(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2006)
This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.
When the Levees Broke (Spike Lee)
I actually saw this on TMN before the festival, in installments, but I’m glad the programmers allowed a space for it on the big screen, where it must have been overwhelming. Over four hours, Lee constructs a detailed, often anguished account of Hurricane Katrina, built primarily on the testimony of those who lived through it, who lost their homes or family members, or were dislocated, or left crushed by the inadequacy of the response at all levels. The documentary footage, of course, is hard to process; the frailty of human infrastructure has never been established so cruelly. Lee’s approach is sober and meticulous, nailing all the salient points about FEMA and Bush and insurance companies (who are subject to some particularly damning testimony) and the local authorities, but never overplaying it, always returning quickly to the human consequences - it’s conspicuously short on the moments of optimism that normally pepper such documentaries. Six months or more after the disaster, vast areas remain unreclaimed, bodies continue to be found, and victims languish wherever they were dropped down (often without regard to family unity), and although the Mayor talks about rebuilding New Orleans, there’s no sense that the institutional willpower exists for such a task. For a director often regarded as flashy and bombastic, Lee is amazingly restrained here, and his film soars on that sorrowful maturity.
Belle toujours (Manoel de Oliveira)
De Oliveira, believe it or not, is 98 years old. His films don’t get shown much outside the film festival, but I very much enjoyed his Je rentre a la maison a few years ago (made when he was a mere 93) – it was clearly self-referential, but with an entrancing sense of ethicism and elegance (and a funny contrivance about a phenomenally miscast film of Joyce’s Ulysses). The new film is a homage and quasi-sequel to Belle de Jour, dedicated to its creators Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere, with two of the main characters meeting again forty years later (Michel Piccoli reprises his original role, and Bulle Ogier replaces Catherine Deneuve, quite effectively). De Oliveira isn’t as elegant or as wicked a filmmaker as Bunuel, but his more static style suits the premise of personal demons relaxed by age, and he does work in a couple of images and ideas weird enough to suggest that the old surrealist’s spirit may momentarily have taken over. At other times, in truth, the film just seems a little off (it has, for one thing, the least persuasive prostitutes in recent cinema, not that I didn’t find them rather charming). Much of it though is silent and contemplative, so that the homage is most persuasive at the broad conceptual level, when it merely conveys the contentment of observing something (or someone) of abiding beauty.
Fantasma (Lisandro Alonso)
This is Alonso’s third film; at the time of his second, Los Muertos, the festival programme book called him “one of the most talented and visionary filmmakers to emerge from the New Argentine Cinema movement.” Difficult to assess exactly how huge a compliment that might be, but Los Muertos struck me as somewhat academic, although well sustained. Fantasma is built around a premiere screening of Los Muertos, with the lead actor and virtually no one else attending. The event is framed by various mundane activities within the somewhat run down building complex. In subject and execution, the film is an elevation of cinema, insisting on the fascination inherent in marginal events and on the privileged nature of our spectatorship; and Alonso’s willingness to place his own previous film in such a desultory light shows some laconic amusement at the ultimate stature of the cinematic artist. Having said that, the “vision” here is limited and insular, and the film yields nothing that hasn’t been amply implemented elsewhere. As if it wasn’t already divorced enough from externalities, Fantasma is also (per the programme book) a “devoted homage” to Tsai Ming-Liang’s Good Bye, Dragon Inn, prompting the thought that Alonso’s next film desperately needs to be about anything other than cinema itself.
The Caiman (Nanni Moretti)
Moretti’s movies are generally as understated and modest, and yet as slyly impactful, as the man himself seems to be, prodding gently and quizzically at their subjects, without leaving you feeling any major possibilities have been sold short. For much of its length though I wondered if The Caiman was equal to his usual standard. It’s about Silvio Berlusconi, only recently deposed as Italian Prime Minister after a long, incredibly controversial tenure; filtered through the device of a movie producer, down on his personal and professional luck, who’s trying to finance a young director’s film about the Great Man. In many ways, it’s Moretti’s most conventional work; the family dynamics and comic set-ups are distinctly short on the grace notes we expect from him, and they frequently overwhelm the film’s political core. The tone often seems rather resigned, as if implicitly accepting the opinion delivered by Moretti himself (in a cameo where he’s offered and turns down the lead role in the film within the film) that there’s nothing new to say about Berlusconi, and merely lurching on for the sake of it. But it all seems much cannier in light of the complacency-busting finale, where the framing story falls apart, the gloves come off, and Moretti makes the extent of Berlusconi’s assault on democracy almost frighteningly clear.
Coeurs (Alain Resnais)
In my preview article, I highlighted the 84-year-old Resnais’ new film as probably the one I was most looking to overall. Not that his films have necessarily been among my favourites, but I bow before any octogenarian who continues to experiment, particularly when the most recent results have actually been rather sweet. Coeurs is in many ways one of his most straightforward films, with six unfulfilled characters connecting in various mostly unfulfilling ways (it’s based on an Alan Ayckbourn play, with the illustrative title Private Fears in Public Places). The tone is mostly quiet, refracted through a gauzy, sometimes almost abstracted image quality and a recurring motif of falling snow. There are no exterior scenes, and indeed the search for a satisfactory living space is a key theme - as if one’s inner lack might be externalized and conquered through structure and furniture (the film’s most devout character, and possessor of its most astonishing hidden depths, describes the human quest as being to avoid damnation by trying to pull the hellfire out of ourselves). Resnais expertly blends the film’s depressing connotations into a strangely beguiling surface, one that sometimes quivers with melancholy; he’s well aided by wonderful acting, mostly by actors who’ve worked with him many times before. My hopes for this film were higher than my expectations, but it’s pleasing to report that hope triumphed.