One of the perks of TIFF is the festival's annual Cinematheque series, which screens a half-dozen or so world classics, most often as newly struck prints, for free. Though I was unable to fit John Paizs' hard-to-see Crime Wave (1985) into my schedule, I did manage to catch the restoration by the China Film Archive of Wu Yonggang's silent classic The Goddess (1934) starring Ruan Ling-yu. Called China's answer to Greta Garbo, Ruan appeared in sixteen films during her short career. In The Goddess, she stars as the title character, a young widow of the Shanghai slums who prostitutes herself to support her toddler son. Her efforts at paving his way to a better life are thwarted by "The Boss," a heavy-set gambler who sees her as a means of financing his indolent lifestyle. But he's not her only problem. Once the sanctimonious administrators at the boy's school learn how she earns his tuition, the inexorable chain of events leading to the Goddess' downfall are set in motion. Wu Yonggang's progressive screenplay eschews moralistic judgment of Ruan's character, instead opting for a more contemporary view of prostitution. His actors also avoid the stagy hand-wringing of much silent cinema; particularly Ruan, whose expressive face subtly conveys the hopes and desperation of her saintly whore. With this film his directorial debut, Wu Yonggang enjoyed a long career in the Chinese film industry until his death at age 75 in 1982. Not so for Ruan Ling-yu. In his introduction to the TIFF screening of The Goddess, San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan noted how the film's grievous conclusion mirrors the actual circumstances of its star, who, upon being accused of seducing a wealthy industrialist, committed suicide at age 24. She left behind a brief but impressive resumé and the following handwritten note: "Gossip is a fearful thing."
Abel Ferrara follows up his contentious Cannes spitball Welcome To New York (2014) with an ambitious biopic of the late Italian filmmaker, poet, and critic Pier Paolo Pasolini. With Willem Dafoe roundly nailing the look and mannerisms of its subject, Pasolini traces the last several days of one of the leading intellectuals of the twentieth century. Ferrara leans on Pasolini's writings, a few of his favorite actors (Ninetto Davoli, Adriana Asti), and even the man's own clothing to create his interpretation of an enigmatic figure to whom he probably utters nightly devotions. Segments from Pasolini's complex, unfinished novel "Petrolio" are dramatized, as is his unfinished script for Porno-Teo-Kolossal, slated to be the follow-up to his notorious last film Salo, The 120 Days Of Sodom. But despite the filmmaker's meticulous attention to detail, Pasolini the film is curiously flat. Part of the problem is Ferrara's decision to have his actors speak English, which no doubt aided Dafoe but forces the Italian cast members to clumsily mouth a foreign language. The result recalls the English-speaking Italy of such dowdy studio films as Melvin Frank's Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968). Equally underwhelming are the scenes Ferrara reconstructed from Pasolini's tape-recorded screenplay for Porno-Teo-Kolossal, which not only fail to approach Pasolini's visual style but are downright cheesy-looking. During production, Ferrara tantalized interviewers by suggesting that he was to reveal new information about Pasolini's murder. After casting such tempting bait, he shrugs off the conspiracy theories for the consensus view that the filmmaker was killed by blue-collar homophobes, not exactly breaking news. The depiction of the murder itself is as inert as the 75 minutes that precede it. For a filmmaker as intuitive and daring as Ferrara, it's disappointing that the most riveting moments are provided by the segments from an actual Pasolini film that unreel in the background during the opening interview sequence. They're from Salo, The 120 Days Of Sodom, which I don't need to ever watch again.
