Friday, September 07, 2007

fugitive pieces; my winnipeg, persepolis; 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days

Holocaust movies, and particularly the legacy inherited by the survivors, is a running theme of this year's TIFF (as discussed below). The closing film Emotional Arithmetic, a Canadian feature with Susan Sarandon and Max von Sydow, faces off with the survivors in the current era. Fugitive Pieces, which I saw this morning, deals with a more immediate aftermath, following the story of a young boy who having witnessed his parents' death and his sister's abduction, is rescued by a Greek archeologist who adopts him and raises him in Greece and in Canada. I have known director Jeremy Podeswa my whole professional life - we were at film school together in Los Angeles and I know that he himself is the son of holocaust survivors. Jeremy has really come into his own with this beautiful adaptation of the lyric and poetic novel by Anne Michaels. It is reminiscent of The English Patient in many ways: particularly how its non-linear structure flows back and forth along the memory string of one person. There is also the language which is spare and haunting, and allows a very rare thing in North American feature films, which is dialogue that adds another layer of meaning not necessarily aimed at pushing forward story. Most dialogue does indeed push forward story - but this dialogue offers wonderful insights into the ways in which human emotion thwarts the healing process intended by the mind. I was particularly struck by how the main character Jakob (played by a sublime Stephen Dillane, someone else who can do no wrong) is unable to respond to the beautiful effervescence of his new love, because he is too mired in his own pain. "Then Alex invades my thoughts with her shameless vitality", he says in voiceover. It is a painful, but wonderful line that says so much about both characters. Eventually, he learns how to set free his painful emotion so that both his heart and mind are free to engage new life and love. The other performances are equally fine, particularly Rade Sherbadgia as Athos, Jakob's rescuer, who is almost unbearably compelling.

Last night, I stumbled into a late screening of Guy Maddin's hilarious, charming and utterly hypnotic My Winnipeg. A reverential tribute to his home town, the film grapples his deep sense that he ought to have left it by now, and why hasn't he. The opening sequence of the movie includes long sequences of people on trains, in "drugged chugging", unable to stay awake on voyages they hope will take them out of town, but which seem only to circle Winnipeg. The almost entirely voiceover-driven film (Maddin is one of the few people who can use that form successfully), is again poetically written, allowing us to understand and relate the images and is also a major source of the movie's humour. Maddin's attempt to relive his childhood by moving back into his old home in a beauty salon for a month comes complete with his mother playing herself, and sounding like a cross between Lauren Bacall and boozy-throated Elaine Stritch. The blues and greys and whites of the colour are soporific - and I floated off to sleep a couple of times at this 10:15 pm screening! But quickly awoke again, just like when I ride on a train myself!

Persepolis, is Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronneaud's adaptation of Satrapi's graphic novel, an autobiographical turn about growing up in revolutionary Iran. Fans of the book will be thrilled by this version, which is both faithful to the book and is a testament to how much the 'storyboard' process can assist the development of story. I was amazed by the visual thinking in the film version, which has been clearly conceived and developed as any film would be - entirely shot for shot, in a very cinematic style. All the normal language of camera angles is here, but there is also wonderful work being done through editing techniques like lap dissolves and layering and use of different colour palettes to reflect different eras of her life as the narrative weaves back and forth.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days refers to the stage of pregnancy of Gabriela, a character in Cristian Mungiu's riveting film which won this year's Palme D'Or at Cannes. The lead character, however, is Gabriela's best friend and room mate, Otilia, who assists her friend in getting an abortion, at great personal sacrifice. Wide shots held in sustained takes for long, realistic sequences, marks a combination of both western and eastern styles: western wide shots which focus us usually on story, but the eastern style pacing and sustained edits tell us we are engaging the emotional line of the film more than its story, but both are quietly harrowing, in that way we have come to associate with Eastern European cinema. Otilia's relentless devotion to her friend takes her into choices that few of us would be willing to make, especially when it is largely owing to Gabriela's fundamental weakness and inability to tell the truth. As a result, more than simply a portrait of Communist Romania in the 1980s, it is a profile of a friendship, one tested by every possible kind of challenge and which leaves its two heroines at the end ultimately in one piece, if silently and irrevocably changed forever.
Great films - go see them all!
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