Monday, October 2, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part five

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

This is the fifth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

Warrior of Light (Monika Treut)

A documentary about Yvonne de Mello, a well-to-do middle-aged woman who found her calling as a social activist, working with kids in the slums of Rio. The film functions mainly through observation: the children are all in terrible shape in one way or another – sick and malnourished, but also prematurely morally weary and locked into a wretchedly narrow frame of reference. You’re always aware too that her efforts can only address the tip of the iceberg. De Mello works through patient one-on-one nurturing, taking illiterate “savages of the asphalt” and slowly expanding their resources and possibilities through techniques as simple as listening to them (in the slums, she says, no one ever listens). She organizes classes and group events and for some provides medicine and housing and other fundamentals. The film sometimes verges on hagiographic – it lets de Mello use grandiose phrases like “you build mechanisms to survive” even in describing what she did to fit in at school. And by concentrating so closely on the kids, the film provides only a limited sense of the institutional battles and personal unpopularity that de Mello speaks to the camera about. It’s generally unremarkable in its technique. But moments like the 11-year-old girl, living in a home that can’t even afford a table, saying with deep conviction that “it’s bad to have children,” are always moving.

The Son’s Room (Nanni Moretti)

Moretti’s films are as understated and modest as the man himself seems to be – they prod gently and quizzically at their subjects, but you don’t feel that any major possibilities have been sold short. His new movie (a surprise winner at Cannes) deals with the reaction of a psychiatrist (played by the director) and his family to the death of a son. As is his custom, Moretti avoids many of the most obviously dramatic moments (such as the death itself) and finds an alternative route around the story, rooted in the quiet moments that illuminate the inner pain. The comic touches are muted on this occasion, confined mainly to scenes of Moretti’s patients and his ever-decreasing interest in them. Detractors might claim, not without validity, that Moretti takes this approach because he’s not up to creating scenes that lie outside his prevailing modest register. The film is pretty conventional in many respects, and I think the Cannes award was much too kind. And yet, it has an exquisite final passage, in which a passing incident from the son’s short life provides a way to closure, and the grieving family finally starts to rediscover its lost spontaneity and capacity for reinvention.

Hearts in Atlantis (Scott Hicks)

How many movies end with the hero recalling in voice-over how that long-ago summer marked the end of his childhood, gave him a new sense of the world, etc.? The key event in this particular chronicle is an encounter with an aging psychic, on the run from mysterious pursuers, who holes up in the kid’s small town. Such material would need extraordinary handling to avoid redundancy and ridiculousness, but director Hicks films Stephen King’s book as though it were the Dead Sea Scrolls. Every moment is probed and prodded for spiritual revelation – the overkill expended on such silly stuff strikes me as a real insult to the audience. Still, I thought the same thing about the similar King-based movie The Green Mile, and lots of people loved that – so they may buy into this one too. The psychic is played by Anthony Hopkins, who’s all but wearing a “Slumming” sign on his chest; the boy’s mother is Hope Davis, whose perpetual suspicion of Hopkins’ proclivity for hanging around kids is one of the film’s few points of psychological interest. At various points the movie has the potential for interesting social history, but that would require a clearer focus than Hearts in Atlantis ever summons. The only bright point for Hicks is that the general idiocy renders this film less boring than his last adaptation, Snow Falling on Cedars.

Enigma (Michael Apted)

A World War Two drama built around the breaking of a vital secret Nazi code, with a mathematician hero and a femme fatale lurking in the background of the action. The film is an odd amalgamation of elegant, unconventional plotting and shopworn stiff upper lip stuff, and it’s often hard to know whether its frequent confusion and lackluster pace are deliberate or not. The heart of the subject matter involves numbers on a page, endlessly scrutinized for their hidden meaning, and the film at its most intriguing finds a style that echoes this insular, obsessive heart. One example might be how it seems almost to neutralize much of its own drama: at both points when the hero makes his greatest deductive leaps, the cops are already there ahead of him. Or perhaps that too is just an example of poor design. At least the movie is intelligent enough that you can’t tell for sure (maybe one cuts it too much slack for being written by Tom Stoppard). The action is all extremely modest and old-fashioned – seldom going much beyond stealing secret files from cabinets, although near the end a U-boat surfaces in a Scottish loch. The definite oddity of the project is reinforced by a once in a lifetime producing credit: Produced by Lorne Michaels and Mick Jagger.

Warm Water under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura)

This Japanese film is an utterly distinctive chronicle of a newly unemployed man who travels to a small town in search of hidden treasure. He takes a job as a fisherman and falls in with a local woman who has an unusual condition: when she orgasms, she gushes out vast amounts of water (which, when it trickles down to the river, energizes the fish). It’s immediately clear from this synopsis that the film has a mythic or fantastic quality to it – the wonder is that it also feels utterly contemporary and relevant. The film sketches a multiplicity of private worlds – an old woman lost in memories of a lost lover, an African runner who’s chosen this bizarre setting for marathon training – and crafts its characters and incidents with great delicacy, but no sentimentality or smugness. Imamura’s beautiful widescreen compositions bring a classical framing and balance to things as mundane as supermarket shelves and piles of garbage. His thematic scheme is wide enough to make room for local stories, a detour into quantum physics, and a certain amount of raunchy sex. Unpredictability itself may be a large part of the design (even at the end, it’s introducing new subplots as quickly as it wraps up others) but it all holds together – this really illustrates what the idea of a filmic “master” is all about.

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