Anyone who's ever winced through the notorious underground tape featuring the late Buddy Rich will understand the central conflict in Damien Chazelle's flashy Whiplash: established older musician verbally abuses his proteges. This time the abuse is tainted with homophobia and cruel observations about the students' loved ones, and maneuvers from shouted harangues into violence. Talented and ambitious young drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is chosen from the ranks of a fictitious New York music school, purportedly modeled after Boston's Berklee, to join the band assembled by jazz conservatory instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). A Marine drill sergeant of a music teacher, Fletcher employs the old jazz chestnut about "Philly" Joe Jones hurling a cymbal at the young Charlie Parker after the younger man hit the wrong note as a justification for insulting, cajoling, and physically abusing his terrified students to purportedly inspire them to greater achievement. Both Simmons and Teller are excellent in their roles, and the latter earns cudos for actually being the one kicking ass in his tub-slapping scenes. Cinematographer Sharone Meir and editor Tom Cross deserve credit for the film's syncopated visual flair. The concluding showdown between Neyman and his nutty professor, a marvel of inventive camera work and kinetic editing, elicited gratified yelps and applause from the Toronto audience. Much of writer/director Chazelle's script is reportedly drawn from his music school experiences, and the conservatory setting is nothing if not vividly rendered. But dramatically, Whiplash is as manipulative as its sadistic music instructor, hinging on several questionable plot developments during its home stretch. And Chazelle stretches the boundaries of credulity to suggest that vanity-driven sociopath Fletcher would tarnish his own highly-guarded reputation to ruin the career of an upstart as payback. Buddy Rich would know better.
We shift from fictional tyrants to actual tyranny in contemporary Indonesia, where families live in the same neighborhoods, sometimes even next door, to their loved ones' killers. During the anti-communist purge of 1965-66, an estimated half a million Indonesians were brutally slaughtered by the Indonesian Army, paramilitary groups, and hired thugs, none of whom were ever held accountable for their crimes. Joshua Oppenheimer's 2012 documentary The Act Of Killing features interviews with a motley assortment of these killers, who openly brag about torturing, raping, and butchering their victims, and in the context of making a film happily reenact their methods of interrogation and murder. His follow-up, The Look Of Silence, revisits the killings from the perspective of the victims. Middle-aged Adi, a door-to-door optometrist, uses the pretext of eye examinations to confront the men who slaughtered his older brother. Their awed reaction is unrepentant, angry, and threatening. Oppenheimer cuts from these tense confrontations to scenes of Adi's domestic life with his wife and young daughter, and to his frail, elderly parents. Aware that the killers could still strike with impunity, the family reacts with fear when Adi reveals to them his mission. And so will viewers. Though devoid of the surreal shocks of the previous film, The Look Of Silence succeeds as a horrifying exposé of a lingering evil that nonchalantly defies one courageous man's attempt to seek justice and reconciliation. Oppenheimer's documentaries have been criticized - unfairly, I think - for not exploring the complicity of Western governments in the purge, such as the CIA's role in assisting the Indonesian Army in preparing lists of targeted names. It's a topic that deserves its own film.
Syrian filmmakers Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan's Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait employs amateur cellphone video downloaded from YouTube along with Mohammad and Bedirxan's own video work to reveal the struggle of the Syrian resistance against dictator Bashir al-Assad. Exiled in Paris, veteran filmmaker Mohammad assembled the film while corresponding with Bedirxan, a Kurdish freedom fighter whose bravery in taping the battle-torn streets of Homs resulted in scenes of pulse-quickening immediacy. Her life on the line, Bedirxan becomes the audience surrogate for a hellish tour of the no-man's-land that is now Syria. The downloaded clips that provide the film with its "Self-Portrait" subtitle were taped by both the resistance and the oppressors, with video from the latter gleefully displaying shocking brutality against prisoners. The central atrocity is the fate of one teenage boy, who is seen being beaten by his captors and whose subsequent outcome is grimly recounted. Gruesome images of death and mutilation are difficult to endure, as are the agonized cries of a burned kitten that Bedirxan encounters on the street. Countering its horrific content, Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait is filtered through Mohammad's reflective, poetic perspective and given visual expression by the images of amateur video that abruptly burst into Brakhage-like abstractions of light. These elegiac expressions elevate the film beyond routine documentary while simultaneously delivering to Western viewers a more nuanced insight into the Syrian tragedy than can be gleaned from our facile 24/7 news cycle. The complex allegiances and oppositions within the struggle are acknowledged as Bedirxan laments that a makeshift school she established for girls inside a bombed building was abruptly closed by reactionary resistance members. "Is our revolution eating itself?," she wonders. What little hope exists is personified by a young boy shown wandering the rubble-strewn streets of Homs, innocently oblivious to the horrors surrounding him.
