Sep 26, 2007

TIFF 2007 blog: Toronto's worldview

One thing that a large film festival like Toronto can offer is a snapshot of specific countries and their cultural/social traditions as reflected through their cinema. Herewith are some ruminations on three countries of particular interest.

1. Israel: In a recent interview in Time Magazine, festival Executive Director Piers Handling pointed to the richness of Israeli cinema as one of the highlights of this year's event. He's right, but that richness has been apparent for some years now with the release of such provocative and compelling Israeli movies as Broken Wings, James' Journey to Jerusalem, Walk on Water, The Bubble, The Syrian Bride, Sweet Mud and Close to Home, most of which were also screened at TIFF.

This year, five Israeli films have been selected, the most I can recall in 22 years of covering the festival and likely the most since the festival honored Israeli cinema back in 1980. The recognition was premature back then, but this year's Israeli feature film lineup, though of uneven quality, is a testament to the variety of subject matter Israeli filmmakers are tackling.

Amos Gitai looks at the contentious recent Israeli pullback from Gaza in his Disengagement. Avi Nesher's The Secrets is a story of lesbian romance, fundamentalism and mysticism in Safed, the center of Kabbalah and the place where two young women go to study Judaic texts and the Torah. Jellyfish, from hot Israeli writer Etgar Keret and his partner Shira Geffen, is an amiable Short Cuts-type movie that gently links the lives of a disparate group of people—including a depressed waitress, a Filipina caregiver and a newlywed couple—in Tel Aviv. The Band's Visit, from neophyte director Eran Kolirin, is a sweet quasi-romance between the head of an Egyptian police band and an Israeli woman who meet up when the musical group is mistakenly stranded in a small town where nothing ever happens.

I'm partial to Jellyfish and The Band's Visit, while Disengagement is your typical overwrought, pointless and dramatically inert Gitai movie, and The Secrets, though intelligent, is pretty dull. But all four movies, along with the Israel documentary Children of the Sun, an examination of what it's like growing up in Israel's revolutionary communal farm (kibbutz) system, add up to a complex, highly diverse portrait of a country that is a far cry from the exclusively conflict-ridden place that most people, largely because of the media, perceive it to be. Without Israeli cinema, good or bad, or a personal visit there, they wouldn't have any idea of what Israel is really like.

2. France: Out of curiosity, I recently looked up the ages of some of France's best-known, longest-working directors and discovered that Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer are all in their late 70s to late 80s (Rohmer is 88). Incredibly, they're all still making movies, and three of them have films at this year's festival.

Rohmer's Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon is a playful, romantic and comedic roundelay set in an imagined 5th-century Celtic village. Rivette's Ne touchez pas la hache (Don't Touch the Axe) is a tragic drama about the doomed relationship between a married duchess and a career soldier in 19th-century France. Chabrol offers up another of his smartly acute dissections of the evil that people can do in the name of love in La Fille coupée en deux (The Woman Cut in Two).

The Rohmer and Chabrol movies fare best, while Rivette's is disappointingly flat, largely because of Guillaume Depardieu's one-note performance as the soldier. But they all hearken back to a respectful French cinematic tradition that allows the country's filmmakers to practice their art as long as they're physically able, even into their very old age and even if they're not the box office successes or critical darlings they once were. In the U.S, by contrast, with the notable exception of the late Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet, who's in Toronto with Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, that's generally not been the case.

3. Canada: I was very moved by Jeremy Podeswa's sensitive and touching Fugitive Pieces, based on Anne Michaels' much-praised novel about a young Jewish boy saved by a Greek archaeologist during the Holocaust. But the other English Canadian films I caught at TIFF suffer from the typical deficits afflicting our cinema, namely conventional, clichéd or undeveloped stories, obvious this year in Bruce Sweeney's risible and over-the-top revenge drama American Venus and Clement Virgo's unimaginative Poor Boy's Game, about a boxer trying to redeem himself after bring released from prison. Another Holocaust-related film, Paolo Barzman's slight Emotional Arithmetic, gave an undeserved chance to a director who simply doesn't have the cinematic chops to make the transition to the big screen from television.

It's all part of the recent emphasis of Telefilm Canada, Canada's main film-funding body, on the commercial possibilities of Canadian movies to the exclusion of the country's typical arthouse fare. Those are still being made, too—see Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg—but they're not the main concern of Telefilm anymore. Granted, our more avant garde filmmakers—Atom Egoyan and Maddin—are over-praised talents, but veering in the direction of the Hollywood model isn't the answer, either. Nor is allowing genuinely good directors, and I include Virgo and especially Sweeney, whose Last Wedding was great, to float any old, ill-thought-out script they want and funding them in the process, a solution to Canada's perpetual box office woes.

Unfortunately, and at least partially because we're not funding the right films, English Canada has been unable to replicate the Quebec model, where directors like Denys Arcand—whose L'age des tenebres (The Age of Ignorance), his third film in the acclaimed trilogy that began with The Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions, is showing here—and Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.), among others too numerous to mention, regularly manage to combine the best facets of arthouse and commercial fare. Despite the occasional gratifying exception like Fugitive Pieces, that dire reality isn't likely to change anytime soon. —Shlomo Schwartzberg

For complete coverage of the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, search using keyword "TIFF 2007."

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