The 2011 Toronto International Film Festival
y Richard Porton

Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse

Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse

Self-congratulation is the reigning sentiment among the brass at the Toronto International Film Festival—and the local media follow their lead with unrestrained glee. It’s not possible to spend more than a few hours in Canada’s most bustling city without switching on a television broadcast or reading a newspaper article hailing the festival’s star-studded glamor. Even a brief film (or more precisely, a gloried promotional announcement) that accompanied feature presentations on the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11 was permeated with an odd narcissism—festival staff and local critics ruminated on TIFF’s (as the festival has been successfully “branded in recent years) decision to continue screenings in 2001 after a one-day moratorium. Inadvertently underlining the festival’s overweening sense of self-importance, the message seemed to be that festival director Piers Handling’s fortitude in soldiering on in the wake of catastrophe was the most momentous choice made in Canada during that turbulent period.

Yet despite TIFF’s orgy of self-regard, there were a few noticeable cracks this year in the festival’s relentlessly cheery veneer. The imminent departure of Andréa Picard, programmer of the festival’s well-regarded “Wavelengths” sidebar devoted to avant-garde cinema, made many otherwise enthusiastic pilgrims to Toronto wonder if experimental film would have much of a future at an extravaganza increasingly preoccupied with glitz. Of course, many of the fawning journalists covering TIFF were more concerned with finding this year’s equivalent of The King’s Speech, the vapid costume drama launched at last year’s festival that went on to win an Oscar for Best Picture and cemented American audiences’ love affair with British royalty.

Nitpicking aside, it’s difficult not to concede that TIFF screens a number of worthwhile films, even though the vast number of titles on display requires that visitors not only sift through the telephone-book-like catalog, but also consult with reliable cinephilic “tipsters” for advice throughout the festival. Like several North American festivals, Toronto habitually showcases some of the most celebrated films that receive acclaim at European festival such as Cannes and Berlin—a predictable recycling that helps perplexed festival denizens winnow down their choices. Several films that wowed audiences at Berlin—(Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse) and Cannes (Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre)—are such precise distillations of these directors’ signature styles that they occasionally veer perilously close to self-parody. From one vantage point, Tarr’s film is unquestionably a tour de force. In an era when long takes and static shots—punctuated by occasional bravura camera movements—are more or less a conditioned reflex for practitioners of art cinema, Tarr is the master of this stripped-down style. And The Turin Horse, with it’s intimations of apocalyptic gloom, puts to shame recent American indie films such as Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter and Abel Ferrara’s ludicrous 4:44: Last Day on Earth, that take on our current economic and political malaise with clumsily applied dollops of allegory and inept dialog. Tarr’s dour chronicle of a farmer and his daughter’s stoic endurance as a brutal storm ravages their simple rural existence has been rightly termed an “immersive” cinematic experience by many critics; within this austere universe, even the mundane consumption of potatoes is surprisingly compelling. But, despite Tarr’s mastery of gritty minutiae (which is greatly enhanced by the work of Fred Kelemen, his brilliant cinematographer), The Turin Horse, unlike Tarr’s masterpiece Satantango, is somewhat marred by its archetypal protagonists and an almost generic anomie.

Le Havre, on the other hand, is a Kaurismaki film that, like an overly eager puppy, tries a bit too hard to please its audience. Kaurismaki’s best films—La Vie de Bohème and Drifting Clouds, among others— are suffused with equal amounts of charm and astringency. Le Havre, however, wears its charm a bit too broadly on its sleeve and suffers from strained whimsy. Marcel Marx (André Wilms, one of Kaurismaki’s favorite actors) gives up a life of literary bohemianism to become a lowly shoeshine clerk in the French port of Le Havre. In due time, Marx befriends a young boy, an illegal immigrant, and helps to shield him from the police. Kaurismaki’s homage to French poetic realism (especially the films of Marcel Carné) is slightly mannered; like many aspects of the film, the allusions seem a bit too calculated and, like Marx’s loyal dog Laika, overly cute.

Aki Kaurismaki's tribute to poetic realism, Le Havre

Aki Kaurismaki's tribute to poetic realism, Le Havre

Another Canes holdover—Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope)—proved even weaker. It’s hard to believe that Moretti was once considered a trenchant satirist. In recent years, the Italian star/writer/director has seemed less like a triple threat than a purveyor of tired shtick. While his latest venture could have been a Buñuelian satire of the Vatican in more assured hands, this wanly comic saga of a reluctant Pope is an almost complete fizzle. The film’s departure point is the College of Cardinals’ efforts to elect a new pontiff after the previous spiritual leader’s death. The harried cardinals find it difficult to reach a consensus and finally stumble into a fateful compromise by elevating the self-deprecating, enormously insecure Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) to the papacy. When the panic-stricken Melville refuses to embrace his new duties, Professor Brezzi (Nanni Moretti), an irascible therapist, is called in to treat the neurotic Holy Father. With his trademark eruptions of rage (which were once mildly amusing in better films such as Caro Diario but are now merely tiresome), Moretti’s atheist shrink is far from a convincing advertisement for anticlericalism and, unsurprisingly, the audience’s sympathies can only migrate to the nebbishy pontiff. Named, for no apparent reason, after the author of Moby-Dick, Melville wanders off to incorrigibly secularist central Rome and finds refuge with a theater company rehearsing Chekhov’s The Seagull. Despite Moretti’s pointless literary allusions, the film possesses one saving grace: Piccoli, a resourceful octogenarian who fleshes out a thin character with brio and good humor, provides the few moments of pleasure that can be derived from this misfire.

