Mimi Brody, Film Curator at Block Cinema, reports back on the Toronto International Film Festival
Last week I returned from the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the most important annual film events of the year and a major showcase for new contemporary international cinema. I spent a week at the Festival and saw 38 programs, but only scratched the surface of the festival’s offerings: this year the festival included over 380 films from 78 countries. Below are selected highlights and comments on the films I saw.
My festival viewing commenced with Winter Sleep, the latest film from Turkish master, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The film is an engrossing look at a middle-aged writer and intellectual and his tenuous relationships with his much younger wife, his caustic sister, and his resentful tenants. Over 3 hours in length and consisting mostly of long takes and lengthy conversations, Winter Sleep is nonetheless a thoroughly engaging meditation on class, missed opportunities, and personal and professional longing. It won the Palme d’Or earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival.
One of the standout films of the festival for me was Austrian director Jessica Hauser’s Amour Fou, a brilliantly scripted and crafted story of a happily married socialite in early 19th century Berlin who suddenly begins questioning everything after she meets a morose young poet. With its delectable dark humor and pitch perfect performances, Amour Fou is an unforgettable cautionary tale about desire and delusion.
Another highlight was Hill of Freedom, the latest from Korean auteur (and former SAIC grad), Hong Sang-soo. Hong’s films of late have offered patently self-reflexive portraits of professors or filmmakers and their awkward relationships with various women. His latest feature follows a Japanese man who returns to Korea to find a long lost love, but instead finds a new romantic entanglement. At a breezy 66 minutes, Hill of Freedom is one of Hong’s best works in years; it’s an extremely funny fish-out-of-water tale which includes plenty of the director’s trademark non-sequiturs, drunken escapades, and men behaving badly.
From the Festival’s stellar Wavelengths section (which offers both experimental and daring narrative works) I saw several features, including La Sapienza, the latest from French filmmaker and American ex-patriot Eugène Green. The story concerns a French architect who travels with his wife to Italy to study the 17th century buildings of Borromini. While in Italy the couple befriends a pair of inseparable teenage siblings and the quartet have a profound effect on one other. While still retaining the meticulous mannered style Green is known for, La Sapienza is also one of the more accessible works of the director’s oeuvre, and is a beautifully photographed celebration of art, love, and life.
Also from the Wavelengths section and a film I had been eagerly anticipating was Horse Money by acclaimed Portuguese director, Pedro Costa (Colossal Youth). Costa’s latest work is a rigorous meditation on the underclasses in contemporary Lisbon, specifically immigrants from Cape Verde. It stars Costa regular, Ventura, as a patient at an ambiguous institution whose waking dreams overtake him, and also features a striking performance by newcomer Vitalina Varela (like Ventura, a non-professional actor) as a fellow patient who is haunted by war and loss. Costa, who was present for a Q&A, was fresh from a screening of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in the adjacent theater (part of the TIFF Cinematheque classics sidebar). Costa mentioned his admiration for Ford, whose films he said were not simply focused on narrative, but on moments and mood.
Another South American auteur known for his singular work with non-professional actors is Argentine director Lisandro Alonso (whose films have screened at Block). His latest, Jauja, is the director’s first period film and one with a professional cast. It stars Viggo Mortensen as a Danish officer (and single father) sent to survey indigenous lands in Patagonia. When his beloved 15-year-old daughter, Ingebord, goes missing, his search for her becomes a surreal and at times sublime journey that pushes the boundaries of the Western genre. Alonso and Mortensen were on hand for what proved to be one of the most entertaining Q&As of the festival (their affection for each other was clearly evident) and the pair shared anecdotes about their working relationship, including Alonso’s admission that Mortensen trained him on how to work with professionals. Jauja was also Mortensen’s first speaking part in Danish (the tri-lingual Mortensen grew up speaking Danish, English, and Spanish and lived in Argentina until he was ten). A favorite of critics and curators, Jauja has been picked up by the discriminating and adventurous New York-based distributor, Cinema Guild.
A must-see on my viewing list was Pasolini, directed by the inimitable Abel Ferrara and starring Willem Dafoe (a brilliant stroke of casting). What I assumed would be a guilty pleasure was much more–an impressive and thoughtful imagining of the last day in the life of this fascinating figure–filmmaker, poet, artist, author, gay man, and leftist intellectual whose murder was pinned on a male prostitute, though conspiracy theories abound. The scenes of Pasolini’s final day were interspersed with a fictionalized interview inspired by his writings, as well as jaw-dropping scenes shot by Ferrara interpreting the director’s last unfinished script. Beautifully shot, intelligent and erotically charged, the film is not without flaws, though I would eschew the common complaint that the film does not deliver as a traditional or satisfying biopic–the fact that it strays from this familiar trope is, for me, one of its strengths.