Angry Ukranians take to the streets in Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, a 133-minute documentary about the ninety days in which nearly 200,000 protesters occupied Independence Square in Kiev in defiance of President Viktor Yanukovych’s anti-dissent measures and rejection of an EU association agreement in favor of a treaty with Russia. It’s stunning filmmaking, but some knowledge of recent Ukrainian events is helpful because there's no voice-over narration or talking heads to provide context. Instead, viewers witness history as it unfolds and, aside from occasional inter-titles, the events alone tell the story. Maidan tracks the spontaneity of the Kiev occupation through the use of static camera set-ups and long takes, both anomalies in contemporary location shooting. This methodical approach meticulously captures the groundswell of a political protest, traversing the movement’s course from folksongs of solidarity to fighting in the streets. As seen in the film, Loznitsa and crew achieved their most astonishing footage in close proximity to danger, most notably when pro-Russian riot police commenced firing weapons into the crowd of demonstrators and people began to die. Originally a documentarian whose The Settlement (2002) profiled a mental institution in rural Russia, Loznitsa made two dark but well-received narrative films, My Joy (2010) and In The Fog (2012), before returning to non-fiction for Maidan. The new film was screened as part of the “Wavelengths” program rather than in the TIFF Documentaries category, presumably due to its deliberate pace and absence of contextual commentary. As both structuralist cinematic feat and diligent witness to the gradual germination of civil resistance, it deserves to be seen.
No dire world events sweep Quebec filmmaker Stéphane Lafleur's Tu Dors Nicole, a magical realist coming-of-age story about a young woman mired in the difficult space between carefree girlhood and the world of adult responsibility. That she's already in her twenties, still living with her parents, and with no clear direction for moving forward makes Lafleur's film a bittersweet homage to post-adolescent cellar dwellers everywhere. With her parents on an extended vacation, Nicole (Julianne Côté) and her older brother Remi (Marc-André Grondin) testily share the household, she with insomniac wanderings through their oddly unorthodox suburban neighborhood and he by converting the family living room into a practice space for his indie rock band. When not plotting exotic vacations with her friend Veronique (Catherine St-Laurent), Nicole punches the clock at a Goodwill-type thrift shop from which she regularly pilfers the donated clothing because "they don't pay for it." She's pursued by Martin (Godefroy Reding), a lovestruck ten-year-old with an impossibly deep voice who attempts to seduce her with poetic pillow talk that would rival the Pepé Le Pew playbook. Television vet Côté is convincing as the film's idle protagonist, a comic character for whom life offers little but a string of defeats. When Nicole addresses her Downs syndrome co-workers as "retards," the tables are turned as she becomes the object of their derision. Later, a romantic possibility devolves into a humiliating revelation that leads to a final visual in-joke for viewers paying attention. Featuring striking black and white cinematography from Lafleur regular Sara Mishara, Tu Dors Nicole often resembles a Quebecois version of Fernando Eimbcke's (2004's Duck Season) quirky, introspective dramadies. Shoehorned into a program loaded with films about global barbarism, it was a welcome respite.
Over the course of 27 years, brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have crafted nine feature films that chart what Professor Philip Mosley of Pennsylvania State University has dubbed "responsible realism." Like most of their previous films, Two Days, One Night revolves around a difficult moral choice faced by an individual in a desperate situation. Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a working mother whose supportive husband Manu (Farbrizio Rongione) labors at a fast food restaurant, learns that she will lose her factory job if she cannot convince her co-workers to forego their annual bonus in favor of keeping her on the payroll by casting votes in a management-mandated election. The stakes are high: without her salary, the family will lose their flat and be forced to live in public housing. Within the title's allotted timespan, Sandra must convince each of her co-workers to weigh her needs over their own. Oscar-winner Cotillard turns in her most subtle performance so far, surpassing her fine work in Jacques Audiard's 2012 Rust And Bone. As usual, the remaining cast is composed of Dardenne regulars and first-timers. All reflect the skill with which Luc and Jean-Pierre coax fine, true-to-life performances from their actors. Following its Cannes debut were rumblings that Two Days, One Night falls short of the standards that one anticipates from the Dardennes. Though it may seem modest when compared with their previous The Kid With A Bike (2013), Two Days, One Night is more essential viewing from two of the world's greatest living filmmakers.
