The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

TIFF 2008: Some Films at a Glance

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Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo

Trying to get into the swing of things here in Toronto hasn’t been easy. But I won’t bore you with the details of our cross-border journey or our commune-like accommodations (we’ve nicknamed our two-room suite “the asylum”), though I should mention we’ve had some technical issues with our site that we’ve finally sorted out, so I hope you pardoned our graphical and video snafus of the past few days. One thing we feel confident about is that our latest footage, shot by Fernando Frias and Ana Maria Hermida, looks better than ever.

So far, I’ve caught a good number of decent films, including Bent Hamer’s O’Horten, a deadpan ode to aging and loneliness that follows a newly retired railroad engineer on a strange, cathartic journey to a ski jump in nocturnal Norway (think Scorsese’s After Hours helmed by Aki Kaurismaki, and you’ll have an idea). Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s invigorating Soul Power (just snapped up by Celluloid Dreams) is a high-energy assemblage of verité footage from the Zaire ’74 music festival, a kind of companion piece to the “Rumble in the Jungle” title bout that Leon Gast turned into the Ali-starring When We Were Kings. The film got my blood racing at a 9:30am screening a couple of days ago, and certain images—James Brown’s booty-bumping version of the title song, Celia Cruz belting out a few numbers with the Fania All Stars on board a flight to Kinshasa—have stayed with me. In the genre mold, Marco Kreuzpaintner’s dark teen fantasy Krabat, set in a 17th century Germany where plague and black magic cloud the efforts of an itinerant teen orphan to find shelter and camaraderie, wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but fans of Harry Potter or Peter Jackson may find its dark mythic storyline and atmospheric special effects more compelling than me. The good news is that Kreuzpaintner was a delightful conversationalist when we caught up with him yesterday, and he has just announced his next project: a biopic of New German Cinema icon Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Can’t wait for that one—truly.

I also caught Paolo Sorrentino’s rollicking Il Divo, a flashy, Felliniesque biopic of former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, a man presumed to have overseen the deaths of political enemies and lots of other sordid affairs in modern Italy. At a time when films about living politicians are more in vogue than ever (Stephen Frears’s The Deal and The Queen, Oliver Stone’s W.), “Il Divo” holds its own and then goes further, exploding the stylistic boundaries of both realism and by-the-numbers Hollywood fare, while harkening back to the work of pioneers like Elio Petri and Costa-Gavras. Atom Egoyan’s Adoration was a cerebral affair, as his films tend to be. Its hazy muddle of post-9/11 anxiety and Internet Age chatter offers plenty of food for thought, but the story of a high-school kid encouraged by a drama teacher to pretend his father is a terrorist (uh…what?) was jam-packed with absurd plot contrivances that left me frustrated. Still, Egoyan is a smart filmmaker, and Adoration made me appreciate his willingness to find new modes of storytelling to accommodate his recurring theme of post-traumatic reconciliation. (There’s an echo of The Sweet Hereafter in there somewhere.) This morning, I saw Barbet Schroeder’s provocative new S/M noir thriller Inju, about a French crime novelist (Benoit Magimel, fast becoming one of my favorite actors) who travels to Japan and gets ensnared in the deadly machinations of a mysteriously reclusive writer and rival. Suffice to say the film lived up to its subtitle, The Beast in the Shadows, while utilizing a number of vivid, Grand Guignol set pieces to intriguing effect. Lots more to come.

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