Whenever five different movies, selected more or less at random, suggest a common theme, then you have to wonder: Is it the viewer's undifferentiating eye that insists on similarities, or do the movies actually have something in common.
Well, the five movies that make up your correspondent's first day at this year's Toronto International Film Festival turn out to share an abiding fascination with secrets or, at least, masquerade.
The first one, unfortunately, handles its driving notions stereotypically. Rendition, the first Hollywood feature by South African Gavin Hood (whose Tsotsi won a foreign-language Oscar), is the type of liberal film which wears its good intentions on its sleeve. Meant as an exposé of the already well-exposed CIA practice of sending terrorist suspects off to countries which routinely practice torture, the movie commences on a psychological misstep: As a doctrinaire work, it denies the possibility of psychological or moral complexity.
The movie features two heroes: The first, virtually a mere victim, is 34-year-old Anwar El-Ibrahimi (handsome and compelling Omar Metwally), a chemist and Egyptian citizen who has spent the last 20 years living and working (legally) in the U.S. Suspected of receiving suspicious phone calls, he's seized by CIA agents and flown to a “Middle Eastern country” (which appears to be Tunisia) where he's interrogated and tortured by one of the country's security agents. This brutality is witnessed by a CIA analyst played by Jake Gyllenhaal, whose idealistic soul quickly rebels against the sanctioned violence.
Around and about these two orbit a collection of characters as simplistically drawn, and predictable. Meryl Streep plays yet another ice queen, this one a CIA honcho (efforts to emphasize her inhumanity extend to her rudeness to her maid); a glib Peter Sarsgaard as a well-meaning but ineffectual Senate aide; and an underutilized Reese Witherspoon as Anwar's loyal American wife. Hood isn't bad at throwing together one or two of these characters into a single scene, but altogether they don't amount to much more than cheap ironies and self-congratulatory pronouncements.
Persepolis is something else entirely, though equakky seeded with good intentions. It's an adaptation of Marjane Satrapi autobiographical graphic novel about her life as a girl and woman in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran, as well as her disillusioning years as a college student in Vienna. Satrapi and French artist and filmmaker Vincent Paronnaud do an excellent job of animating the book's woodcut-style graphics and, almost without exception the characters (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, and Danielle Darrieux, among many others) are as vividly evoked as the art. Unfortunately, the and-then-this-happened storytelling style works against the cumulative emotional possibilities, but this is a fine and compelling work.
“Superb” is the word for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the second arresting Romanian feature in as many years to illuminate the festival, as well as the winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Cristian Mungiu's second features follows two university students as they try to obtain an illegal abortion for one of them in 1987 (in 1988, after the Ceaucescu regime's fall, a 22-year ban on abortion was lifted). Pregnant Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), turns out to be a passive and manipulative sort who leaves most or the pre- and post-procedure arrangements to her efficient and determined dorm roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca). Gabita's foul-ups and Otilia's improvised solutions end up angering the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov), casting the possibility of the operation into doubt.
Mungiu's deploys a surprising number of successful suspense devices in what is overwhelmingly a psychological and moral drama cast in resolutely realist terms. Intriguingly, the ramifications of the abortion itself take a backseat to immensely complicated, if minutely detailed, moral complications among the three main characters. Even after this early press screening, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days emerges as one of the highlights of the festival and of 2007.
My Enemy's Enemy is Scottish director Kevin Macdonald's first film since his award-winning feature, The Last King of Scotland. Macdonald here returns to his documentary roots with an examination of the post-war career of Klaus Barbie, the Nazi occupation official and convicted war criminal who earned to sobriquet “The Butcher of Lyon.”
There wouldn't appear to be much to say about Barbie after Marcel Ophuls's massive film Hotel Terminus. But Macdonald picks up a thread that was mostly just averred to in Ophuls's film, that is Barbie's role as an interrogator, torturer and plotter for dictatorial generals in Bolivia from the 1950s through the 1980s.
The problem is that Macdonald can't quite make the case that Barbie's Latin American career matches up in monstrous criminality to his Nazi past or immediate post-war career as a manipulative American counter-intelligence asset. My Enemy's Enemy certainly confirms that Barbie was nothing less than a viper and criminal in his Bolivian redoubt. But larger claims that he played a initiating role in coups or tried to establish a National Socialist state in Bolivia, though made with equal enthusiasm, are not completely convincing. After all, isn't it Eurocentric to claim that indigenous monsters need the conviction of a German Nazi to commit their crimes?
My day ended happily with the latest from Eric Rohmer, Les Amours d'Astree et de Celadon (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon). The movie is based on an idyllic novel by a 16th-century French writer, Honoré d'Urfé, which is set in a mythical, pre-Christian, 5th-century Gaul. Rohmer states in an opening title that he's designed the film to look as such a world might be imagined by a 16th-century reader, a remark which would seem to a prologue to much stylization.
But while the dialogue - at least in subtitles - bears a certain stilted classicism, visually the film is refreshingly, if a bit deceptively, simple. The settings are largely restricted to forest and meadow, a river, one castle, and an arbor. For the most part, characters (mostly shepherds) dress in plain sandals and tunics, or lightly ornamental dresses.
The story, too, is disarmingly plain. The lovers Astree (Stéphanie Crayencour) and Celadon (Andy Gillet) quarrel after Astree spies what she thinks is Celadon cheating with another young woman. He's not, but rather than accept his explanations, Astree banishes Celadon from her sight, a command Celadon takes to heart by throwing himself into a river and, apparently, drowning.
He doesn't, of course, and thus begins a brightly burnished, neo-classical roundelay of reconciliation which, before its over, involves the shepherding community, a promiscuous minstrel, three nymphs, and a druid. Before its over, Celadon will have to fight off the come-ons of one of those nymphs while, finally, masquerading as a woman in order to approach Astree.
Two of Rohmer's persistent talents lift his latest above the status of a bauble. First there is his conviction that moral obstinacy, though occasionally obnoxious, is all-important to the development of true love. Second is the 80-something-year-old's brilliance as a colorist. That brilliance, paradoxically, produces a deliberately pale vision, here, with soft greens, white, and hints of brighter colors employed to set-off the beautiful, animate flesh-tones of the lovers and their friends. In other words, a wholly satisfactory work from one of the world's lingering masters.