(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2002)
This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.
Kedma (Amos Gitai)Gitai’s latest exploration of Israeli history is much more successful than last year’s Eden, although that’s largely a result of visceral pleasures: his one-take approach to battle scenes, for example, is almost unmatched (and I include polished films like Saving Private Ryan). Actually starting with a virtuoso single take, aboard a ship bringing a group of refugees to Israel, the film follows some of the group as they evade British soldiers and then travel toward a kibbutz, encountering Arab resistance on the way. The film is extremely similar in tone and style to Gitai’s earlier work Kippur: well-staged action alternates with debate and soul-searching, and the dialogue can seem very forced at times. In general though, Kedma effectively sets out the contradictions at the heart of modern Israel, never more so than in an anguished closing monologue (“I think that Israel isn’t a Jewish country anymore”) on how Jews are pushed to violence (Jewish history is “a history imposed by goyim”). And the film inevitably gains power from its foreshadowing of current conflicts. “We’ll remain here in spite of you,” shouts an old Arab at the Jews who stole his donkey in the course of their journey, “like a wall…we’ll be hungry, we’ll be in rags. But we’ll defy you.”
In America (Jim Sheridan)An Irish couple and their two daughters settle illegally in New York (fortunate enough to find a large vacant apartment on their first day). They live on a shoestring, always haunted by the recent accidental death of their young son. For all of their troubles, New York remains a largely mystical atmosphere, especially with the mysteriously charismatic black painter living downstairs, and there are suggestions of celestial forces weaving through their lives (aren’t there always?) The print shown at the festival qualifies “In America” as a working title – maybe the final title should be “In Dreams,” because this sentimental romanticizing of poverty doesn’t seem to have much to do with real life as I’ve ever seen it. Ambling along as these anecdotal kinds of films always do, it has the occasional good scene, but the grander ambitions fall flat. Key among these is a concept of the father as closed-off and distant, so unable to engage with life that at one point his daughter accuses him of being an impostor; but it doesn’t come across, maybe because actor Paddy Considine seems even more stilted than the character he’s playing. It adds up to a vastly derivative project, teetering under the layers of uplifting mysticism that Sheridan has it carry.
Secretary (Steven Shainberg)Shainberg’s debut film, about the sado-masochistic relationship between a bottled-up lawyer and the disturbed young woman who comes to work for him, could be seen merely as a catalogue of kinky ideas, and perhaps can’t be seen as much more than that. So the value judgment all depends how you respond to the movie’s extremely accommodating attitude. Personally, I liked it nearly all the way along, with doubts really only arising over the ending, which casts the final state of the relationship in rather conventional terms. In particular, the final shot, in which she stares straight into the camera, daring us to judge her, is too strenuous a statement of feminist credentials. That’s nearly the only unsatisfying shot of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who seems to have figured out every nuance of her character. James Spader initially seems to be playing his part more conventionally and superficially, but this is but one of many ways in which the film’s deftness might initially be underrated. Some of the weirdest (which I guess equals the best) ideas are almost thrown away, which must be a sign of confidence. The film has already opened commercially since the festival, and it’s taken some knocks for its exploitation aspects; your enjoyment of the movie should be pretty closely correlated with your tolerance for the premise.
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)Miyazaki’s feature-length animated film has also opened commercially since the festival (where it played as Miyazaki’s Spirited Away). It’s the biggest hit of all time in Japan, and in the recent Sight and Sound poll it received three votes as one of the best ten films of all time. I’m no anime connoisseur, and this film’s veins of cuteness, occasional visual flatness, and general weirdness could confirm one’s prejudices – if you ignored the genuinely unique, seemingly otherworldly imagination on display here. It’s about a young girl who wanders with her parents onto what they think is an abandoned theme park – the parents find and eat some food that changes them into pigs, and she finds herself working in a bathhouse for the spiritual world. Miyazaki has worked out every detail of the environment: the film has eye-popping spirits, and explanations of the water-pumping system; boys that turn into flying dragons, and railway systems that aren’t what they used to be. This has its serious undertones – the festival brochure cites “the strength and insight of innocence…the disintegration of religious faith and other forms of spirituality.” But I question whether the film’s mysticism and theme of belief in oneself are inherently that profound. The magic is in Miyazaki’s almost disturbingly uncategorizable creativity, and a visual style that perfectly expresses both the simplicity and complexity of his sensibility. I enjoyed Spirited Away as much as an animated film I’ve ever seen.
The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismaki)