By Gerald Schmitz

Dramatic features from Toronto festival deserve notice

Some of the highly touted premieres at TIFF fell rather flat. For example, the opening night gala, David Dobkin’s The Judge, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, could only muster tepid to negative reviews. The closing night gala, Alan Rickman’s A Little Chaos, starring Rickman and Kate Winslet, fared only slightly better.

Fortunately TIFF’s rich menu offered so much more. Among the lesser-known gems are the five contemporary world cinema dramas which featured extended post-screening discussions including an expert from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country (Australia) is an extraordinary look at the dysfunction of Aboriginal culture in a white man’s world. Set in Australia’s northern territory, Aboriginal elder Charlie exemplifies these ills, including poverty, addictions and imprisonment, but never gives up his search for dignity in the land of his ancestors. In the role of Charlie, for which he won an acting award at Cannes, David Gulpilil (Ten Canoes, The Tracker) was able to draw on some of his own personal struggles. (Photo of de Heer by G. Schmitz)

Sepideh Farsi’s Red Rose (Iran/France/Greece) is set amid the huge popular protests of June 2009 in Tehran over the regime’s rigging of presidential elections. Chased by security forces a group of young activists ends up in the apartment of older man Ali, a writer who has become an apolitical skeptic.

He allows a young woman to come and go, using his computer to upload video of the demonstrations and their brutal repression to Twitter and other social media. The movie mixes actual footage from the streets with the relationship that develops between them until the crackdown destroys their private cocoon, ushering in a dark era that continues.

Less overtly political but no less acutely observed is Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Tales (Iran) which follows the daily trials of a series of ordinary Iranians dealing with indifferent bureaucracy, crime, layoffs and unfair work practices, gender discrimination, domestic violence — the common injustices that human dignity demands be resisted. The sharp-edged dialogues among the characters earned a screenplay award at the Venice festival.

I should also mention another emotionally resonant Iranian film, Reza Mirkarimi’s Today, about a middle-aged taxi driver in Tehran who picks up a young woman desperate to be taken to a hospital. She shows signs of abuse and turns out to be pregnant. The driver’s compassion for this stranger in distress will go far beyond the ordinary.

Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Israel/France/Germany), takes place almost entirely in an Orthodox Jewish courtroom where years-long divorce proceedings drag on. Although the couple are separated and totally incompatible, Viviane’s vindictive ultra-religious husband takes advantage of a patriarchal rabbinical process to refuse the divorce and effectively put her on trial. It’s enough to make one’s blood boil.

I found Christian Zübert’s Tour de Force (Germany) to be anything but because it never digs deeply into the philosophical, moral or religious dimensions of doctor-assisted suicide. A young man, Hannes, diagnosed with ALS, a terminal degenerative disease, convinces his wife and group of friends to accompany him on a bicycle trip to Belgium that turns out to be his one-way journey to a lethal injection. Although Hannes shows few signs of suffering or disability, the director’s pro-euthanasia agenda clearly wants us to embrace his decision as a sad but dignified exit. Still, the film stirs up important questions about a subject that is being increasingly debated.


On the Canadian side of things, I’ve already mentioned my disappointment with Denys Arcand’s uninspired An Eye for Beauty. But Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, selected as Canada’s entry in the Oscar foreign-language competition, reinforces his reputation as a precocious innovator (also actor, appearing in Charles Binamé’s Elephant Song). Filmed mostly in a square frame, it’s an audacious near-future triangle among brassy single mom Diane (Anne Dorval), her uncontrollable delinquent son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and neurotic neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clement), overflowing with melodramatic histrionics, rapidfire trash-talk and stylistic flourishes. Less watchable is Jean Rodrigue’s Love in the Time of Civil War, an extremely dark and depressing look at the life of junkies and hustlers on Montreal’s wintry mean streets. It puts Alexandre Landry in a role totally opposite to that of last year’s Gabrielle. The Valley Below, a first feature by Kyle Thomas, is a series of downbeat vignettes set in the badlands around Drumheller, Alta. Despite a number of weaknesses it shows some promise. More assured is Ruba Nadda’s suspense thriller October Gale which features a powerful performance from Patricia Clarkson as a widowed doctor facing mortal danger on a remote Ontario island.

