Return to Toronto

The best laid plans . . . For my return to the Toronto International Film Festival I was not going to take any chances. I bought my pass early so I could see the films I wanted. This year, because of Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) I could not attend the entire festival. So I was determined to pack the most into my six days. No breaks -- five films a day every day. I laid out each day meticulously, so I could have time to move from one film to the other and grab a quick bite when needed.

As evening fell on my first day I was not quite hungry for dinner yet. No problem. My fourth film was at 9:15 and was only 90 minutes. Even allowing some time for a post-film Q&A, I would still have plenty of time to inhale some pizza before the midnight show. No problem. Except that the 9:15 show didn't start until 9:35, and then afterwards the director talked for what seemed like eternity. I barely got out by 11:30, rushed to the midnight show and was about ready to eat my own flesh.

Such is life at the festival. Actually, I was rather lucky. Waiting in line for one film, the guy next to me related how the festival computer system crashed that morning. Every show started late and the beleaguered staff were hand writing tickets. Even when the festival functions perfectly, there are still little quirks. One of them is "the next plate syndrome." You're at the restaurant and the food finally arrives. The dishes presented to your friends always look more tantalizing than what you ordered. Same thing here. You're in line and the woman behind you talks about the moving, brilliant film she just saw. Why didn't you pick that film instead?

But that's the whole point. With 345 films showing, two people could attend the whole festival and have entirely different experiences. You have little idea what you will get, and you need to appreciate it any way possible. I saw a few films that were rather unexciting as pure cinema. But these works offered glimpses of nations and cultures of which I knew little. Films provide a window into other ways of life in a way that few mediums can.

So when I returned to Toronto the surroundings were familiar. The festival rhythms and the lifestyle were familiar. But the films (with one exception) were new. The sense of anticipation and discovery remained fresh and vibrant. So once again, please indulge me as I share a little of my journey:

Day 1

The first day for me was actually the fourth day of the festival, so I went in full throttle. Two of the day's films were from directors whose earlier work I had enjoyed at Filmfest D.C. The Sea, from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavik) is a searing portrait of family secrets, anger and dysfunction. The story echoes King Lear. An aging founder of a fishing company prepares to hand over the reigns of his business as he struggles with his resentful grown children. Kormákur, who also co-wrote the film, skillfully weaves heavy drama with black comedy. The film also succeeds as an illustration of the changing Icelandic culture.

Lilya 4-Ever comes from Swedish director Lukas Moodysson, whose last effort, Together, was the closing film at the 2001 Filmfest D.C. Lilya 4-Ever is much bleaker than Together, but no less gripping. Lilya is a 13-year old girl abandoned by her mother in the Moscow slums. Life starts off rotten and gradually gets worse, as all those around her abuse or mistreat her, save for one true companion -- a 10-year old boy who also has no one. Moodysson primarily uses hand-held cameras, giving the film a documentary look and feel. The natural acting of the two young stars prevents the film from growing too melodramatic. A the same time the film gives you the time to get to know these characters, making their struggles much more heart-wrenching.

Day 2

Most film festivals include at least a couple of short film collections, which are almost always a mixed bag. I usually make a point to catch one of these series. My favorite from this group was Spring Chickens, an affectionate, funny, nostalgic baseball film. Spring Chickens hearkens back to the days where many towns had semipro baseball teams. The town loves its team and the team loves its star player. The problem is that he's at least 30 years past his prime and no one has the heart to tell him.

That night I saw Punch, a film ostensibly about women's boxing. Bit it was actually an heartfelt honest film about "emotional incest" between a damaged, overly controlled father and his hyper combative teenage daughter. After the daughter punches her father's date she eventually meets her match in a professional woman boxer. Punch balances the fury in some characters with the restraint in others, and powerfully examines violence as a means of expression.

Day 3

It's no insult to the many new films to declare that the festival's best offering was 66 years old. The Festival screened Charlie Chaplin's classic Modern Times followed by a discussion led by critic Leonard Maltin. Modern Times was a transitional film for Chaplin. He used sound for the first time but only sparingly. The Little Tramp does not speak, but he does sing. Chaplin also mixed social commentary with the comedy, which he would do much more with The Great Dictator, his next film and first full "talkie." Chaplin did everything -- writing, directing, acting, even the music. And he's in fine form. Modern Times sparkles with hilarious set pieces and sight gags (the assembly line, the feeding machine, etc.). But it really works because of the Tramp himself -- the combination of humor and pathos. You feel for him and pull for him while you're laughing. Truly timeless.

