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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Gerald SchmitzDramatic highlights to watch for from Toronto festival

Away from the glitz and glamour there are a lot of cinematic riches to be savoured from the Toronto festival’s wide-ranging selections which include the North American premieres of a number of major competition titles from Cannes (though I was unable to see the critical favourites German Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann and Iranian Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman). Here are a dozen titles that impressed along with others that merit mention.

Frantz (France/Germany)

In a German town in the wake of the First World War a young woman, Anna (Paula Beer), grieving the death of her fiancé Frantz, a beloved only son, comes to know a mysterious stranger, a Frenchman named Adrien (Pierre Niney), who brings flowers to the grave. Why has he come? What was the young men’s relationship before and during the war — friends sharing a love of art? soldiers ordered to be enemies? Is there any truth or forgiveness that can console Anna and Frantz’s parents? This haunting story of wartime loss is realized to perfection by writer-director François Ozon who films mostly in sombre black and white with brief mood shifts into colour. For Anna the search for answers means finding the will to live after so much death.

L’Avenir (Things to Come, France/Germany)

The great Isabelle Huppert is superb in the role of Nathalie, a philosophy professor and older woman, in this sharply observed feature for which writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve won the best director prize at the Berlin film festival. Nathalie is in family and professional turmoil with a dotty mother, two children, and a husband who leaves her for a younger companion. An ex-communist who’s older and wiser, she’s friends with an anarchist former student and reluctant caretaker to a black cat named Pandora. Between endings and beginnings she is making her own way, whatever the future holds in a mixed-up world.

La Fille inconnue (The Unknown Girl, Belgium/France)

Veteran writer-directors the Dardenne brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre continue their mastery of social realist settings and small gestures with this story that revolves around a frontline doctor in a medical clinic in a poor neighbourhood of Liège who feels the weight of a terrible crime — the murder of an unknown working girl, an African immigrant, turned away while seeking help at the clinic’s door after hours. From being too hard on herself and those around her, Dr. Jenny Darvin (Adèle Haenel) undergoes a healing transformation through pursuing the truth and justice of this case.

Graduation (Romania)

Writer-director Cristian Mungiu was awarded the best director prize at Cannes for this story set in a society where no one trusts anyone or anything. Romeo is a doctor determined that his daughter Eliza succeed at graduation exams to get into the right school. A rock thrown through a window, an attempted sexual assault, Romeo’s infidelity and temptation to cheat — at what price is passing the test?

Paterson (U.S.)

In writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s quiet observational ode to the rhythms of small-town America, Adam Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver of Route 23 in Paterson, New Jersey, who scribbles poems in a notebook, content in a life of routine with his spirited wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their dog. Among his inspirations is the epic poem “Paterson” by William Carlos Williams. Out of the flow of the everyday, of small incidents and encounters, comes true cinematic poetry.

Loving (U.S.)

Writer-director Jeff Nichols brings to life the inspirational true story of the Lovings, a white man, Richard (Joel Edgerton), who marries a “coloured” woman, Mildred (Ruth Negga). In 1958 they are arrested and prosecuted for violating Virginia’s “anti-miscegenation” laws. After being forced to leave the state to avoid prison, their case is taken by civil liberties lawyers up to the Supreme Court resulting in a landmark ruling striking down such laws. Proof indeed that the love of ordinary people can make history.

The Bleeder (U.S.)

Philippe Falardeau is one of several Quebec directors who have moved on to make major American movies. (TIFF also showcased the big-budget sci-fi epic Arrival by Denis Villeneuve.) Here Falardeau tackles the hard luck story of boxer Chuck Wepner, nicknamed “the Bayonne bleeder,” whose 1970s claim to fame of lasting 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali inspired the “Rocky” mythology on screen. Liev Schreiber delivers a knockout performance as Wepner while Elizabeth Moss and Naomi Watts excel as the two most important women in his rocky personal life.

Death in Sarajevo (Bosnia Herzogovina/France)

On the centenary of the First World War, sparked by an assassination in Sarajevo, a spectre haunts Europe as witnessed through the multiple levels of the city’s troubled Hotel Europa where unpaid workers threaten to strike just as a large European Union delegation is due to arrive. Drawing on the play by Bernard-Henri Lévy, director Danis Tanovic was awarded the Berlin festival jury’s silver bear prize for this brilliant cinematic representation of a divided continent struggling with its past scars, present malaise and future fears.

