It's my tradition/supersition that the first film of my festival sets the tone for what the year will be like. In 2002, the very first screening was Robert Guediguian's gorgeously lyrical Marijo et ses deux amours followed that same morning by Heaven, Tom Tykwer's loving homage of a posthumous script by Krysztof Kieslowski. That turned out to be my best year ever. It's even better when the first Thursday morning screening (Industry screenings start a day early) is at the Varsity 8, a nice wide space where can I huddle up against a wall with all my caffeine. So how great it was to be back in there, this Thursday morning, in my favourite seat, settling into The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Ken Loach has devoted his whole life to making movies about social justice issues as they resonate in the lives of ordinary people. In recent years, his films have had almost a shatteringly truthful intensity - I think of My Name is Joe (1999) in which a man struggles precariously on the brink of his own rehabilitation from drugs and alcohol, not because he is drawn back to being an addict, but because his desire to prevent his nephew from repeating his own life, means more to him than anything. Love is at the core of all Loach films - the love of people for each other and also the passionate need for living with integrity. The Wind that Shakes the Barley looks at the Irish independence movement from inside both kinds of love and chronicles how they can turn against each other. It also does something rare in movies, it builds on the knowledge we are presumed to have from the movies that have gone before. It builds on Michael Collins, it builds on the story of Sinn Fein. In this movie, two brothers, initially joined by cause, but as separate and different as brothers can be, find themselves tragically at two ends of the same stick but on the same side. When it debuted at Cannes, The Wind That Shakes the Barleyreceived an appreciative but unenthusiastic response from critics. The jury, however, made of artistic professionals, gave it the Palme d'Or. This is where Cannes is so very different from Toronto. In Toronto, the critics make and break how movies will be exposed in the next six months. The voice of artists is invisible here. Too bad! But that's another post!
Perhaps the critics were mixed because there's an unrelenting naturalism to Loach's movies and particularly this one. The same kinds of battle sequences are played out over and over but it is this methodical depiction of the dogged pursuit of battle after battle, trial after trial, that really is what makes a revolution. Shaping it into three-act structural storytelling makes a North American audience more comfortable and maybe more engaged, but it's not always truthful. Because we can no longer be shocked, repetition is the new way of causing us to feel: playing out the seemingly unending sequence of endurance and resistance that is the backbone of all revolution until things really do change. Loach is also not afraid to show us the debate of ideas - characters trying to figure it out as they go - and not just arriving at some carefully chosen plot point. They struggle out of who they are as characters, out of situation, to be objective, to understand, right in front of us. No one but Loach (or perhaps Mike Leigh) would take time in these long scenes, take the risk of the drama boring us, to allow a more natural sense of emerging awareness in a people no more gifted for it than you or I. And the result is that we don't just come away engaged by story - we actually get it. Not the fact of Irish need for independence but the fullness of why.
Cillian Murphy, Liam Cunningham and Orla Fitzgerald give wonderful performances as the men and women caught in the mix, torn between affinities of life (hero Damien is meant to be a doctor and gets sidetracked by the revolution) and the desire to somehow make a difference. The movie is frank but not pornographic about its violence - and makes it clear that the greatest atrocities are that which tear at the heart. A woman, whose grandmother won't move from their burned house but prefers to live in the still standing chicken coop, struggles to understand how on earth she will be able to break free of history and find something new. This, and the unspeakable agony of having to deal with traitors who are people we love, are examples of the scenes given to us with incredible naturalism and emotional nuance amid the smoky mist and scrabble surfaces of 1920s Ireland. After the intial horrifying sequence in which a young boy is killed for saying his name in Irish, a woman sings at his wake about the wind that moves through the golden barley. The image shifts outdoors to the land where that golden haze is rising in the morning light.
The wind, is what is blamed for a mother's return from the grave in Pedro Almodovar's drop-dead beautiful Volver. The opening sequence of that film shows dozens of women polishing gravestones in a village cemetery in the midst of the annual East Wind. Penelope Cruz's Ramunda seems the most committed and also the least emotionally engaged. Over the course of this movie, however, as the mother appears slowly to everyone but her, Raimunda becomes the one who most needs her. Mothers mothers mothers. It is really very much all about the mother in Almodovar films. His must have been amazing.
Within very little time, he has us on a rollercoaster of unexpected storylines. We get through it on the sheer adrenalin rush of the filmmaker's passionate adoration for the way in which women love and support each other, while continuing to bicker, snipe and take potshots. Penelope Cruz moves out of the weeping willow roles she has had in my memory and into the light of dramatic acting day. Her character is the most annoying, the most judgemental and relentlessly demanding of those around her while also unfailingly the most compassionate. Her underlying mysteries are slowly revealed by the truths that are unveiled by Carmen Maura's mother character, Irene. As usual with Almodovar, even the supporting characters are rich and complex: the neighbour Agustin is a woman who admits to smoking dope to ease the pain of daily life and give her an appetite. She explains it with such simplicity that we think, "doesn't everyone?" She too is emotionally held back by the unresolved disappearance of her mother, the only hippie of the village. "Every time I smoke a joint, I think of her."
The wind sweeps through this movie, slamming doors and lifting skirts but not a la Marilyn. Almodovar loves the natural shapes of women: even when they've lost their youthful good looks, they continue to glow. The East Wind provides everyone with an excuse for the bad or mysterious behaviour of others - and allows the daughter to go a long time before finally believing that her mother is alive and with them. Resolutions occur, because that's Almodovar. He really is a sentimental old fool in the end - mothers must love daughters and vice versa and all is fulfilled in the permanently half-filled eyes of Cruz. "I will explain it all to you later" she says to everyone, after asking ridiculous favours or dismissing the most outrageous discoveries. Where else but in this master's movies would a character stop someone on the street, insist they donate their groceries to her needs and then justify it by saying "diet will do you good"? Finished of course by vigorous kisses on the cheek - the women part as friends without a blink. Is that just Spain? No. That's Almodovar.
I also saw two other provocative films yesterday - The Magic Flute, Kenneth Branagh and Stephen Fry's giddy, euphoric and manic celebration of Mozart and a contemplative documentary on an Asian visual artist unable to understand his own needs as he drifts from the Three Gorges dam in China to the streets of Bangkok. This morning I was knocked out by a French feature called, La Tourneuse de Pages. More on all these later. Meanwhile, must run!