A Film Festival Lights Up

Sep 17, 2010

This has been a luminous year for the world-renowned Toronto International Film Festival, now in its thirty-fifth edition—and not only because of the high quality of the films. When the ten-day event began, buzz was already in the air about the launching of the new TIFF Bell Lightbox building. Called a “city of cinema” by architect Bruce Kuwabara, the seven-story Lightbox didn’t disappoint when its doors finally swung wide open: with its five state-of-the-art theaters of varying sizes, two galleries, student centers, restaurants, lounges, and sweeping terrace (unfortunately closed to visitors when I was there), this amazing, modern structure seems designed to make cinephiles of any other city envious.

I’m glad I was able to not only explore the Lightbox but also get the full movie experience: the first film I settled in for was the Chilean-born, now France-based director Raúl Ruiz’s epic The Mysteries of Lisbon, based on Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco’s 1854 novel Mistérios de Lisboa. Considering the film’s gargantuan length (four and a half hours), a comfortable place to sit was essential, and I barely stirred as Ruiz’s romantic, self-reflexive, and entirely captivating multicharacter saga—full of betrayals, deceptions, and tragic love affairs—washed over me. Like Ruiz’s 1999 Proust adaptation Time Regained, The Mysteries of Lisbon calls attention to its own storytelling yet never lets its meta playfulness get in the way of our relation to its characters. Though it’s tricky and Borgesian, Ruiz’s new film is also accessible and satisfying, and watching it is akin to curling up with a Dickens or Hugo tome. It could conceivably work as a miniseries (it aired in an even longer version on European television), but it’s lovely to commune with it on the big screen.

In an even bigger Lightbox theater, I took in French director Xavier Beauvois’ troubling and intense Of Gods and Men, based on a true story about Cistercian monks in Algeria whose livelihoods (and then lives) are threatened by fundamentalists. Anchored by impressively restrained performances from Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale, Beauvois’s film is muted yet engaging throughout, a finely wrought depiction of interior struggle and the limits and importance of faith in a world increasingly defined by warring religious extremists. (It was awfully encouraging to see such an elegantly composed film projected in such a contemporary movie palace—this was an immense, plush theater of the sort in which one would normally be able to watch only studio fare.)

The two smaller but still nice-size theaters upstairs are being used for installations. In one, Exotica director Atom Egoyan is calling out the subjectivity of film with his 8½ Screens. As you enter the dark room from the back, you notice that the projector is at the front, elevated onstage, shining its light on the seats, on which a series of screens have been spread out. Some of the screens are sheets draped across multiple rows of chairs, some are hanging upright—all are showing images from the climactic screening-room sequence of Fellini’s 8½, in which we watch the characters watch themselves and each other. It’s a bold deconstruction of the space of the theater, as well as an entertaining reconstitution of a scene many cinephiles know very well.

In the smallest theater, next door, visitors are invited to sit facing a blank screen. After some moments of silence (and some puzzled patrons wandering in and out), you realize that there is intermittent audio, snatches from famous films—from Singin’ in the Rain musical cues to bits of Taxi Driver’s hard-boiled voice-over to 2001’s HAL 9000’s pleading with Dave—these moments at times meld into one other, and I eventually gave up the game of trying to identify them and just listened to the ways the sounds informed one another rather than existing as individual pieces. This sound collage, titled E-100, was designed by James Andean and François Xavier Saint-Pierre, and is made up of films included in the Essential 100, which is, according to the festival’s website, a list voted on by TIFF curators as well as stakeholders (a combination of important historical and populist choices). Each of these films will be shown at TIFF Lightbox as part of the Essential Cinema series, which runs through November (and features quite a few Criterion titles, including À nos amours, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Bicycle Thieves, In the Mood for Love, Night and Fog, Playtime, Rashomon, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, and more).

A festival, of course, regardless of the hoopla surrounding it, succeeds or disappoints on the merits of the films showcased there, and TIFF 2010 was no slouch. It’s worth mentioning superlative new work from Criterion-collected auteurs Catherine Breillat and Mike Leigh (her delightfully odd feminist update The Sleeping Beauty and his rich, immersive character study Another Year are both quintessential works from idiosyncratic directors), but that’s not all: Lee Chang-dong’s exquisite drama about memory, aging, and responsibility, Poetry; The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Andrei Ujica’s extraordinary chronicle about the ruthless Romanian leader constructed solely from images in the public record; important Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán’s eloquent, unconventional cine-essay Nostalgia for the Light, which morphs from a remembrance of its director’s childhood fascination with astronomy to a meditation on the ghosts of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship; first-time Canadian director Daniel Cockburn’s fascinatingly askew, sorta-sci-fi rumination on identity and language You Are Here; our oldest living filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira’s latest jewel box of a movie, the ethereal and amusing The Strange Case of Angelica; My Joy, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s brilliantly conceived, nightmarish trek through Russia, then and now; and, of course, this year’s enchanting and bold Palme d’Or winner, from Thai artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which, even with its fanciful monkey ghosts and talking catfish, bears witness to a most humane spirituality. Such a treasure trove—and how could I not bring up the megascreening of a restored print of Allan King’s A Married Couple? (I’ll have more on that absorbing experience next week.) It was all enough to reenergize my movie love after a notably dismal summer movie season. Fall has finally arrived.