La Fille de Brest (150 Milligrams, France)

Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen keeps expanding her repertoire since playing a female prime minister in the great Danish TV series Borgen. (Fluently multilingual, she has a role in the new HBO series Westworld.) Here she is terrific as the feisty lung specialist Irène Frachon who, alarmed by the deadly effects of a prescription drug on her patients, waged a real-life protracted crusade against its Big Pharma maker and defender notwithstanding the consequences, notably for her hospital’s embattled head of research, Antoine (Benoît Magimel), who leaves for Canada after losing his funding. Having some Breton ancestry, I also appreciated the story’s stubborn underlying tension as the regional underdogs take on the patronizing powers of Paris-based decision-makers. Smartly directed and co-written by Emmanuelle Bercot, a renowned actress in her own right.

Blue Jay (U.S.)

Alex Lehmann directs this unassuming gem produced by the Duplass brothers in partnership with Netflix. Jim (played by Mark Duplass who wrote the screenplay) is adrift when by chance he meets Amanda (Sarah Paulson), his high school girlfriend he hasn’t seen for over two decades. Both are back in their California mountain hometown — Jim dealing with the house left by his mother who has died; Amanda visiting a pregnant sister. Filmed in real time in black and white, with pitch-perfect performances, their encounter moves through stages of awkward to agonized reminiscence that, in surviving a release of raw recrimination, reach an existential acceptance of the other.

The Fixer (Romania/France)

In director Adrian Sitaru’s chilling exploration of a European underworld of human trafficking, the protagonist of the title is Radu Patru (Tudor Istodor), a trainee for a French news organization that produces a television program called “Mission Enquête.” As translator, camera guy and all-around Romanian problem “fixer,” Radu is under pressure to get the star investigative journalists what they want — exclusives from traumatized girls forced into prostitution who’ve been repatriated from France. The moral dilemmas he faces at work have a parallel at home in the demands he puts on his young son.

Burn Your Maps (U.S.)

This thoroughly engaging debut feature by writer-director Jordan Roberts revolves around eight-year-old Wes whose school project on Mongolia turns into fantasy that becomes reality. Wes’s parents, Alise (Vera Farmiga) and Connor (Martin Csokas), have been struggling to cope with the loss of a child. They are at a loss as to how to react when their son starts insisting he’s really a Mongolian goat herder and takes it to obsessive lengths. Wes, played by Canadian Jacob Tremblay who was so exceptional in last year’s Room, makes friends with an Indian immigrant, Ismail, who helps to realize his wish that becomes a family journey of discovery and healing in Mongolia (some of the stunning landscapes were actually filmed in Alberta’s Kananaskis country). Through their encounters, including with a “retired” nun, these seekers find themselves.

I might add that the “TIFF Kids” program included the excellent Sundance documentary The Eagle Huntress about a remarkable young Mongolian girl who breaks the gender barrier in learning from her father the tradition of hunting with eagles.

Briefly mentioned:

Cinema lost one of its greats with the death at age 90 of Poland’s Andrzej Wajda in early October. That he never lost his master touch is shown in his last film Afterimage which received its world premiere at TIFF. I was moved by this powerful biographical account of how renowned Polish revolutionary artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski, a double amputee from war injuries, was persecuted by the deadening imposition of Stalinist official ideology on Polish society.

Vikram Gandhi’s Barry looks back at the 20-year-old Barack Obama (Devon Terrell) during his junior year at New York’s Columbia University. (His white roommate is played by Ellar Coltrane, the boy in Linklater’s Boyhood.) I found it much more convincing than the gala feature, Rob Reiner’s LBJ, which focuses on the 1963-64 Kennedy to Johnson transitional period with Woody Harrelson in full bluster mode as the foul-mouthed Texan. The movie also suffers in comparison to HBO’s excellent All the Way, which featured Bryan Cranston in the presidential role.

James Franco takes heat from many critics for his prolific pursuits including adaptations of American literary classics. But he should earn respect for In Dubious Battle, based on the John Steinbeck novel about the Depression-era battles of oppressed California fruit pickers. It’s a stirring drama about the costs of fighting injustice in which Franco both directs and takes a lead role as a leftist union organizer.

Besides The Journey is the Destination, a coproduction with the U.K. and South Africa, only one Canadian film was a gala presentation — L.A.-based director Mark Williams’ The Headhunter’s Calling in which Welsh action star Gerard Butler plays Dane Jensen, the ruthless recruiting shark of the title who gets the cutthroat corporate culture turned on him when family crisis forces him to become a better man. (It’s a relief to see Butler sink his teeth into this after his role in the ridiculous Gods of Egypt.)

Finally a word about the last film I saw at TIFF, João Pedro Rodriguez’s The Ornithologist, which follows a wildly original, provocative and transgressive bird-seeking journey along a river in northern Portugal. There are allusions to Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Sebastian, an encounter with a pair of Chinese girls who’ve lost their pilgrim way to Santiago de Compostela, and much more and stranger. It’s this sort of daring challenging work that helps a festival fulfil its artistic calling.