Heavyweight People

in 38th Toronto International Film Festival

by John Anderson

Fat was a theme in several of the festival’s Discovery films at the Toronto International Film Festival. Yes, fat: The shall-we-say generously proportioned were having a moment in the autumnal sun, where the subject of heavyweight people was sort of blowing up in a medium that ordinarily promotes the idea that eating is sinning, and that any worthwhile woman can be outweighed by her handbag.

Men always have it easier, of course, even though the late James Gandolfini took some heat about his tonnage in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said — he wildly successful (in the US) dramedy about middle-age romance, empty-nesters and the character Albert’s failure to lose weight. This has led to the breakup of his marriage to Marianne (Catherine Keener), and becomes an issue during his courtship of Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and it feels odd but right that the issue is confronted so bluntly.

Holofcener had nothing, however, on debuting writer-director Mark Phinney and the Discovery film Fat, which features a startlingly courageous performance by the actor Mel Rodriguez, and is as frank a portrait of morbid obesity as has ever been brought to the screen. Rodriguez plays it very straight about the obsessive eater — the self-loathing, the addiction, the regret, the hopelessness — and while the whole thing is a bit relentless, it’s a brave, brave movie.

Far more gentle, and palatable, was Mexican director Mariana Chenillo’s Paradise (Paraiso), about a happily married chubby couple, Carmen and Alfredo, who have good sex, eat whatever they want and enjoy a kind of corpulent suburban Eden until they move to Mexico City, where Carmen overhears Alfredo’s female co-workers making fun of them, and decides to lose weight. When she drags Alfredo to the diet center, however, it’s he who slims down, buys new clothes, and starts attracting admiring female glances. The marriage goes into diabetic shock.

Oddly enough, or maybe not, Ulrich Seidl’s latest is also called Paradise, albeit in German. Paradies: Hoffnung (Paradise: Hope). It follows his Paradise: Love about overweight white women looking for love on the beaches of Kenya. In Hope, Melanie (Melanie Lenz), the plus-size daughter of Paradise: Love’s Teresa, is sent by her mother to a diet camp in the farlflung Austrian countryside, where she struggles with food and develops a crush on a 40-year-old doctor.

Seidl is a master of the overripe observation and there’s plenty to observe — and to think about, regarding body image, western culture’s unrealistic standards of beauty, and our skewed perception of “normal”. It may be a sign of increased mental health, though, that these directors were making the issue such a central one.

TIFF offered no shortage of Hollywood gloss, and seemed overly obsessed with sponsorship and ticket sales, but now and then something would materialize to give one hope for the First World’s appreciation of Third World cinema. A particularly auspicious debut was by Costa Rican director Neto Villalobos and his All About the Feathers (Por Las Plumas) which has such a measured, assured and consistent feel for time, space and the rhythms of life that it was transporting. It also had some terrific performances, even by the chickens.

Edited by Leslie James