From Venice to Toronto

The Daily — Sep 11, 2020
Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple (2020)

With just a couple of days to go before this year’s Venice Film Festival wraps, organizers sat down with the press on Wednesday to take stock. The bottom line for the time being: So far, so good. The festival spent 1.2 million dollars establishing and maintaining safety protocols, and to the best of anyone’s knowledge, no new cases of COVID-19 can be traced back to the Lido.

Now it’s Toronto’s turn. Through September 19, TIFF will be presenting a slimmed-down forty-fifth edition, a now-familiar mix of virtual, in-theater, and drive-in screenings and talks. A fair number of titles will be arriving in Toronto having just premiered in Venice, so let’s have a look at what critics have been saying about them.

Galas and Specials

As noted on Wednesday, early reviews of Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber’s Pieces of a Woman have been mixed. The other gala presentation headed straight to Toronto from Venice is Regina King’s feature debut as a director, One Night in Miami. Based on the 2013 play by Kemp Powers, who has written the screenplay, the film riffs freely on what might have happened on the legendary night in February 1964 when Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X met up in a hotel room to celebrate Clay’s triumph over Sonny Liston.

Clay (Eli Goree), the new heavyweight boxing champion of the world, is on the verge of becoming Muhammad Ali, while Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is about to make his break with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Brown (Aldis Hodge) is about to exit the NFL for the movies, and Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) had just recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Powers’s screenplay is “essentially a four-way Socratic dialogue on what it means to be Black in public in America,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “King’s fluid direction of her four actors means the snug setting never feels dramatically constricting, while their jostling performance styles make each combination of voices feels like its own distinct treat.”

In the Guardian, Jonathan Romney admires the “vivid, meticulous evocation of the period,” but “the film is above all an enclosed talking piece for four terrific actors. Perhaps inevitably, Goree’s Clay lights up the screen whenever he talks—revealing the acuteness and sensitivity beneath the showmanship—with Hodge’s Brown as a saturnine, skeptical foil. But the meat of the meet lies in the interplay between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke—not least, perhaps, because we know their deaths were just around the corner. British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir is magnetic as the careworn, austere political leader, evoking the tenderness and well-concealed joie de vivre underneath the severity, while Odom’s Cooke shows self-examination as well as radiant insouciance.”

For Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, One Night in Miami is “an instructive and absorbing watch. But as a film with the potential to do more, push further and explore and maybe even in some ways explode those legacies in order to get at the men underneath them, it feels too timid, too talky, too conceptual in content for being so classical in form.” In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney writes that One Night in Miami “remains high-quality filmed theater. But the conviction and stirring feeling brought to it elevate the material, making this an auspicious feature debut.”

The Disciple, a special presentation in Toronto that’s competing in Venice before heading to the Main Slate in New York, is Chaitanya Tamhane’s eagerly awaited follow-up to his 2014 debut, Court, which, as Jay Weissberg puts it in Variety, “heralded the arrival of a bright talent willing to take risks with a cerebral kind of independent cinema.” Aditya Modak, who has been singing north Indian classical music to great acclaim since he was five, plays Sharad Nerulkar, an aspiring singer who fears he may not succeed in his lifelong quest to master the art. At the Film Stage, Rory O’Connor finds the film to be “remarkably poised” and “comprehensive with its subject in the same way Court was with legal minutiae and just as frank about human inadequacy.”

In the Guardian, Xan Brooks wishes he “enjoyed The Disciple as much as I admired it. The film is a labor of love insofar as it feels overthought and overburdened, with all the rough edges planed down. Sharad is a stoic, Job-like presence, occasionally buckling under the strain but soldiering on with a pained half-smile. Would it be too crass to long for a moment where he truly reveals what is driving him on? Where he shows us why he loves this mysterious, ancient music, or perhaps even why he hates it? One thing about ascetics, they keep an audience at arm’s length.”


Screening out of competition in Venice, Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall is another film now bound for both Toronto and New York. We’ll surely be taking another look at Wiseman’s forty-sixth feature, but for now, let’s note that Screen’s Lee Marshall finds that this “four-and-a-half hour study of Boston’s city government is remarkable for its view of disparate groups of American citizens talking, explaining, disagreeing, correcting, persuading, conceding and engaging with one another. Wiseman’s true subject here is arguably off-screen, shamed by example, guilty in absentia: the erosion of democratic values and civil, civic debate in an increasingly divided country.” And in the Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Mintzer agrees that Wiseman has “delivered one of his most political films yet.” Writing for the Notebook, Leonardo Goi calls it “a vivisection of an institution that’s never captured as an ossified bureaucratic apparatus, but some body organ living and breathing in sync with the community around it.”

Gianfranco Rosi, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin for Fire at Sea (2016), is competing in Venice with Notturno, set to screen in TIFF’s Masters program and the NYFF’s Main Slate. Rosi spent three years shooting Notturno, mostly at night, of course, along the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon. “The impressionistic doc captures people who have long been contending with the ravages of war and terror, most recently inflicted by ISIS,” notes Nick Vivarelli at the top of his interview with the director for Variety. “Whose members, incidentally, at one point tried to kidnap Rosi.”

Following a single, brief, on-screen text, Notturno is “composed of singular vignettes of life in the center of this contested zone, sans contextualizing information, with Rosi’s only commentary embedded in the film’s very structure,” writes Pat Brown at Slant. Robbie Collin notes that Rosi also “pointedly ignores the differences in identity that have been the source of generations of grief. Within each sequence, the camera almost never moves, and when it does it is only to keep pace with another moving object, such as a poacher quietly paddling his canoe downriver at dusk. Rosi’s individual images are always calm and often acutely beautiful—and war itself, despite being a constant presence in the lives of his subjects, is never overtly depicted. But his secret weapon is juxtaposition, and as these seemingly disparate scenarios unfold one after the other, a sense of deeper meaning gradually accrues.”