If Moretti's film exemplifies some of the dubious elements of Cannes’ competition films, which are frequently exported to other megafestivals such as Toronto, Ruben Ostlund’s Play, a much less self-important film that premiered in May at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, was one of the most intriguing films of TIFF’s grab bag “Visions” section. While occasionally more plodding than playful, Ostlund’s ingenious foray into conceptual cinema succeeds in both skewering the pretensions of seemingly liberal and tolerant Swedes and challenging the audience’s own preconceptions. Inspired by an actual incident in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, Ostlund casts a harsh, and frequently funny, light on Scandinavian racial tensions by focusing on the efforts of some clever kids of African origin to swindle younger, wealthier schoolchildren through sheer force of will instead of violence. Even though their victims have ample opportunities to escape or fight back when threatened with the loss of their wallets and cellphones, the African kids hold the upper hand because their well-heeled prey are intimidated by both the race of the scam artists and their own liberal conditioning. Once a few feuding parents arrive on the scene, however, the veneer of Swedish liberalism dissipates and the racism that simmers below the surface of many Scandinavian societies rears its head with bleakly comic results. (A seemingly unrelated running gag about an abandoned child’s cradle blocking the aisle on a passenger train also pokes fun at the way Swedish decorum unravels in stressful situations.) Dominated by a disciplined use of fixed camera positions and an esthetic that simulates surveillance video, Play often recalls some of Michael Haneke’s early provocations as well as the narrative stance employed by Corneliu Porumboiu in Police, Adjective. Although less rigorous than Porumboiu’s film, Ostlund’s wry examination of the indignities of class and race is a welcome riposte to the clichés of the standard social problem film—whether exemplified by Hollywood variants such as The Help or the feebler films of Ken Loach and Michael Winterbottom.

In an era where nonfiction films are often more audacious than narrative fare, TIFF’s “Real to Reel” section featured a typically uneven selection of documentaries. Michael Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory, a film almost designed to polarize audiences, certainly elicited the most divisive reactions at this year’s festival. Glawogger, an Austrian director probably best known in North America for Workingman’s Death, a survey of some of the world’s most strenuous and dangerous occupations, examines the sex trade in an observational film that shocked some viewers merely because it refused to succumb to facile moralism. Glawogger describes Whores’ Glory as a “triptych on prostitution”: the culture of sex work is explored in three different cultures—Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico—that embrace three religions. In Thailand, where prostitution is granted tacit acceptance as the police look the other way, Glagwogger waited nearly two years to be granted permission to shoot in a massage parlor cum brothel that caters almost exclusively to locals. Customers solicit women from behind a glass partition; the arrangement resembles an efficient, antiseptic supermarket. By contrast, at the City of Joy,” in Faridpur, Bangladesh, the laissez-faire attitude of Thai Buddhists is replaced by the fascinatingly contradictory approach of Muslim women, both wracked with guilt and enmeshed in a curious matriarchy where occasionally brutal madams enforce a strict regimen. Finally, in Catholic Mexico, the possibilities for both violence and passion appear limitless. Hapless johns pine for the local girls in La Zona, a slum in Reynosa near the Texas border, with the same fervor that some of their compatriots evince towards the Virgin Mary. An entanglement between a lovesick Mexican client and a blasé prostitute resembles an over-the-top Telenovela. A graphic scene highlighting an actual “session” in a Mexican dive leads to the inevitable conclusion that Glawogger’s “access” was either unprecedented or the sequence was staged. Such ethical considerations notwithstanding, Glawogger is interested in transforming life’s most sordid experiences into a kind of gutter lyricism. As he observes, “[Films] that offer resolutions are nothing but bad art because they cannot truly explore the diversity of the human soul.”

Strangely enough, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, one of TIFF’s most challenging—if baffling— films, was nestled in the “Midnight Madness” section, a sidebar that usually features relatively pedestrian horror films. Nominally a horror film, Kill List actually engages in shape-shifting genre splicing. Wheatley’s film begins in British realist terrain as a couple’s bickering escalates into a violent row during a dinner party and then oddly coalesces into a hit-man film that segues into metaphysical horror, which is vaguely reminiscent of The Wicker Man, Robin Hardy’s cult classic. Jay, the creepy protagonist—an Iraq war veteran with a savagely violent streak—teems up with the marginally saner Gal to do the bidding of a shadowy boss who recruits them to torture and execute an assortment of pedophiles. The grisly murders, depicted in the most unsavory fashion imaginable, eventually congeal into what Anton Bitel in Sight & Sound correctly termed “horrific surrealism.” If the source of Jay’s bestial rage is difficult to unravel and Wheatley’s film ultimately remains frustratingly opaque, it’s equally difficult to deny that Kill List is a bravura performance that locates a deep reservoir of suppressed rage in contemporary Britain that is likely to rear its head more frequently as David Cameron’s penchant for mean-spirited austerity continues to enrage both the disaffected underclass and the increasingly pauperized middle class.

In its first full year ensconced in the Bell Lightbox, TIFF’s sumptuous new quarters, the festival continued to court a complacent press and attract an eager public. A host of mediocre films—Steve McQueen’s Shame, George Clooney’s The Ides of March, Fernando Meirelles’s 360—played to packed houses while thornier, more provocative movies like Whores’ Glory and Play were sparsely attended. All of this proved that, even though it’s possible to find challenging fare at North America’s largest film festival, it’s also becoming crucially important to question its propensity for hype.

Richard Porton is a Cineaste Editor as well as an occasional contributor to Cinema ScopeThe Daily Beast and Moving Image Source.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine.