film festival tourism

Review of Toronto, 2005

Toronto International Film Festival

September 8-17, 2005

By Virginia Wright Wexman

Published in Framework 47.2 (Fall, 2006): 125-27

Though the Toronto Film Festival is increasingly dominated by Hollywood, it continues to showcase cutting-edge films from around the world, giving audiences a glimpse of unfamiliar landscapes and the diverse cultures that inhabit them. From its earliest days, the cinema has exploited its unique capacity to endow the environment with symbolic significance, and this year’s Toronto fest offered numerous examples of movies in which setting became a major character. Sydney’s Little Saigon is the depressed and depressing milieu in which an ex-drug-addict played by Cate Blanchett tries to go straight in Rowan Woods’ Little Fish (AU, 2005). And in Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist (FR/UK/CR, 2005) the grey urban backgrounds endow this putative children’s story with decidedly grim overtones.

I was especially impressed with the way in which setting became an issue of national pride in Czech writer-director Bohdan Sláma’s Šteští./Something Like Happiness (CR/GE, 2005) The film’s story concerns people struggling to come to terms with their lives in a country that finds

Something Like Happiness

Something Like Happiness

itself in the process of establishing closer ties with the west after having been cut loose from the Soviet Bloc. After an opening scene set in a chilly, broken-down tavern, the action proceeds against backgrounds that feature a ramshackle farm, a drab apartment building, and a noxious chemical factory. The film’s heroine, a tender-hearted supermarket clerk called Monika (Tatiana Vilhemová), can’t decide whether to remain in these dismal environs or to join her enterprising boyfriend in the United States. Her growing attachment to two young neighbor children, the country’s next generation, becomes a catalyst for her growing awareness about the possibilities life in her homeland holds for her. This tale about the hardship of lives lived in decrepit surroundings ends with an unexpectedly poetic tracking shot of the countryside that recreates the film’s portrait of the Czech Republic as a place of serenity and abundance. Perhaps, this image implies, a land possessing such an Arcadian aspect is worth the effort it will take to revitalize it after all. The accolades Šteští enjoyed at the Academy Award ceremony in its home country suggests that the Czechs strongly support Sláma’s cinematic call for a new commitment to nation-building.

A more metaphysical use of landscape is featured in director Andrucha Waddington’s Casa de areia/ The House of Sand (BR, 2005), a ravishingly beautiful film shot in the remote sand dunes of Maranhao in northeastern Brazil.

The House of Sand

The House of Sand

During the question-and-answer session following the screening, Waddington revealed that the idea for the production came from a photograph of a cabin set precariously in the midst of this visually dazzling but unremittingly harsh landscape. As scripted by Elena Soarez, the story centers on three generations of women stranded in this nearly inaccessible coastal locale, each played at various ages by Fernanda Montenegro and her real-life daughter Fernanda Torres (both well-known actresses in Brazil). The women try to escape their lonely existence when young; however, all eventually find ways of coming to terms with their situation. Early in the film a team of astronomers arrive at this out-of-the-way place to document a solar eclipse that has far-reaching implications for modern science. At this point the story takes on cosmic overtones as the isolated cabin in which mother and daughter reside is contrasted to the vastness of the universe. Yet, the film goes on to ask, what is really the difference?

If the sense of being trapped by one’s surroundings is exposed as a chimera in The House of Sand, it assumes more sinister—and psychologically specific–overtones in L’Enfer/ Hell (FR/IT/BE/JA, 2005), a French-language production directed by the Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanović from a script by longtime Krzysztof Kieslowski collaborator Krzysztof Pieśiewicz. The film begins with an arresting image of eggs pushed from their nest by a newly hatched cowbird. As the story continues we witness the lingering consequences that follow from a similarly tragic explosion of violence in the nest of a human family.

Three sisters are caught in a cycle of victimization by a traumatic incident in the family’s past. We soon see that one of the sisters (played by French star Emmanuelle Beart) has continued to live in the apartment in which the shattering event took place–a sign of her compulsion to remain imprisoned in the psychic distress she suffered early in life. The other sisters, played by Karin Viard and Marie Gillain, may have moved out of their childhood home in a literal sense, but nonetheless remain equally ensnared by memories of a twisted family romance none of them properly understands. Inspired by the second part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell was originally planned by Kieslowski as part of a trilogy. After his death the first part, Heaven, was made in 2002, with the German director Tom Tykwer at the helm. But while both Heaven and Hell emerge as dense, engaging explorations of guilt and redemption, neither features the somber, meditative style Kieslowski himself brought to such subjects. Tanovic, the talented director of 2002;s No Man’s Land, has a more energetic and less contemplative approach; as a result, Hell retains a compelling narrative drive while lacking the sense of gravitas that would best serve the weightiness of its subject.

The setting of the Toronto festival itself changed in 2005 to take in venues further south in the city, making it more spread out than before. If you come to the festival from out of town, navigating among the various theaters can be challenging. And without press credentials the process of obtaining tickets is daunting. More and more the Toronto event is shaped with an eye to the needs of attendees from the press and the movie industry. These out-of-towners come to Toronto to see movies with “real” audiences made up mostly of local cinephiles, some of whom take their vacations in early September to fully enjoy the festival experience. For the rest of us, there are probably easier ways of enjoying the best of current world cinema.

No comments

No comments yet. Be the first.

Leave a reply