Back in Variety, Guy Lodge pretty well sums up the critical reaction so far to I Am Greta, the Hulu documentary about the teenage climate activist and global celebrity, Greta Thunberg. “As a summation of her remarkable achievements to date in public life, Nathan Grossman’s film is reasonably thorough, and sometimes rousing, amply showcasing Thunberg’s candid gifts as a truth-to-power speaker,” writes Lodge. “Yet as a portrait of the girl behind the cause, it’s cautious and rarely illuminating, speckled with moments of domestic intimacy that nonetheless feel carefully vetted.”

World Cinema and Discovery

In Quo Vadis, Aida?, Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić, who won the Berlinale’s Golden Bear for Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (2006), takes on the massacre of over eight thousand Bosniaks in Srebrenica in 1995, a genocide perpetrated by the Bosnian Serb Army under the command of Ratko Mladić. In Variety, Jessica Kiang argues that the “most inspired creative decision in this sensitively fictionalized version of true events comes in the form of the film’s protagonist, Aida, a local Srebrenica resident who works at the Dutch-run UN base nearby as a translator, and is played with an absolutely convincing mixture of grit, nobility and ferocious maternal instinct by Serbian actress Jasna Đuričić.”

In the Notebook, Leonardo Goi emphasizes that Quo Vadis, Aida? is not “a history lesson. It’s a story told with present-day immediacy and unbearable vividness, a relentless chronology of how those days unfolded, the timid efforts that were made to avoid the worst, the indifference of the outside world before Mladić’s threat, and the price thousands of Bosniaks paid for it . . . There is no moment of respite, no chance to breathe: editor Jaroslaw Kaminski’s ensures the tempo stays fast throughout, and the rare moments Žbanić’s script makes room for some glimpses of ethnic harmony, of the Srebrenica that once was and never will be again, the film accrues in pathos.”

Also set to screen in the Contemporary World Cinema program is the second feature from Hungarian director Lili Horvát, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time. Natasa Stork plays Márta, a forty-year-old neurosurgeon who abandons her blossoming career in the States to return to Budapest, where she plans to start a new life with with János (Viktor Bodó), a doctor she met at a conference in New Jersey. When she finds him, he claims they’ve never met. “Intriguing in its insinuations and bolstered by a striking lead performance, Horvat suggests a series of ‘what ifs’ which recall classic Hollywood narratives reworked in a contemporary era of alienation and estrangement,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema.

In Night of the Kings, the second feature from Ivorian filmmaker Philippe Lacôte, the inmates at the notorious MACA correctional facility in Abidjan stage a ritual with each rising of a red moon. Like Scheherazade, a new arrival (Koné Bakary) must keep his fellow prisoners enraptured with his storytelling or risk losing his life. The tale he spins “has several beginnings and endings,” writes Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter, and at one point, it “seems to magically stretch back in time . . . to an ancient African kingdom, ruled over by a majestic queen (Laetitia Ky, sporting a relatively conservative example of the hair sculptures for which the artist-activist is known).” The storyteller is “secretly egged on by the sole white detainee, a quiet nutcase nicknamed Silence (Holy Motors’ Denis Lavant doing Denis Lavant).” Lacôte “becomes a kind of choreographer of underground energies and buried narratives,” writes Screen’s Lee Marshall.

Produced by Jia Zhangke, premiering in the Orizzonti program in Venice, and slated for Toronto’s Discovery section, Wang Jing’s debut feature, The Best Is Yet to Come, is inspired by actual events. Set in Beijing at the tail end of the SARS epidemic in 2003, the film centers on an ambitious young journalist, Han Dong (White K), who uncovers a network smuggling forged health certificates for tens of millions of Hepatitis B carriers who have become pariahs due to the false belief that they can spread the disease as easily as those infected with SARS. “Cleaving closer to the rigor and optimism of Spotlight than it does to the haunted poetry of the Sixth Generation films that Wang cites as his inspirations,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, The Best Is Yet to Come “opens with a flurry of documentary footage so raw and wounded that it betrays some of the more contrivedly manufactured scenes that follow.” At the Film Stage, Christopher Schobert agrees that “there are numerous missteps that lessen the impact and slow down the dramatic energy,” but overall, “the film remains a powerful, worthy tale of investigative writing and compassionate reportage.”

Palestinian twin brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser follow up on their winning 2015 debut Dégradé with Gaza mon amour, a film that reveals “how even the simplest of love stories can be thwarted by a repressive government, collective human foibles and an ancient Greek statue with a major erection,” writes Jordan Mintzer. Issa (Salim Daw), a sixty-year-old fisherman, fell long ago for Siham (Hiam Abbass), a local tailer, but has never worked up the courage to make his move. Overall, Gaza mon amour “has hints of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki, although it feels closest to the witty, surreal works of fellow Palestinian Elie Suleiman (It Must Be Heaven),” Mintzer continues. “It’s a rather ludicrous tale set in an even more ludicrous world, but a world that in many ways exists—at least for those who currently reside in the Hamas-governed territory of the Gaza Strip.”

TIFF 2020 will be running through September 19, and for more recommendations, turn to the annotated lists of most anticipated films at the Film Stage, Filmmaker, Hyperallergic, the Playlist, and Vanity Fair.

For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

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