By William Wolf


The eclectic selection of films at the Toronto International Film Festival 2004 included numerous works that had something special to say about issues, the state of the world or history. One of the very best was “The Sea Inside,” an astonishing film from Spain by director Alejandro Amenábar.

“The Sea Inside,” with an inspiring award-contender performance by Javier Bardem as man paralyzed from the neck down as a result of an injury suffered as a young man, deals with the right to die and is based on the true story of Ramón Sampedro, who took his own life in 1998 after a failed campaign to get the legal right to do so. He managed to get some 11 helpers to provide the necessary means without leaving a trail implicating anyone, and the prosecution of the last person to see him alive did not succeed for lack of evidence.

The film is deeply moving both for its treatment of the controversy and the very human portrait of Ramón and those around him. To be released by Fine Line Features, it certainly was a highlight of the festival. (See Film for full review when it is commercially released.)

“Downfall,” a film from Germany directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, accomplishes something that has eluded filmmakers dealing with the Nazi defeat in World War II. It gives a close-up of Hitler unlike the films that show him merely as a ranting lunatic. “Downfall” portrays the final days of Hitler and his cohorts as the Allies press in, the German forces are being decimated and Hitler decides on the course of suicide. Bruno Ganz plays him brilliantly, and while the raving Hitler is also there as he clings to the illusion of turning the war around and castigates his generals, we see him as a human being, albeit a warped one.

Some have objected to the idea of portraying him this way, but I have always felt that stereotyped versions of Hitler did a disservice to history. The big lesson that an ordinary person can morph into such a menace is the important one. The guy next door can be capable of villainy. Think the banality of evil.

Although two and a half hours long, “Downfall” is mesmerizing for its portrait. It is based upon two books, “Inside Hitler's Bunker” by Joachim Fest, and “Until the Final Hour,” by Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary, and Melissa Müller.

Veteran filmmaker Ousmane Sembene of Senegal has written and directed a great movie. His “Moolaadé” will be fixed in your mind forever once you have experienced it. Told in the most simple, straightforward terms, it gathers momentum and eventually soars with spirit and hope even though it deals with the upsetting subject of genital mutilation of women. Don’t be put off by the topic, for the film, while striking a welcome blow against genital cutting, is not a polemic, doesn’t rely on undue explicitness and ultimately is about so much more. Set in an African village, the film becomes a microcosm of male power, women’s struggle against oppression, conflict with cultural heritage and by extension, any battle by the oppressed against the oppressor. All this is accomplished in emotionally involving human terms. (See Film to click on full review.)

Jean-Luc Godard was back with “Notre Musique” (“Our Music”). Not unexpectedly for Godard these days, it is on the esoteric side, a pondering of the state of the world. It begins quite brilliantly with a montage of clippings about war, ranging back in history, and making the point about the cruelty of warfare as a permanent condition in the development of the world, from past to present.

Then Godard moves into more specific characterizations involving a literary conference in Sarajevo. One of his characters is a French-Jewish journalist from Israel, and of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is present in the dialogue at certain points. Although convoluted and difficult to follow at times, “Notre Musique” is a provocative work from a director who loves to seek new forms and stir debate about film and life. One can look upon it as a way of saying that our music is film, and also that our music is warfare. Godard himself is in the film as well.

The human condition expressed in deeply personal terms was also very evident among the films selected for Toronto’s massive movie exposition. For example, Pedro Almodóvar’s “Bad Education” is a flamboyant, stunningly made work that is a contemporary film noir. It deals with homosexuality—no surprise there—but in terms of a thriller involving deception, conflict and cover-up.

The performances are compelling, particularly that of Gael García Bernal, the hot-shot actor from Mexico whose career is dramatically on the rise. (He also plays the young Che Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries.” (Click on Film for full review.) There’s a scene in which he dons drag and performs as a seductive transvestite cabaret artist and he is sensational. The film involves characters coming to terms with who they are and the complications that stem from the situations that build when a film producer is visited by a young man from the past.

Personal relationships are also at the core of “Sideways” (see Film for full review), an entirely different sort of experience. It’s a film that ranks among the year’s highlights, with superb, entertaining performances and a fresh take on the buddy movie genre plus an unusual excursion into California wine country. I can promise you a rollicking good time. Directed by Alexander Payne and co-scripted by Payne and Jim Taylor based on a novel by Rex Pickett, “Sideways” cleverly spins the story of two pals setting off on what is supposed to be a memorable week.

Paul Giamatti gives a nuanced performance as Miles, a writer down in the dumps because he can’t get his novel published. He is pining for his former wife with an unrealistic hope that they might get together again. Miles’ friend Jack is an over-exuberant actor who is getting married at the end of the week but has never grown up. His aim is to score with chicks in one last fling before the wedding, and in the process see that Miles scores too. Thomas Haden Church is a riot in the part and would steal the picture from Giamatti if Giamatti weren’t so good as well. “Sideways” is also special for its dealing with wines, partly as an ode to California’s vineyards and partly as a send-up of pretension.

Writer-director-editor Jonathan Caouette’s startling “Tarnation” may spur a new genre of self-therapy home movies. The family at its center is so dysfunctional as to make viewing emotionally off-putting, yet Caouette is so candid and creative that the film is very special, as attested to by is inclusion in both the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.

Caouette began making home movies of himself and his family when he was 11 and a weird kid. Through the years—he’s now in his 30’s—he chronicled the life of his mother Renee Leblanc, his grandparents and life with his lover. Caouette takes all of these elements and, with home equipment and minimal cost, fuses them into a pastiche of documentary clips, special effects, surrealist montage, interspersed with inter-titles of the short used in silent movies. (See Film for full review)

(More to Come)


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