The Toronto International Film Festival 2014
by Richard Porton

Willem Dafoe as Pier Paolo Pasolini in Abel Ferrara's unconventional biopic,  Pasolini

Willem Dafoe as Pier Paolo Pasolini in Abel Ferrara's unconventional biopic, Pasolini

It’s sink or swim at the Toronto International Film Festival. Either you dive in perilously—or perhaps recklessly—to savor the nearly three hundred feature films offered for the public’s delectation in recent years or risk feeling adrift among a sea of titles. The challenges of the contemporary “mega-festival” can be daunting. An injunction to “create your own festival” confronts both critics and the casual visitor and the resourceful festivalgoer can indeed carve out a festival experience that ignores the hype of Toronto “Gala Presentations” (one waggish Toronto critic likes to speak of films “bad enough to be a Toronto Gala”) and allows one to imagine what it’s like to be at a more intimate, rigorously curated festival like Locarno.

Ignoring high-profile titles is, of course, nigh well impossible for mainstream—or even marginal freelance—reviewers. Editors usually demand reviews of films, no matter how mediocre, that are inevitably profiled as “Oscar bait” and the smaller titles in, say, the admirable “Wavelengths” series (curated by the indefatigable Andréa Picard) are often ignored (the online edition of Cinema Scope is, of course, one outlet that pays considerable attention to more obscure TIFF titles.)

Since I’m a part time freelancer and am therefore obliged to see a certain percentage of the many films destined for a multiplex near you, it’s difficult to ignore the calculated, and formulaic, nature of many of the slicker entries. Biopics were particularly abundant at TIFF this year and their narrative arcs rarely strayed from tried and true plot contrivances.

Take, for example, Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. Quite predictably, this Alan Turing biopic features a superb performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s equally unsurprising that the film turns out to a paint-by-numbers adaptation of Andrew Hodges’s Alan Turing: The Enigma that leaves out all of the scientific minutiae of interest to specialists but boils down a complex life to a one-dimensional triumph over adversity. Cumberbatch brilliantly captures what Turing’s contemporaries viewed as an imperviousness to social decorum—and what contemporary diagnosticians might label a case of Asperger’s syndrome. It’s true that, contrary to biographer Hodges’s initial fears, Graham Moore’s script doesn’t transform the gay Turing’s relationship with fellow code breaker Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) into a heterosexual liaison. Yet, it’s unassailable that the generous amount of screen time devoted to this platonic romance, which feature a miscast Knightley, are designed to enhance the film’s commercial potential.

TIFF’s offerings also demonstrated that biopics with more audacious formal and thematic ambitions can also prove disappointing. For viewers unfamiliar with the remarkable career of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the late Italian filmmaker, poet, novelist, and cultural theorist, Pasolini, Abel Ferrara’s new biopic, will probably prove nearly incomprehensible. At the film’s outset, Pasolini, (Willem Dafoe) is trying to avoid the censors from tampering with Salò, a macabre critique of fascism filtered through the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom that would turn out to be his final film. There are also perfunctory references to Petrolio, Pasolini’s final manuscript, his correspondence with fellow writer Alberto Moravia, and his aversion towards consumer society. Unfortunately, the social and political context needed to explain the significance of these disconnected rants is sadly absent. While Ferrara includes a snippet of salacious footage from Salò, the affinities Pasolini noted, however paradoxically, between fascism and consumerism are not clarified. In fact, although Pasolini’s disdain for modernity is a consistent theme throughout his work, Ferrara’s character merely seems like a chicly dressed Roman spouting platitudes.

Yet, despite the trappings of a bourgeois life, Pasolini was no limousine leftist. Shortly before his death, he called for leading members of the Christian Democratic Party to be put on trial for crimes against the state. This sort of polemicizing led many of his friends and colleagues (including actress Laura Betti, who comes off as a frivolous ditz in the film) to believe that his death was not the result of an unfortunate random encounter and might well have been sanctioned by the powers that be. Needless to say, none of these controversies are explored in Pasolini.

One of Ferrara’s most daring maneuvers is to segue from biographical interludes to re-enactments of several scenes from Porno-Teo-Kolossal, an unfinished Pasolini script. The parodic vision of a the “city of Sodom,” a pornotopia where gays and lesbians engage in orgiastic sex before returning to their old predilections, offers a more affirmative view of sexuality than the death-infected sadomasochism of Salò. It’s also a pleasure to see Ninetto Davoli, Pasolini’s favorite actor as well as his companion for many years, resurface as the central character of Epifanio in this film within a film. It’s regrettable, though, that Ferrara’s heavy-handed directorial style remains on display in these sequences, a marked contrast to the subtle touch that Pasolini himself would have no doubt brought to this material.

