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Master, Old and New

Not infrequently, in the course of the 30-odd films I consumed at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I was carried away by that feeling you get in surprising abundance at great film festivals, the realization — after the lights have gone down and images begun to flicker on the screen — that you are in the hands of a master filmmaker, one for whom the tools and processes by which movies are made come more naturally than breathing. At which point, you happily surrender.

Certainly, that was true of Manoel de Oliveira’s A Talking Picture, the latest by the veteran Portuguese director who got his start in silents and has, in recent years, taken to a playful examination of his own lengthy life. And why not, at age 94 and in the midst of what is arguably the most prolific stretch of a momentous career? Here, what begins as an ostensible travelogue through ancient civilizations — delivered by a woman to her young daughter as they cruise from Lisbon to Marseilles, Athens and beyond — discreetly gives way to a cosmic rumination on the small speck mankind represents in the monolithic shadow of history. Similarly, in Jacques Rivette’s The Story of Marie and Julien, the reunion of two estranged lovers (Emmanuelle Béart and Jerzy Radziwilowicz) merely sets the stage for what is actually an elegant and unsettling ghost story, wherein the formal elements of horror are employed not to scare us, but to examine memory and loss in a way most horror pictures never manage. Horrors of a different, non-supernatural sort unfold in Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night, which depicts the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Italian politician Aldo Moro in such exquisitely harrowing detail — and with such a balance of understanding and criticism cast upon the kidnappers’ radical ideals — that we are asked to forget the many previous inferior films of these tumultuous events.

Of course, even master directors must be granted their frivolities. And so there is Robert Altman’s The Company, featuring what may be the most ecstatic ballet sequences captured on film since The Red Shoes, surrounded by much too much immersion into the fantasy alter-life of Neve Campbell (who produced, co-authored and stars in the film). Hardly more substantial, but arguably the giddiest pleasure of the entire festival, was Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi, sold to Miramax for a healthy eight-figure sum days before it was also voted the audience’s choice for most popular film (besting more than 300 other contenders). An exuberant updating of the classic Japanese film series for the age of computer-generated blood splatter, Zatoichi arrives just one year after Kitano’s extraordinary change-of-pace film, Dolls, and is as much a mainstream crowd-pleaser as Dolls was private and insular. And yes, it really does end with an electrifying tap-dancing sequence that not only bests anything in The Company but leaves you thinking that Kitano ought to try his hand at a full-on musical.

In citing the above films as the work of masters, I do not mean to suggest that the films themselves are necessarily masterpieces — merely, that such films represent filmmakers whose concerns, both formally and textually, extend well beyond the matters of character and narrative, of pacing and pictorial beauty, with which most movies are fatally engulfed. Yet of the directors mentioned thus far, only Kitano is younger than 60; Rivette and Altman are well into their 70s. Which begs the question: Who among the new generation of filmmakers might come to practice the medium in a similarly commanding way? At Cannes this year, there was strong suggestion that Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose serenely melancholic Distant won that festival’s Grand Jury Prize, was one to watch. Now that Toronto has afforded us the opportunity to see Distant alongside Ceylan’s two earlier features, The Small Town and Clouds of May, it becomes clear that Ceylan’s importance is much more than suggestion. A case can also be made for South Korean enfant terrible Kim Ki-duk, whose Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring is nearly as beautiful (both physically and spiritually) as it is a departure from the attention-getting violence and sexual perversity of Kim’s eight earlier films (including 2000’s The Isle).

Many of us at Toronto — and in Venice, where it was awarded the Golden Lion — were impressed by Andrey Zvyagintsev’s supremely confident debut film, The Return, a dark, disturbing and powerful coming-of-age story marked by a deep understanding of the mythic, frightening dimensions that father figures can assume. I was also enormously fond of Pan-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe as it imagined the offbeat courtship between a suicidal Japanese man adrift in Thailand (the superb Tadanobu Asano) and a Thai woman who feels responsible for the death of her younger sister. Damien Odoul’s Errance, on the other hand, is not the major film those who admired his previous one, Deep Breath, may have been expecting. Like its predecessor, however, this story of a self-destructive husband (Benoît Magimel) and the wife (Laetitia Casta) trapped inside her Better Homes and Garden dream of domestic bliss, is frequently startling, and certainly no reason to give up on Odoul.

But if there is a cinematic common ground to be shared by old and new masters alike, it may be the one explored by Lars von Trier in his dazzling The Five Obstructions. Spanning the course of three years and four continents, this stimulating, one-of-a-kind undertaking pairs von Trier with one of his heroes, the Danish experimental filmmaker Jørgen Leth, as the latter sets out to film five “remakes” of his 1968 short film, The Perfect Human, each adherent to a set of structural limitations prescribed by von Trier. Mere months after the Cannes premiere of Dogville (also on display in Toronto), The Five Obstructions is von Trier at his most sadistically playful and self-revealing, as well as his most genuinely inquisitive into authorship and the functioning of cinema as the purest form of self-exploration.

 

What I have described above is not so much the Toronto Film Festival as a Toronto Film Festival — specifically, the one I managed to carve out for myself from the intimidating number of possibilities presented by the event’s programmers. Whereas one can attend most other film festivals with the reasonable expectation of seeing the majority of the “buzz” titles, Toronto is vast and eclectic enough to become whatever you make of it, and that is no doubt key to its enduring popularity. While many industryites view this annual fall pilgrimage as a chance to get a jump on a slew of forthcoming major-studio releases, Toronto seems to me most valuable when used to catch up with the latest work by the most important international filmmakers, given that such work is increasingly hard to see outside of the festival circuit. (Whenever I did take a break from my festival — to check out, say, Jane Campion’s In the Cut, a ludicrous, soft-core whodunit soon to rank among the all-time auteurist boondoggles — I soon wished I hadn’t bothered.)

Yet if there is an overall impression to be gleaned by all of Toronto’s disparate attendees — regardless of whatever private, personal festival at which they end up — it is that this is the most enthusiastic public film gathering in the world. Here, the desire to see a movie, any movie, seems as insatiable for natives of the city (who are said to be no less fervent moviegoers during the 11 and a half months of the year the festival hibernates) as for those outlanders who, for 10 days each September, count themselves among Toronto’s honorary citizens.


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