Took a 180 degree turn with The Crime of Father Amaro, an unflinching indictment of religious hypocrisy. Father Amaro is a young priest beginning his career in a small Mexican village. He begins an affair with a pretty schoolteacher, with disastrous consequences. Like Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, The Crime of Father Amaro asks real moral questions as it explores themes of guilt and justice. Why do bad things happen to good people while scoundrels can get away with their misdeeds? Some of the imagery will border on blasphemy to devout Catholics, which might inhibit American distribution. That would be a shame because the film's themes and questions go beyond any one religion.

I eagerly anticipated The Three Marias because it's the second film by Brazilian director Aluzío Abranches. His debut effort was A Glass of Rage, a warped, preposterous but strangely compelling look at sex and sexual politics. The Three Marias is very different but no less interesting. A strong-willed matriarch's husband and two sons are brutally murdered. She instructs her daughters, the three Marias, to each hire a specific man to avenge one of the murderers. Abranches gradually moves the film from a pulpy crime tale to an elegant, stylized, lyrical Shakespearean drama. He engages you visually through clever use of primary colors for the different characters. The story also measures up as it veers off in unexpected directions. In the end it's a revenge film about the futility of revenge.

Day 4

By far the strongest in overall quality. The highlights:

  • Le Marais (The Marsh) is based an on an original screenplay from first-time writer-director Kim Nguyen, but the film has the feel and texture of an Old Country folk tale. Two gypsies live in an Eastern European village during the early 19th Century. One of them is physically deformed. When one of the villagers goes missing, the gypsies quickly become primary suspects. As the film moves on secrets are revealed and prejudices grow. The characters talk of the devil, ghosts and other spirits. But the story is really about fear, hate and intolerance. Nguyen bolsters fine acting with polished direction. He uses the scenery and color for a foreboding atmosphere that completely fits the story.

  • Atlantic Drift is a powerful documentary about Jewish refugees from Germany who tried to escape to Palestine in 1941. The British intercepted their ship and interred them in Maritius until 1945. Atlantic Drift has little photography from the period it covers. It relies mostly on eyewitness testimony and a diary from one of the refugees. But that's enough for a compelling film. Through small details and anecdotes we get the big picture about the suffering the refugees endured. At one point the film follows a man born to a refugee who tries to find out what became of the father he never knew. The moment when he uncovers the tragic truth is as heartbreaking as you'll see in any feature film.

  • Like Memento, Novo tells of a man with limited short-term memory. But that's where the similarities end. Here, the hero has no quest and no goal. In fact, he's quite enjoying life. The frustration is with people around him. Director Jean-Pierre Limosin keeps the film light in both tone and color. The film gets laughs in that breezy whimsical way that we expect from French comedies. Novo can be dazzling and baffling, but it's always playfully entertaining.

  • Alive was the cream of the festival's famed "Midnight Madness" series. Most of the Asian Midnight Madness films are fast-paced ultra-hip sci-fi or horror flicks featuring exaggerated martial arts, John Woo-style gunplay or severe gore. That's fine and fun, but there's often not much else. Alive has something more. This Japanese sci-fi film actually has an involving story that could stand on its own merits. Scientists take a condemned killer from death row to participate in a top-secret experiment. He's placed in a cell with another killer and are both manipulated by the scientists. The two killers fight for a young girl but there's more in store for the "winner" than either can imagine. Alive gradually builds to the fight scenes making them more meaningful and thrilling. Everything about the film is brilliantly designed and executed, from the sets to the characters to the story to the action. I don't know whether Alive was based on a comic book, but it's everything a comic book movie should be. Memo to any studio executive -- Find Alive director Ryuhei Kitamura and hire him now.

    Day 5

    Admittedly I'm a sucker for films about films. But I was especially taken with A l'Attaque!, a clever French comedy that is about the creative process as much as anything else. Two writers banter and bicker as they try to develop a screenplay. As they work the audience sees the film they write. The film-within-a film vacillates between a drama about a working class family's struggle to make ends meet and a romantic farce. The fun comes in seeing the story move in different directions as the writers trade ideas, create scenes, and in some cases, remove the scenes and start over.

