focussed for all that input. ‘Stereo’ is a nickname for a former wedding singer who, having lost his home and wife in an Israeli missile strike, has likewise lost the spirit to sing. His brother Samy is an electrician who lost his ability to speak or hear in the same bombing. Deciding to emigrate to Canada, the two undertake various schemes to earn money, most notably renting out sound equipment from the back of an old, used ambulance which they purchased. Balancing the absurdities of West Bank life with a compassionate, humane and ironic – sometimes droll – script and sensibility, Rashid Masharawi has produced a touching and realistic film which doesn’t shy from awkward politics or from the complications of life in Ramallah. A film that makes its points and is served by a terrific cast, especially the actor Mahmud Abu-Jazi. A film, then, with something to say, and for me one of the best of the festival. It is a follow-up to his successful Laila’s Birthday.
A Wolf at the Door (Fernando Coimbra, 2013)
At long last, a Brazilian bunny boiler! Which to some extent gives the plot away. Learning that their six-year-old daughter has been picked up at school by an unknown woman, a distraught husband and wife, Bernardo and Sylvia, wait furtively at the police station for any news. During the course of their own questioning, Bernardo confesses to the detective that he thinks it may have been his lover, Rosa, who was responsible. When she calls him, Bernardo decides to take matters into his own hands, and meets with her in hopes of having his daughter returned. From here darkness descends upon this thriller, and the back stories and duplicitous nature of the protagonists are slowly revealed. As are the cruelty of humans and the lengths to which revenge can be taken. Suffice it to say that the Todorovian idea of narratives – equilibrium established, equilibrium disrupted, equilibrium restored – does not quite apply to this feature debut by Fernando Coimbra.
Watch a clip from A Wolf at the Door:
Brazilian Western (René Sampaio, 2013)
Another first feature from Brazil, René Sampaio’s gangster/thriller film is set in Brasilia, where the main character, Joao, comes from the wrong side of the racial tracks and the wrong side of the law – at the start of the film Joao kills the cop who killed his father. After doing his time for the crime he heads to the big city, where a relative is able to get him a job as a carpenter’s assistant, but he must also agree to do some moonlighting as a drug dealer. As he gets deeper and deeper into the morass of dealing, he encounters a beautiful, white architecture student whose father is a Senator. Cue racial tensions and fatherly disapproval, but also cue audience bewilderment as to quite why a privileged upper-class student would fall so completely and utterly for this convicted dealer, and risk everything – life and limb – to be with him. But as in the other Brazilian film, A Wolf at the Door, the unusual settings – in this case Oscar Niemeyer’s famous utopian architectural buildings standing in stark contrast to the shantytowns butted up against them – make for a more insightful exposition about crime, punishment and retribution in other cultural milieus.
Watch the trailer for Brazilian Western:
To the Wolf (Aran Hughes, Christina Koutsospyrou, 2013)
I wanted to report on this film as, for me, it was a year of seeing less-known national cinematic offerings, in this case a Greek/UK co-production set in rural Greece and featuring a large cast of goats. Extremely long takes and even longer static shots tell the tale of extreme marginal existence in contemporary Greece, where the peasantry is particularly hard hit by the economic crisis. A bleak film shot in drizzly rain conditions, and utilising local shepherds, it’s a quasi-documentary which doesn’t so much tell a story as it reveals a situation. Regrettably the audience doesn’t really get to know much about the characters – other than their menial existence and constant complaint – and so no real empathy evolves. Added to this is the fact that this film is not an example of slow cinema, or even slower cinema, but slowest cinema. The running time of 74 minutes felt considerably longer.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Marcel Ophüls, 2013)
In this autobiographical, self-directed film, the renowned documentary filmmaker, 85-year-old Marcel Ophüls, looks back on his life, talking with old friends and discussing a variety of clips from his films. And he has had quite a life – son of the great Max, he spent many years in Hollywood among the likes of Preston Sturges and Bertolt Brecht. Deciding to become a film director himself, he made first fiction films and then switched to documentaries, which is where he gained an international reputation with films such as The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Hotel Terminus (1988). The history that he has lived through and the remarkable people he has come into contact with make this a fascinating history piece, but it is the curious mix of this and his own accounts of life good and bad, lucky and unlucky, and his unsparing critique – and lauding – of himself that fascinates. The tales of his confrontations with war criminals and his often-appalling tales of how he has treated his wife make for an unflinching and wholly satisfactory self-portrait rich in detail, remembrance, humour and curmudgeonliness.
Watch the trailer for Ain’t Misbehavin’:
Le Week-end (Roger Michell, 2013)
This satisfying film written by Hanif Kureishi centres on two older characters who choose to return to the site of their honeymoon, Paris, after 30 long years of marriage. This city of romance and escape is not going to alter the emotional tensions and anxieties that fairly bleed between the two characters. But this film neither cow-tows to the recent trends in making older couples’ cinematic presence charming or cloying, but rather shows them as bickering, snappy, frustrated, yet still reliant on one another, and full of a curious kind of affection. It is a softer Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. As the sea between them rises and falls, they go through a weekend journey both comedic and serious.
The duo of Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan and their obvious acting chemistry brings out the best of Kureishi’s script, and Lindsay Duncan’s work in the film is particularly noteworthy and something of a revelation. During their flanerie about Paris they run into old school chum, Morgan, played by Jeff Goldblum. But Goldblum’s style of acting tends to subvert the delicate balance between pathos and comedy that has been established by Broadbent and Duncan, and this exaggerated and non-realistic performance from Goldblum throws the film a bit off-kilter. The climactic dinner scene is effective, if a bit predictable, but nevertheless, Le Week-End is a bitter-sweet confection, and the knowing nod to Godard at the end of the film is a subtle touch and makes for a satisfying conclusion.
James B. Evans