Also based on a true story was comedian Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, Rosewater, about an Iranian journalist who had been featured on a Daily Show segment and was soon-after imprisoned and interrogated by the Iranian authorities. Prior to seeing the film I wrote a short piece for the Chicago Reader as part of their fall film preview. After viewing Rosewater I agree with the majority of critics who reviewed it favorably; it was well-crafted, and its star, Gabriel García Bernal, puts in a commendable performance, but one wonders whether Stewart couldn’t have found an Iranian or a Middle Eastern actor to play the part. No doubt they would relish the (unfortunately rare) opportunity for a positive lead role in a high-profile American film.
Two narrative features made by Iranian women included Red Rose, by Paris-based ex-patriot Sepideh Farsi, about the encounter during the 2009 Green Revolution between a young woman protester and an older man whose apartment she takes cover in. While conceptually interesting, the film was heavy-handed in parts and could have benefited from greater character development. A more convincing snapshot of contemporary Tehran is Tales, the latest from acclaimed Iranian filmmaker, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. Tales is comprised of several vignettes which focus on various men and women grappling with issues of addiction, abuse, illiteracy, the frustrations of dealing with government bureaucracy, and the intricacies of flirting. Though it tackles many dark themes, Tales is not without humor, but is also somewhat uneven (certain segments are stronger than others) however, it remains a thought-provoking portrait of modern Iran.
Documentaries featured prominently in the festival. Of the non-fiction offerings, I was able to see the latest film by Ukrainian filmmaker, Sergei Loznitsa, whose film, My Joy screened at Block in 2012. The riveting Maidan, named after the protest movement itself is made up entirely of verité footage of the historic and incendiary protests which took place in Kiev’s Independence Square in early 2014 that ultimately ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. It’s a timely subject, though so much has happened in the Ukraine in the past six months that presumably Loznitsa will continue to chronicle the developments in his homeland.
I was happy to catch the world premiere screening of The Yes Men are Revolting, the latest from the titular political pranksters. The third film focusing on “The Yes Men” was co-directed with filmmaker and producer Laura Nix (who came to Block in 2012 with The Light in Her Eyes a documentary about a religious school for girls in Damascus prior to the Syrian civil war). The Yes Men are Revolting includes footage of the brilliant and hilarious stunts the pair is known for which expose corporate greed and reckless environmental practices. But this latest portrait also delves deeper by offering a more intimate portrait of its subjects’ lives, loves, struggles and their sometimes complicated working relationship.
Provocateur and prolific British documentarian Nick Broomfield’s latest is Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which finds the helmer investigating the case of alleged serial murderer Lonnie Franklin, the primary suspect in the case of the so-called Grim Sleeper, whose killing spree in South Los Angeles spanned an incredible 25 years and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of women, most of them African-American and down on their luck. Broomfield questions the notorious mishandling of the case by the LAPD, whose indifference (or worse) may have allowed the killings to continue for so long.
Also in the TIFF Docs section was The Look of Silence, by Joshua Oppenheimer, whose much-discussed 2013 film, The Act of Killing, screened at Northwestern last year with the director in person. The Act of Killing focused on the perpetrators of the mass killings of civilians in Indonesia in the mid-1960s, while his follow-up, The Look of Silence focuses instead on one victim’s family. The two films together serve as a powerful exploration of injustice, genocide, confrontation of the past, and the possibility of forgiveness.
Another important section of the festival is Future Projections, which “takes the moving image [out of the cinema] to the gallery and beyond.” The Future Projections exhibits take place across the city at various Toronto museums and galleries. I made my way west on Queen Street to MOCCA, which featured American artist and Chicago native Amie Siegel’s 40-minute video, Provenance, a remarkable and mesmerizing study of a group of mid-century modern furniture pieces made by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanerette for an office complex in the Indian city of Chandigarh. Siegel presents the furniture in reverse chronological order as the pieces appear in affluent homes, on the auction block at Christie’s, as they are cataloged and refinished, and finally, in their original locations in non-descript Indian offices. Combined with a selection of the artist’s shorter works (including a scene with Provenance itself being sold at auction) Siegel offers a fascinating exploration of the global commodification of art and culture.