    Day 6

    The last day featured two diametrically different films in subject, tone and construction. Yet each succeeded in its own way. Irréversible gained international notoriety at the Cannes film festival due mostly to a long, brutal rape scene. Many reports focused exclusively on that scene and ignored the rest of the film. That's a mistake. Writer-director Gaspar Noë tells the his story backwards, beginning with a violent attempt to avenge the rape. Noë forces you to watch the rape, holding the camera and your attention in place. But the most interesting and heartrending aspects are what happen before the rape in time and after the rape in the film. If only this or that had happened differently the tragedy could have been avoided. You get to know the characters better and the sadness grows because you know what will occur. Noë uses his camera to reflect the action, constantly moving it at the beginning and slowing down as the film moves to the tranquil early events. The film serves as a riveting reflection on time, fate, cruelty and violence.

    From a different side of the world both physically and cinematically comes The Exam from Iranian director Nasser Refaie. While Noë uses broad strokes, Refaie uses small touches. His film takes place in real time and follows many different women in the minutes before a college entrance exam. The Exam in some ways resembles Richard Linklatter's Slacker. Refaie uses camera like a casual eavesdropper, spending a few minutes with a woman, or group of women, and then moving on to the next. We see one woman waiting for her husband to pick up their baby. Another woman whose husband tries to stop her from taking the exam, and a mother trying to scout potential brides for her son. Refaie gives us glimpses not only into the characters, but also Iranian culture. These women are trying to better themselves in a society that limits their roles. At the same time the film illustrates how these group of students are like any other -- bickering, gossiping, and worrying about their test. Coordinating all the different characters must have been difficult, but you would never know it. Everything feels simple and natural, from the acting to the camera work.

    At last year's festival I fell in love with a few films. That did not happen this time, but I saw many that I enjoyed and admired. As always, the festival displayed unique cinematic stylings and points-of-view while also demonstrating common aspects to films from around the world. This was my third time in Toronto and I have met people who have come to the festival for several years in a row. Now I understand why.

    Adam Spector
    October 18, 2002

    Festival Favorites

    Below is a list of my top ten films from the 27th Toronto International Film Festival. Most of these I described earlier.

    1. Alive (2002), Japan -- directed by Ryuhei Kitamura
    2. The Exam (2002), Iran -- directed by Nasser Refaie
    3. Le Marais (2002), Canada -- directed by Kim Nguyen
    4. Irréversible (2002), France -- directed by Gaspar Noë
    5. Lilya 4-ever (2002), Sweden -- directed by Lukas Moodysson
    6. The Sea (2002), Iceland/France/Norway -- directed by Baltasar Kormákur
    7. A l'Attaque! (1999), France -- directed by Robert Guédiguian
    8. Novo (2002), France/Spain/Switzerland -- directed by Jean Pierre Limosin
    9. The Three Marias (2001), Brazil/Italy -- directed by Aluzío Abranches
    10. The Crime of Father Amaro (2002), Mexico/Spain/Argentina/France -- directed by Carlos Carrera

    Of these, Irréversible is the only film that I know will receive U.S. distribution.

    Special Commendation

    Modern Times (1936), U.S.A. -- directed by Charles Chaplin

    A new double-disc DVD of Modern Times is scheduled to be released next year, along with other Chaplin classics.

    Other recommendations

    • Aiki (2002), Japan -- directed by Daisuke Tengan
    • Atlantic Drift (2001), Austria/France -- directed by Michel Daëron
    • Benzina (2001), Italy -- directed by Monica Stambrini
    • The Eye (2002), Hong Kong/Thailand/United Kingdom -- directed by Oxide and Danny Pang
    • The Nugget (2002), Australia -- directed by Bill Bennett
    • Punch (2002), Canada -- directed by Guy Bennett
    • Spider (2002), Canada/United Kingdom/France -- directed by David Cronenberg
    • Spring Chickens (2002), Canada -- directed by Matthew Holm
    • A Tale of a Naughty Girl (2002), India -- directed by Buddhadeb Dasgupta
    • Volcano High (2002), South Korea -- directed by Kim Tae-kyun

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