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The World According to Amadeus 

The Toronto Film Festival throws Mozart an early birthday bash

Wednesday, Sep 20 2006
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How best to go about staging this fall’s 250th-birthday party for the boy-genius composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)? Why, by hiring a boy-genius party planner, of course. Thus, in 2004, the Los Angeles–based opera director Peter Sellars (noted for his vanguard productions of Così Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni) was invited by the Austrian government to begin organizing just such a fete. Two years later, to no one’s surprise, Sellars has taken anything but a conventional approach: Called New Crowned Hope, Sellars’ Mozart festival will take place in Vienna from November 14 to December 13, and instead of dwelling on the composer’s past, it is an act of future-thinking. Most of the work on display will be new, conceived by some of the world’s leading composers, dancers, architects and visual artists (including a new John Adams opera), loosely inspired by the ideas and emotional themes of the major compositions from the last year of Mozart’s life: the operas The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, and the unfinished choral work Requiem.

If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with movies, it’s that the New Crowned Hope project also includes a series of films commissioned expressly for the occasion and made by filmmakers of varying experience from countries in the developing world. In advance of their Vienna premieres, the films screened together for the first time during the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival (September 7–16). At first glance, these six features and one short could hardly seem less like Mozart, or one another, ranging from the classically narrative Daratt, to the starkly minimalistic Hamaca Paraguaya and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (which contain scarcely a line of spoken dialogue between them), to the boldly experimental Syndromes and a Century. But on closer inspection, they reveal surprising interconnections, particularly in their recurring notions of war and remembrance, mourning and forgiveness, and the basic human yearning for the company of other humans. Wherever in the world you dwell at the dawn of the 21st century, it seems, reckoning and requiem are the order of the day.

Those sentiments are especially strong in Daratt, the third film by West African director Mahmat-Saleh Haroun. Set in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, it follows a 16-year-old boy, Atim, who travels from the rugged countryside to the bustling city in search of the man responsible for killing Atim’s father. The civil war has ended, and a general amnesty has been imposed, absolving war criminals of their crimes. But spurred on by his blind grandfather, Atim has resolved to take justice into his own hands. Until, that is, he meets his intended victim, the baker Nassara, who fails to recognize the boy and so takes him under his wing as an apprentice, in turn becoming a kind of second father to him. From there, Daratt transforms a potentially simplistic moral fable into an agonized contemplation of the value of a single life, and that is no small thing coming at a time when so many lives are taken with so little sense of consequence.

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A different armed conflict, the 1930s Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia, rages far from the characters in director Paz Encina’s Hamaca Paraguaya. Here, an elderly married couple living in a jungle recess go about their daily business — washing clothes, gathering wood, hanging the titular hammock and often just waiting, feeling the time pass, as they ponder the fate of their son, who has gone off to fight. As a series of striking, static compositions play across the screen, a voice-over narration that switches from the man to the woman and back again takes us into the characters’ shared past, until, after scarcely more than an hour of screen time, we’re left with a rich sense of these unremarkable people and their innate dignity. Admittedly, little else happens in Encina’s debut feature, but like all of the New Crowned Hope films, it opens a window onto a faraway place rarely seen in movies — indeed, this is the first Paraguayan film ever selected for screening in a major international festival — and the lives of those who live there. It is a sad irony that these films will be largely ignored by the mass media and moviegoers alike in the same year when so much attention will be lavished on the self-important “internationalism” of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s forthcoming Babel.

But the appeal of the New Crowned Hope films is hardly ethnographic, or cheaply exotic. The masterful Chinese director Tsai Ming-Liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, for example, would be an achingly beautiful dream of human togetherness no matter where it took place (though its setting of choice — a massive, abandoned building in downtown Kuala Lumpur — does end up serving as a ghostly totem to the bottoming-out of so many Asian economies). Rather, these seven filmmakers are of a piece in their desire to tell stories at once local and universal, ancient and modern, in a language that has no words for the clearly defined heroes and villains and tidy resolutions of the Hollywood factory.

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