There’s also a cynical clumsiness endemic to a film that allows Willem Dafoe to deploy his standard American twang while the rest of the actors speak Italian. Some of Ferrara’s vocal partisans, who insist that the mercurial director is a major auteur, might defend this choice as a canny alienation effect. Those with a less blinkered view will dismiss the movie’s linguistic porridge as simple ineptitude.

Perhaps the larger point is that filmmakers are usually very ill equipped to deal with the lives of writers and intellectuals. Ferrara’s most successful films are off-kilter genre movies, which feature sudden spasms of violence. The sensationalistic aspects of Pasolini’s life are brought to the forefront in this dispiriting biopic. His career as a major thinker and political provocateur is given short shrift.

Sergei Loznitsa's   documentary  Maidan  is an eyewitness account of the Ukrainian Revolution of 201

Sergei Loznitsa's documentary Maidan is an eyewitness account of the Ukrainian Revolution of 201

Documentaries fared better at TIFF and one of the most notable, Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, screened in the eminently worthwhile “Wavelengths” sidebar. An eyewitness account of the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014, Loznitsa forgoes traditional nonfiction accoutrements such as voice-over and interviews (there are a few explanatory titles) and deploys static master shots to immerse the viewer in the confusion, ecstasy, and shocking spurts of violence that accompany political transformation. Maidan’s aesthetic rigor makes for a compelling visual and aural experience and, instead of dwelling on the pros and cons of his modus operandi, it would seem more important to inquire how his dazzling technique sheds light on an event that continues to elicit oddly contradictory responses from many Western commentators.

On a formal level, Loznitza’s tribute to the Maidan protestors sometimes resembles a starkly beautiful, if melancholy and eventually cataclysmic, son et lumière show. The sequences featuring candlelit gatherings in the square and the bedraggled, but invariably optimistic, crowds almost approach the sweep of Delacroix paintings. Yet Maidan’s pictorial beauty and almost Tarkovskian, trance-like quality is aligned to a paradox: the staunchly anti-Communist Loznitsa is consciously invoking Eisenstein’s notion of de-individuation—the “mass protagonist” (he cited Eisenstein’s 1925 film Strike as a touchstone at his Cannes press conference)—to enshrine a revolution that pays homage to individualistic, as well as frequently nationalistic and religious ideals. (The Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Kiev Patriarchate—played an important role in the protests.) At one point, we hear a fragment of a young person’s conversation that refers to 1917–1918; the residual altruism of a far different revolution linger on as archaic dreams are eclipsed by a new form of collective struggle. Loznitsa highlights some stirring oratory on the soundtrack, but rarely shows us the speakers’ faces. His camera is more focused on collective activity—e.g., building barricades, escaping police gunfire. As of this writing, “pro-Russian” rebels have subdued large parts of Eastern Ukraine. It remains to be seen whether the spirit of the Maidan can be maintained in this turbulent political climate.

Ambitious fiction cinema, particularly films belonging to that elegant niche, or ghetto, known as European “art cinema,” also received considerable attention at TIFF. Cannes crowd pleasers such as Goodbye to LanguageForce Majeure, and Winter Sleep, received North American premieres. For the cinephilic crowd, however, the key event was the World Premiere of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix. Although Petzold’s post-Holocaust parable, which synthesized elements of film noir and the horror film (or, as the festival mantra went—Hitchcock’s Vertigo meets Franju’s Eyes Without a Face) featured a brilliant star turn by Petzold regular Nina Hoss and was certainly impeccably made, the film’s almost universally rapturous reception in Toronto was slightly puzzling.

After being incarcerated in a concentration camp, Nelly (Hoss) returns to ravaged postwar Berlin. Seriously disfigured, reconstructive surgery only increases her allure as she postpones a friend’s proposition to settle in Palestine and hunts down her sleazy husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). In the film’s most incongruous plot twist, Johnny doesn’t recognize his wife’s refurbished visage and instructs her to instead impersonate herself in a bizarre re-enactment ritual.

While Cinema Scope extolled Phoenix as “psychologically complex” and extolled it as a feminist fable—“like Vertigo from Kim Novak’s perspective,” it struck this viewer as a patchwork pastiche that, despite an earnest attempt to reframe German historical memory with the trappings of genre cinema, seemed rather weakly parasitic on earlier films. Yet hardened critics shed tears during Phoenix and made insistent claims that it was one of the festival’s highlights. It was almost as if a gaggle of scribes, starved for stimulation, used sheer force of will to perform a curious alchemical trick and convert an intermittently intriguing, if flawed, film into some sort of masterpiece.

Of course, coming to terms with hyperbolic reactions to new films is part and parcel of the TIFF experience. Simultaneously exasperating and rewarding, it is, alas, an essential festival despite the inevitable frustrations of dealing with an intractable cinematic behemoth.

Richard Porton is a Cineaste editor and author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination.

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Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 1