The Best of World Cinema at the TIFF

in 34th Toronto International Film Festival

by Jorge Gutman

From all perspectives, the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has once again proven to be the most important cinematic event after Cannes.  Ten days of intense moviegoing, allow me to confirm that there is no truth to the idea that the TIFF is only a Hollywood showcase.   No doubt that the big studios benefit from the special visibility that their movies garnered in the Gala Presentation section by becoming a launch pad for the award season.  However, and judging this 34th edition, the festival’s programming included so much more than just Hollywood pictures or popcorn movies.  The Discovery selection, for example, showcased a considerable number of first-time directors from around the world, while the Contemporary World Cinema section presented a considerable amount of unheralded titles where many of them may be considered cinéma d’auteur.   Noteworthy international documentaries were screened in the Real to Reel section, though the viewer interested in a more radical and vanguardist cinema could have his choices satisfied at Vanguard and Visions sidebars.  No less important is the fact that a slew of new generation Canadian directors could introduce their first works in Canada First.  Last but not least, the TIFF’s Masters and Special Presentations sections screened some of the best movies from Sundance, Berlin Cannes, Telluride and Venice Festivals, as well as some titles (for example, Atom Egoyan’s Cloe, Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child, François Ozon’s The Refuge) which is currently shown in the official competition of San Sebastian Film Festival (17-26 September).

Now, a brief commentary on some of the movies that impressed me most. In Jacques Audiard’s fascinating French film A PROPHET (UN PROPHETE), first time actor Tahar Rahim plays an insecure 19 year-old illiterate Arab convicted to six years of imprisonment. In jail he is forced to seek protection from a Corsican mafia gang leader in exchange of “special services.” His prison term over, the conditions of his newfound liberty allow him to lead and run his own band of delinquents. With incredible precision, Audiard delivers an outstanding prison drama in which the pervading violence, racial tension, and general machismo inside bars are not very different from those afflicting the outside world.

Another film to admire is THE WHITE RIBBON (DAS WEISSE BAND) from the provocative Austrian author Michael Haneke.  Its absorbing story takes place in a Northern rural village in Germany, shortly before World War I breaks out.  Various strange occurrences interrupt the daily grind of the community causing unexpected misfortunes.  Slowly, incrementally, a subtle evil poisons the village people’s souls,   except for the children who wear a white ribbon as a symbol of purity.  Christian Berger’s excellent black and white photography intensifies the story, where religious fanaticism and emotional repression sow the seeds of latent violence and infuse the movie with a sadistic cruelty.

More cerebral and less emotional than Volver, his previous film, Pedro Almodóvar returns with BROKEN EMBRACES (LOS ABRAZOS ROTOS).  Here, the viewer is plunged into a complex web of passion and remains riveted throughout.  With the excellent casting of Luis Homar, Penélope Cruz, Blanca Portillo, and José Luis Gómez, as well as an impeccable visual style, Almodóvar weaves a romantic melodrama with various subplots, creating an atmosphere of intrigue, jealousy and treachery that culminates in the purest film noir by emphasizing moral ambiguity and sexual motivation.  This is another Almodóvar remarkable film in which the Spanish maestro pays homage to Italian cinema by using some extracts from Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (Viaggo in Italia) to draw comparisons between the lovers of the latter movie and those of his present work. 

The veteran Canadian director Bernard Émond returns to Toronto with THE LEGACY (LA DONATION), a movie about a man who practices the medical profession with dedication and love. With the human focus that characterizes his filmography, Émond introduces us to Yves Rainville, an old doctor who has dedicated forty years of his life as the much-appreciated physician in a minor forgotten town in Northern Quebec. In need of leave himself, he discovers in Dr. Jeanne Dion the ideal person to look after his patients. This middle-aged woman accepts the position as a welcome relief from that impersonal style of medicine practiced in the city, in order to engage in a more personal contact with the sick people of the small community. With each patient, she becomes  emotionally involved and begins to have doubts as to the possibilities of sticking to the job for a prolonged period of time. Élise Guilbault is to be commended for her character portrayal as one who feels each case intensely while maintaining a reserved countenance. No less commendable is Jacques Godin’s portrayal of the sickly old doctor who must confront his own mortality. Somewhat unhurried but never slow, this movie transmits interior peace and a backdrop of spirituality like few movies in today’s world are capable of.

Juan José Campanella, one of the Argentine directors most inclined to churning out popular and sentimental movies, though of great quality, employs the thriller genre with excellent results in THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS). The uniquely detailed plot is based on a novel written by Eduardo Sacheri who is also the co-scripter along with Campanella. It is rather difficult to sum up all the twists and turns, but it suffices to say that everything revolves around a recently-retired employee of a criminal court who decides to write a novel dramatizing a singular case of thirty years ago about a teacher’s rape and murder in which he had to be involved. In an intense atmosphere of tension, the past is revived by resuscitating this old court case and the wounds and scars of a love that has apparently not healed. The Secret in Their Eyes, which is captivating from beginning to end, has a wonderful script, a masterful acting by Ricardo Darín -the best Argentine actor of his generation-, and an assured directorial command leading to a first-rate movie. Further, Campanella demonstrates that it is possible to create a film that caters both, to the selective moviegoer as well as to a broad audience.

In Corneliu Porumboiu’s POLICE, ADJECTIVE (POLITIST, ADJECTIVE), marijuana smokers are imprisoned for seven years, though the law is about to be changed. Faced with the prospect of ruining a young adolescent’s life for this very transgression, a police detective (Dragos Bucur) in a small provincial Romanian town chooses to withhold the charge. The film is full of ingenious dialogues generated from the ethical dilemma and scruples that inhibit this cop to properly comply with his duties. An insightful and powerful conclusion demonstrates the difference between words and their true meaning. Awarded with the Caméra d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival for his opera prima 12:08 East of Bucharest, this second feature confirms Porumboiu’s maturity as a gifted filmmaker, as well as the growing importance of the new Romanian cinema.

Though the script for FATHER OF MY CHILDREN (LE PÈRE DE MES ENFANTS), written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love, has all the makings of a tearful melodrama, the movie steers clear of any excess or pettiness, resulting in a realistic drama. The movie centers around a film producer (Louis-Do De Lencquesaing), who enraptured by his work, loses sight of the true elements of life already within his grasp. An irresolvable mounting financial debt seals his fate, in which he makes a dramatic decision that submits his adorable family, devoted wife (Ciara Caselli) and three lovely children (Alice De Lencquesaing, Alice Gautier, Manelle Driss), to pain and suffering. The sensible director has succeeded in producing a profoundly moving film on a relevant subject: the opportunity cost of work on family life. One is forced to reflect how this type of alienation can grab hold of a human being and lead him to self-destruction. 

In VINCERE, Marco Bellocchio tells the story of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), Mussolini’s secret lover (Filippo Timi) from a period prior to becoming Duce, with whom he had a son, shortly before abandoning them both. Mezzogiorno offers a solid performance as the neglected wife who, upon discovering her husband’s marriage to another woman, makes a point of striving to prove herself as the legitimate spouse and mother to Mussolini’s eldest son, to the point of becoming mentally unstable. The dramatization of this relatively unknown Mussolini episode is impeccably illustrated by the Italian director who incorporated relevant archive material to turn the story more authentic.

Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig makes inroads in British cinema with AN EDUCATION, a film that tackles the delicate topic of romance between a 16-year old student (Carey Mulligan) and an attractive and amiable man (Peter Sarsgaard) twice her age. The bond between the two protagonists will eventually influence her decision to pursue her studies at Oxford University. Nick Hornby’s painstaking script transports the audience to life in 1961 suburban London, illustrating middle and high-class behavior, not exempt from prejudice and racism, as well as an in-depth look at the educational system of the time. Scherfig captures with flair a captivating story that chronicles the maturing adolescent in the midst of a cultural transition in 1960’s Great Britain. Mulligan and Sarsgaard pull off powerful performances as the film’s main protagonists and also well-deserving of praise are Alfred Molina and Emma Thompson in supporting roles.

SAMSON & DELILAH  is the first written and directed movie by Warwick Thornton, who also handled photography. Filmed in documentary style, the director relates a teen romance between two aboriginals (Rowan McNamara, Marissa Gibson) living in the vast deserts of Australia. Thornton succeeds in narrating a minimalist plot, achieved with sparse dialogue and the bare necessities in terms of information, in which he exposes in the most natural way the cultural characteristics of the native Australians, their lifestyle, and the problems they encounter.

I KILLED MY MOTHER (J’AI TUÉ MA MÈRE) marks the directorial debut of Xavier Dolan, who also wrote the script and cast himself as the main protagonist. Aside from his obvious directorial talents, the 20-year old Canadian, who so far counted with no prior cinematic experience, garnered instant stardom when his work was selected in the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight (Quinzaine des Réalisateurs) at Cannes 2009 and was subsequently awarded with three prizes. Bordering on the autobiographical, the story describes Hubert’s (Dolan) existential anguish, a 16-year old gay adolescent mired in a constant conflictive struggle with his single mother Chantale (Anne Dorval). Though this first effort does not reach perfection, the film nonetheless proves to be unique for the crude and dramatic intensity woven into the complex mother-and-son relationship, the brilliancy of its dialogues, its bitter humor and excellent performance of Dorval, well seconded by Dolan. From what we have seen, there are many reasons to expect greater projects to come from this young filmmaker.

In HUACHO,  the Chilean director Alejandro Fernández Almendras shows a startling maturity in his first  feature, portraying in neo-realistic style a middle-aged peasant family (Cornelio Villagrán, Clemira Aguayo), their daughter (Alejandra Yáñez) and her 12 year-old son (Manuel Hernández) living around the region of Chillán in Southern Chile. In a characterization that mirrors life itself, the remarkable script steers the focus of each of his four characters’ experiences throughout a long single day by the end of the summer. The director attempts to portray the routine country life and its ties to traditional values, creating a sharp contrast with the noisy and frenetic pace of the city nearby. Written in a context reflecting social inequality and injustice of the country folk, the director tries to demonstrate the dignity and respect his central characters deserve. The sharp camera work of Fernández Almendras captures his characters free from any judgment, leaving it instead up to the audience to formulate its own opinion. Between a documentary and a work of fiction, this true and human touch is another example of the very best in Chilean cinema.

Jorge Gutman received his first cinema lessons from the late great Argentine filmmaker Leopoldo Torre Nilson. Based on Quebec since 1976, he became a movie critic working for the Canadian newspaper El Popular and for CKUT 90.3 FM Latin Time where he reviews weekly movies and other cultural activities in Montreal. He is an active member of the Quebec Movie Critic Association (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma) and participated as member of the Jury-FIPRESCI in some local and international festivals, including Cannes Film Festival.

Edited by: Steven Yates