By William Wolf

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2008 (III)--THEME FILMS  Send This Review to a Friend

Festivals are traditionally an appropriate place for films that have something to say. Sure, audiences like to enjoy entertainment, but Toronto audiences are sophisticated in their determination to see films of substance. They also are partial to films that may not immediately turn up commercially, and on the theory that they can see the heavily promoted glitzy films opening shortly, they seek out movies that are likely to be more meaningful.

The Festival programmers select an abundance of those each year. I found a number of them that I especially enjoyed for one reason or another. Take “Last Stop 174,” a film from Brazil directed by Bruno Barreto. There already was a documentary about a much-publicized incident in which a bus was seized with passengers held hostage. Barreto decided to make a fictionalized drama of the event.

“People asked me why make another about the bus, the same situation,” Barreto recounted in an interview one morning. “But I found things missing in the story.” That inspired him to attempt to fill in the gaps and explain what happened and why. The result is a powerful drama that explores the poverty and the problems in life that led to the deed of the ill-fated hijacker.

There is an extremely strong performance by newcomer Michel Gomes as Sandro. I met Gomes along with Barreto, and the actor was excited to make his first trip to Toronto—and the first flight out of his country. Said Barreto: “I considered many actors before I decided on him. He was there early. I just had to be sure.”

I was also intrigued by an entirely different sort of film, one that explored the legend of Orson Welles by focusing on the story of a young actor who joins the Welles troupe in the heady days in New York when Welles was establishing his reputation as a stage actor and director. The film, titled “Me and Orson Welles,” was directed by Richard Linklater, with a screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, based on a novel by Robert Kaplow.

Christisan McKay gives a colorful performance as an arrogant Welles, full of bluster, and knowing how to manipulate people to serve him so that he gets what he wants. The story is built around preparations for the 1937 staging of “Julius Caesar” by Welles and his Mercury Theater company. Zac Efron plays Richard, the actor from whose viewpoint the story unfolds. The result is an intriguing glimpse into theater history and the genius who was soon to make film history,

There were also films in Toronto that more subtly examined aspects of human behavior. One especially charming example is “O’Horten,” a film from Norway written and directed by Bent Hammer and starring Baard Owe as Odd Horten, a railway engineer who retires and explores life in the context of his new found time. It is a quirky film that reveals much about himself and others to Horten on his peculiar, delightful journey.

The Irish rebellion against British rule is the theme of “Fifty Dead Men Walking,” Kari Skogland’s drama starring Ben Kingsley as a wily British intelligence operator who recruits Jim Sturgess as Martin to serve as an informer. Martin is squeezed into a difficult situation as his life and those of his family members are endangered. The story is based on a real case, and the real Martin is said to still be in hiding.

Another film dealing with the Irish-British battles is Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” a drama about the fatal hunger strike by rebellious Bobby Sands in a British prison, with Sands played by Michael Fassbender. The tough, brutal conditions at the Maze prison are detailed, and the film candidly shows the process of Sands dying of starvation to make his point abut the need to end British rule.

Director Rod Lurie’s “Nothing But the Truth,” another thematic movie shown in Toronto, stars Kate Beckinsale as a journalist who goes to jail rather than expose the source that set her onto a story revealing the outing of a woman as a CIA agent in retribution for criticism of Administration policy. It is fictional, but clearly brings to mind a real recent case under the Bush Admninistration.

Desperate efforts at immigration and the problems that can result are dealt with in “Le Silence de Lorna,” a new film shown in Toronto and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, the renowned brothers whose films have won praise throughout the film world. This one stars Arta Dobroshi as a woman from Albania who has come to Belgium and runs into dangerous problems as she tries to extricate herself from complications. It is filmed in the low key Dardenne style, but gains intensity as complications and danger mount as result of the Russian mafia involvement.

A higher profile theme film was the latest Spike Lee movie, “The Miracle at St. Anna,” a sprawling effort in which Lee attempts to set the record straight about the contributions of African-American soldiers in World War II. The drama, which begins with a mysterious shooting in New York, goes back in history to follow a black platoon during the fighting in Italy. Lee packs the film with far too much and it is rife with clichés, yet it does serve the purpose of getting across the main theme.

The above films are but examples of the many strong content films that could be found on the huge roster of the 20089 Toronto Festival.

  

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