As early as 1969, in her seminal defense of pop cinema, Trash, Art and the Movies, Pauline Kael confessed that she had nevertheless reached a point in her career when she felt hungry for documentaries. “After all the years of stale, stupid, acted-out stories, with less and less for me in them,” she wrote, “I am desperate to know something, desperate for facts, for information, for faces of nonactors and for knowledge of how people live — for revelations, not for the little bits of show-business detail worked up for us by show-business minds who got them from the same movies we’re tired of.” I feel her pain, especially when wading through the offerings of the Toronto Film Festival, which, like most other fests these days, fields a steady output of flashy trifles to go with the trifling celebrities it must attract in order to maintain rapid growth. Mercifully, at Toronto there’s a lot of real life too, and not only in documentaries.
The Lives of Others, a German drama made by the majestically named young director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, unfolds inside East Germany’s Stasi secret service, when career advancement both in and outside the spy machine was tied to willingness to rat on family, colleagues and lovers. Ulrich Mühe is terrific as a fanatically devoted apparatchik deputed by his ambitious boss to dig up dirt on a lefty playwright and his lover, a beautiful actress. I’ve no doubt that the movie, set for release next year by Sony Pictures Classics, will cause eyes to roll among East German intellectuals who find the idea of a Stasi flack humanized and redeemed by Art (Brecht, naturally) wishful, to say the least. What a lovely wish, though — and scene for scene, The Lives of Others is urgently persuasive in its heartbreaking and often funny sense of what it’s like to get along without civil liberties and basic trust.
Careerism rears an even uglier head, if possible, in Amy Berg’s disturbing documentary Deliver Us From Evil (about which I’ll have more to say when it opens next month). Berg takes on the pedophile-priest crisis in the Catholic Church through interviews with the victims of Father Oliver O’Grady, a multiple offender who, after being successfully prosecuted, now roams free in Ireland. The astonishingly dissociated O’Grady, who talked openly to Berg, is scary enough, but she rightly shows this horribly damaged man more pity than she does Roger Mahony, who comes off as an ambitious creep. As Bishop of Stockton, Mahony kept moving O’Grady from parish to parish, and got promoted to cardinal for his trouble.
In the inevitable run of movies about the dislocations of globalized living, I was struck by all the different ways our current cinema has found to up the ante of urban loneliness. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, a new film by the Taiwanese stylist Tsai Ming-Liang, turns a minimalist eye on silently stoic young Malaysians and a Taiwanese transient who cling to each other desperately in a cavernous Kuala Lumpur abandoned building project while enduring disease, bad air, violence and other trials of the postmodern Asian city. The movie’s final image, of three youngsters fast asleep on a grimy mattress floating in fetid water, evokes a loony, stubborn togetherness in a world defined by separation. Jasmila Zbanic’s appealing Grbavica, which probes the emotional abyss created between a Sarajevo teenager and her single mother by a long-held secret about the girl’s father, returns to the atrocities of the war in Bosnia with unsentimental sympathy. And two French comedies, one (Private Fears in Public Places) by the octogenarian Alain Resnais, the other (My Best Friend) by Patrice Leconte, are laced with quiet sorrow at the isolation of Parisians of all social classes. I have yet to make up my mind about Todd Field’s strange and ultimately moralizing study of suburban ennui Little Children, with Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson as isolated adulterers headed straight for a domestic train wreck. But even outside the movie theater, film festivals generate their own brand of loneliness — one minute you’re in a row of friends at a screening, the next you’re all alone without a plan, in some weird, extreme mimicry of our fractured modern condition.