Besides Dolan, Quebec directors created the most buzz with American productions. I’ve mentioned Reese Witherspoon’s punishing solo performance in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed, a Minnesota woman who undertook an epic west-coat hike as a way of conquering her addictions and life crises. The movie has its moments, if not up to Vallée’s acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club. Witherspoon has a smaller role as a Kansas City employment counsellor faced with finding jobs for three Sudanese refugees in Philippe Falardeau’s The Good Lie. The refugees are among the “lost boys” (and girls) who were survivors of terrible civil war in southern Sudan, the lucky ones relocated to western countries after many years in a Kenyan camp. The young men, and a sister from whom they are separated, are all played by actual Sudanese refugees, including the noted musician Emmanuel Jal (subject of the 2008 documentary War Child). It’s a compelling story that moves from the ravages of conflict to the challenges of adjusting to a radically different life.

Some other noteworthy features include the following:

Dearest (China/Hong Kong) — a searing narrative, based on true stories, of child abduction and a father’s determination to find his stolen son.

Narrow Frame of Midnight (Morocco/U.K./France) — Tala Hadid’s unsettling drama links a writer of Moroccan-Iraqi origin, searching for a lost brother caught up in Islamist radicalism, with an orphan girl escaping the clutches of child traffickers.

The Great Man (France) — Jérémie Renier gives a strong performance as a veteran of the Afghan war in Sarah Leonor’s taut story about the bond between two members of the French Foreign Legion, one of whom is a Chechen whose relatives are living illegally in France. Renier’s character faces a life-changing choice when the young son of his comrade is orphaned.

The Search (France) — Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) delivers a deeply disturbing story set amid the Chechen war of the late 1990s and atrocities committed by Russian soldiers, many forced into the army. Bérénice Béjo plays a human rights worker who grows attached to an orphaned Chechen boy traumatized into silence.

The Gate (France/Belgium/Cambodia) — Régis Wargnier tells the gripping true story of French archeologist François Bizot who survived captivity by Khmer Rouge forces during their genocidal campaign thanks to an unusual relationship with a Khmer commander who ordered hundreds of others killed.

Good Kill (U.S.) — Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) plays a former fighter pilot who now sits at the controls of a computerized console directing lethal drone attacks against foreign insurgents from a nondescript bunker in the Nevada desert. Increasingly unhappy at home and bothered by his role in the “collateral damage” of blowing up civilian bystanders, he goes rogue in Andrew Niccol’s timely drama.

The Sound and the Fury (U.S.) — Prolific polymath James Franco directs and acts in this attempted adaptation of the William Faulkner novel about a doomed family of the old South. Franco is a polarizing figure who attracts criticism but I admired this effort.

The Keeping Room (U.S.) — Daniel Barber directs this harrowing Civil War tale of three young women, including a black slave, who, left alone in the dying days of the Confederacy, must fend off the encroaching menace of marauding soldiers and the advancing Union army if they are to survive.

Ned Rifle (U.S.) — unconventional director Hal Hartley doesn’t disappoint with this offbeat conclusion to a trilogy centred on the characters of Henry Fool and Fay Grim. Their offspring, the titular Ned Rifle, raised a devout Christian by a foster parent and pastor, has some decidedly un-Christian issues to sort out with both of them. The script sparkles.

A few more American films are a cut above the Hollywood average. Michaël Roskam’s The Drop, set in Brooklyn underworld, will be remembered for James Gandolfini’s last role and a fine performance by Tom Hardy. Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes is an overly melodramatic take on the cutthroat casualties of Florida’s housing foreclosure crisis, but Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield excel as the real-estate predator and his prey turned accomplice. In Philip Martin’s The Forger, John Travolta holds his own as a father sucked into a criminal enterprise to save his teenage son, and Canadian Christopher Plummer basks in the role of the crusty grandpa. Actor Paul Bettany makes a promising directorial debut with Shelter about the affecting relationship that develops between a homeless man and woman on the streets of New York.

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