Saturday, September 06, 2008

linha de passe; genova; faubourg 36; wavelengths 2

Once again, the best film of the day was the first one. Is this a reflection of my energy level? or just the luck of the draw? Could be both - but so it was.

One of the best shorts in the French omnibus Paris Je T'Aime was a quiet film by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas about a new mother who must go to work across the city and leave the child in the precarious care of others. In even the few minutes of that piece, I was impressed by how well they conveyed the anxiety of the mother, even while she also accepted her powerless situation. This year, motherhood is again one of the themes Salles and Thomas are bringing us, this time in a full feature, Linha de Passe, set in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Four boys live with their mother in a poverty-stricken tenement where the sofa is one of the most fought over areas of personal space. Each young man or boy dreams of a life beyond their means, but a life that feels tantalizingly accessible. The mother, who is pregnant again, is both patient and at the end of her rope. Salles and Thomas allow the naturalism of character interaction and response to play out in normal rhythms so that scenes occasionally have an improvisational feeling and yet the whole things is tight: the boys' storylines are woven seamlessly so that we are never away from any one too long. As the stakes increase, so does the disappointment in life. One thing I really enjoyed in this film was the nine year old's obssession with driving a bus. He befriends drivers, studies their actions meticulously, and even gets a driver to train him a little. Throughout all, the mother tries to validate and affirm each child in her own way, while knowing that their lives are spinning out of control. A beautifully controlled and crafted film from this thoughtful and gifted filmmaking team.

A big yellow circle went around the words "Colin Firth" in the write-up for Genova. An actor I love, here he plays a widower, with two daughters, who decides to take a year in Italy to help the family recover from their recent loss. The film is directed by Michael Winterbottom, the venerated British director of last year's A Mighty Heart. This is one of those filmmaking careers I have followed right from the very beginning, when Winterbottom premiered his film Family at TIFF in 94. I remember sitting in the Uptown2 cinema in those days (when the Uptown was still with us) and marvelling at how carefully and honestly he observed the emotional nuances of relationships. Genova is another example of this strength. Perla Haney-Jardine plays the youngest girl, Mary, whose role in her mother's death leads her through a journey of profound guilt and agonizing loss. Since we watched the opening sequence (which is heartstoppingly long when we all "feel" what is coming), the audience knows the truth. However, these possibilities are never discussed aloud - if the father knows the details, he doesn't need or want to dwell on them. Then Mary's mother begins to appear to her in different ways and places and the girl slowly succumbs to the pull of her own healing imagination. Where it leads her is often dangerous, just as the reckless partying of her older sister in a new European city is dangerous too. There is a sense of both girls living out their grief recklessly: disconnected from themselves, they are slowly disconnecting from real life as well. Firth is lovely as the always caring father. I was particularly moved by a moment in which after Mary has disappeared, he remains calm, saying, "she's a sensible girl, she'll come back" over and over, and then very suddenly falling into sheer panic. It is so real - and gut-wrenching. There is also a beautiful supporting performance in this film: Catherine Keener plays a former love interest of Firth now living in Genova, who clearly still carries a torch for him as she tries to help his family adjust. There is a small scene where her good intentions lead Firth to be upset with her. Winterbottom knows to stay with her as she walks away, where even from behind, we see her pain. A reminder that a person does not have to be dead, for a loss to feel equally keen.

Every now and then the program write-up for a film falls very short of what we actually see. It is not just a matter of personal taste, it is actual misinformation. Such is sadly the case with Christophe Barratier's Faubourg 36, described as, "a delightful musical comedy ... which features a charming ensemble cast, exemplary production values and some spectacular musical numbers." Well, I'm here to tell you that I stayed in this film more than an hour waiting for one of those spectacular musical numbers before finally giving up. The film does boast the gorgeous 1930s sets and costumes. However, it soon gets mired in silly story elements. Eventually, the one-dimensional characters and absence of any musical numbers take their toll. There is some wonderful camera movement and sweeping orchestration - but always culminating in a plot twist, rather than a song or something genuine about character. A disappointing turn from the director of the wonderful Les Choristes. (By the way, this was one of those times where a programmer should have been a key indicator for me.)

I am going to pause here. Because while I was at the Elgin, the realities of the new Festival politics hit home to me. This was a public screening, one that ought to have drawn a full house crowd. Cameron Bailey's extended introductions ran the usual gamut of corporate donors but then riffed at length about Bell Lightbox, which he said will be "up and running soon". Anyone who has walked by King and John knows that there is nothing 'soon' about that project. Construction has barely come above the ground level. His extended explanation of the financing of the building was completely unnecessary, unless one remembers that the audience here are themselves corporate donors. The empty seats told the story of the true cost of Bell Lightbox: that in order to woo corporate donors, the festival has put this cinema's programming off-limits to passholders. The Special Presentations program is one of the strongest of the whole festival - so limiting its exposure is a truly shocking move, as the audiences in that theatre are what have built the reputation of Toronto as a great place to premiere movies. The audiences are the foundation of this festival and TIFFG must never lose sight of that. No amount of donation in the world is worth the loss of their good will. End of rant!

I ended the day with the second program of Wavelengths shorts focussing on the theme of "Lost and Found". Filmmaker David Gatten was on hand to talk (fascinatingly) about his short How to Conduct a Love Affair. A stand-alone piece participating also in a much larger series he is working on, it riffs an imaginative response to a collection of books in a private 18th century library that first found its way to Thomas Jefferson and then became the basis of the Library of Congress, thus establishing how European literature influenced North America. An example of how well-curated this programme is, Gatten's film was matched elsewhere in the group by Jonathan Latham's Encyclopedia Brittanica, which takes us rapidly through more than 1000 pages of a particular volume. In between these shorts were serene and beautiful meditations on written word, both textually and conceptually and emblematic image. I was particularly struck by the deeper hues and simple textures of Abraham Ravett's Tziporah.
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