At Toronto film fest, a noticeable separation
Modest, great, and star-studded share the screens
This year’s slogan for the Toronto International Film Festival is “See it happen here.’’ It’s printed on posters, some starring fans posing for photographs with Rainn Wilson or Kerry Washington. The posters are innocuous and rather bland. But with those four words, the festival hasn’t simply embraced its emergence as the most important film festival in North America. It’s celebrating that development - with typical Canadian modesty, of course. Even the festival’s sleek new movie pavilion, the Lightbox, seems more sensible than self-congratulatory. Tiff, as the festival is called locally, is an Oscar bellwether and a house of Great Art. As such, this enormous, exhausting event is also a perennial showcase of the gulf between the two.
The same day I saw Glenn Close strut her stuff as a woman disguised as a male butler in “Albert Nobbs,’’ I watched “Terraferma,’’ a stunning Italian movie whose ambition is to be the best film you’ve ever seen about a seaside family and the Ethiopian immigrants they harbor. Even by the standards of tasteful period costumery (the setting is late-18th-century Ireland), “Albert Nobbs’’ is shameless dramedy, maybe more so than last year when the festival was struck dumb with weepy delight for the movie about the stuttering prince. Although in fairness to “The King’s Speech,’’ no one has yet grabbed my arm and tearfully, wishfully predicted many Academy Awards for “Albert Nobbs.’’ There’s been an appreciable lack of such hyperventilating this year.
That’s a good thing. It allows movies like George Clooney’s political campaign thriller, “The Ides of March,’’ Bennett Miller’s front-office baseball comedy, “Moneyball,’’ and Alexander Payne’s family comedy, “The Descendants,’’ which stars a prime Clooney, to be the modestly scaled Hollywood entertainments they are. “Albert Nobbs’’ is something else, a film that would like success in Toronto to bolster its release at the end of the year. The movie has in Rodrigo Garcia an excellent director of melodrama and in Janet McTeer, playing another woman in disguise, a reason to remain seated. He goes for a jauntiness that’s at odds with Close’s clenched demeanor. She co-produced the movie and co-wrote its script but this part is all wrong for her. It’s like watching a tornado pretend to be a ceiling fan.
I found myself wondering what someone with a more perverse sensibility might have done with all the repressed desire and gender confusion in “Albert Nobbs,’’ someone without an interest in pleasing Academy voters, someone like David Cronenberg. But Cronenberg has his hands full with “A Dangerous Method,’’ his adventure in psychosexuality featuring Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the enigmatic patient and aspiring psychoanalyst to whom Jung becomes addicted. It’s a playful, shrewdly acted film about deviancy and the mind games these three wind up playing with each other. The way it boils down the men’s famous theories to personal stratagems is the graduate student version of a movie based on a Marvel Comic.
The script is by Christopher Hampton, who wrote the play and script for “Dangerous Liaisons.’’ This film also began as one of his plays, and it operates with a similar highly polished literacy. Cronenberg contributes as much kinkiness as he can. But you get the sense that he’d like to burrow deeper into Freud’s attraction to Jung. There’s a sizzling wit between them, as Jung, in one scene, confesses dreams and Freud withholds. But since the material backs off, Cronenberg must, too. Like “Eastern Promises,’’ his previous movie, this one suffers in part from its stifled air. Cronenberg is a director of ideas and how what we see on the screen meets up with the world beyond it. That doesn’t happen here.
Werner Herzog considers it his civic duty to connect the wider world. “Into the Abyss’’ is an overlong, but characteristically trenchant nonfiction immersion into the two-sided morality of capital punishment and one Texas murder case, in particular. The movie is full of tangents with the friends and families of the inmates and victims. He also has conversations with two death-row workers - a guard and a priest. What holds it together is Herzog’s dogged interest in the curious way death complicates our senses of humanity and justice or changes them altogether. There were a lot of wet eyes at the packed screening I attended.
There were even more tears at “A Separation,’’ a superb work of realism by Asghar Farhadi about a middle-class Iranian woman (Leila Hatami) who leaves her husband (Peyman Moaadi), putting his sick father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) and their studious and astute 11-year-old daughter (Sarina Farhadi) in the uncertain middle. The request for a divorce sets in motion a chain of small domestic events whose dismaying implications accrue. This is a movie in which your perception of what you’ve seen and heard changes every 10 minutes. It’s a stressful, heartbreaking X-ray of class, gender, and character and a triumph of the higher priorities of moviemaking, in which finding a character aggravating has nothing to do with whether you agree with him or her. We’re as much judges as arbiters who hear these people plead their cases.
Emanuele Crialese’s “Terraferma’’ is also acutely of this world. His previous film was another immigration miracle, “Golden Door,’’ about Italians coming to America at the dawn of the last century. In the new movie, Ethiopians come to Italy. An old fisherman (Mimmo Cuticchio) and his goofball grandson (Filippo Pucillo, who’s magnificent) wind up with a boatload of at-sea refugees, two of whom - a pregnant woman (Timnit T.) and her young son - become illegal roommates in the home the Italians just converted into a summer bed and breakfast.
The film is set on a close-knit island whose residents welcome tourists but reject refugees and immigrants, a distinction made by skin color and method of landing. The tourists arrive by ferry, the refugees wash up on the beach. The political and emotional nuances achieve as much poetry as Crialese’s filmmaking, which can infuse a dead boat, a dead motorbike, and seemingly dead bodies with heavy life. Through images, Crialese damningly compares the leisure of Europeans leaping off a boat with the urgency of Africans committing the same act, how they mean very different things.
Sony Pictures Classics will release “A Separation’’ later this year. “Terraferma’’ needs a distributor. Both movies illustrate the incongruity between prestige, publicity-seeking, and natural greatness at this festival and others like it, how hungry, yearning little-known directors make the famous ones seem overfed. But film festivals are a glorified microcosm of the larger industry. Here, to some extent, the eagerly anticipated, merely good, star-studded movies make the truly great ones possible.