Yet another living master and among the most literary of filmmakers, Portugal's Manoel de Oliveira was represented with his latest, the nineteen-minute The Old Man Of Belém. The "old man" of the title is fourteenth century Portuguese writer Luís Vaz de Camões, author of the epic, nationalist poem Os Lusíadas. In de Oliveira's fantasy, de Camões discusses Portuguese history and literature with nineteenth century writer Camilo Castelo Branco, twentieth-century poet Teixeira de Pascoaes, and Miguel de Cervantes' fictional character Don Quixote in an imagined Garden of Eternity (actually, a park bench outside de Oliveira's residence). The writers' grand philosophizing is interspersed with fantasy images that spring from their commentary, footage from previous de Oliveira films, and clips of windmill tilting from Don Kikhot (1957) by Leningrad filmmaker Grigori Kozintsev. As inscrutable as ever, the 105-year-old de Oliveira seems to be capping off his storied career by looking back at his literary sources and their role not only in shaping his films but in defining his country's soul.
Following de Oliveira's film was a different take on de Camões by Lisbon-based filmmaker Gabriel Abrantes, whose work has been described as "post-colonial cinema." Veering wildly from Oliveira's pedantic homage, the twenty-four minute Taprobana is a scatological comedy in which de Camões sucks down opium and engages in coprophagic sex with his mistress Dinamene in the jungles of Sri Lanka, crafts his masterwork Os Lusíadas in imitation of Homer, is captured by bounty hunters, loses Dinamene when they are shipwrecked in the Mekong Delta (here peopled by the naked nymphs of his epic poem), and ultimately faces eternal judgment from the gods of poetry on Mount Olympus. The outrageous sight gags do little to conceal Abrantes' scornful swipe at Portuguese nationalism and its literary enablers.
The de Oliveira and Abrantes films were preceded by the debut from Joana Pimenta of Harvard's Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. The Figures Carved into the Knife by the Sap of the Banana Trees, sixteen minutes in length but surely the longest title at this year's TIFF, also casts an eye at Portuguese empire-building. The title may be an allegorical allusion to the subjective nature of remembrance, but Pimenta, who describes her film as existing "between a fictional colonial memory and science fiction," provides no easy answers. Over images of postcards mailed back and forth between the Portuguese colony of Madeira and the former colony of Mozambique, a somber-sounding narrator recites a possibly fictitious traveler's sensorial recollections. But the travelog-pretty imagery is infected by the hidden legacy of colonial rule, the Mozambique struggle for independence, and the subsequent years of bloody civil war.
Like a perplexing puzzle, Lisandro Alonzo's historical brain-fuck Jauja (pronounced "how-ka") pulls viewers into its seductive realm only to leave them grasping for stability by a narrative that shifts its perspective at its most dramatic juncture. Viggo Mortensen stars as Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish officer assigned to assist the Argentine army in the 1882 attempt to eradicate the native peoples from the mountains and deserts of Patagonia. The soldiers are a crude, superstitious lot who speak of Jauja, a mythical land of magic that supposedly lies across the Patagonian desert. They also lust after Dinesen's young daughter Ingeborg (Villbjork Agger Malling), a slow-talking beauty who pines for a dog. The squadron is put on alert by the astounding news that one of the Argentine soldiers, Zuluaga, has joined the natives and is leading savage raids against his former compatriots while disguised as a woman. When Ingeborg runs away from the safety of the camp with a young soldier, Dineson sets out on his own across the desert to find her. With Zuluaga its surrogate Kurtz, Jauja now has a corresponding Marlow to probe the limits of human perception. Suggesting the look of aged tintypes and vintage Hollywood horse operas, cinematographer Timo Salmonen (from Aki Kaurismaki films) shot in full-frame without a matte, leaving the corners rounded. This low-fi approach dramatically reshapes Alonzo's typically wide-angle compositions, giving Jauja a look unlike any recent film. One standout scene has Mortensen's exhausted character stretching out atop a craggy butte in the desert and gazing up in wonder at the starry sky. During the Q&A following the film, an audience member confessed that he didn't understand the film's final third. "I don't understand it, either," answered Alonzo, not an admission of failure but an acknowledgement of the impenetrable nature of time and memory. Among all others at TIFF, Alonzo's cosmic western is the film I'm most anxious to see again.
This is the second of three parts of ecco film and video's coverage of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Next installment: Goodbye to Language, Timbuktu, L'il Quinquin, Journey to the West, and more!