Saturday, September 15, 2007
In Toronto, Thinking Globally And Acting Cinematically
Collective Concerns Get Top Billing at Film Festival

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007; C01

TORONTO -- Movies matter again.

That's the subjective, informal, purely anecdotal take-away message from the 32nd Toronto International Film Festival, which concludes today. Over the past 10 days, more than 340 features and shorts were shown at the festival, which many viewers agreed featured an exceptional number of films that reflected a spirit of political engagement, global consciousness and social relevance.

More than in recent years, observers noted, Toronto films placed themselves squarely in current debates. "There were films of political consequence," said festival co-director Noah Cowan, "films that dealt with the culture clash in our own countries in the Western world and work that spoke to what happens to your identity when you start to hate the world. Filmmakers have taken up this challenge beautifully, and have made in some cases quite delicate and quite profound work that speaks to these issues."

Many longtime festival-goers concurred, including Paul Schwartzman, a Los Angeles-based director's agent whose clients include Lars von Trier and Wong Kar-Wai. Like Cowan, Schwartzman noted a distinct shift in tone from years past. "I do think some kind of critical mass is happening," he said. "There are so many fewer films about dissipated narcissism. So many of the films seem to be kind of allegories for how we're living in a post-9/11 world."

A typical day at this year's festival, which screened 349 feature-length and short films, might involve an early screening of the newest film by German (by way of Turkey) director Fatih Akin, whose movie "The Edge of Heaven" touches on such issues as identity, sexual politics, xenophobia and shifting personal and political borders, in a gently ironic story worthy of O. Henry. Then, the newest from Hungarian filmmaker B?la Tarr, hero to serious cineastes everywhere, whose somber-to-the-point-of-lugubrious "The Man From London" seems to exist in a place out of time, but nonetheless evokes the anxiety of post-Soviet societies in the throes of existential change.

From the searing drama about illegal abortion, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," to "California Dreamin' [endless]," by Mungiu's late countryman Cristian Nemescu, an unfinished film about American U.N. peacekeepers on their way to Kosovo; from Thomas McCarthy's reflective drama "The Visitor," about a Connecticut professor whose life becomes intertwined with illegal immigrants from Syria and Senegal, to "Persepolis," Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's visually breathtaking animated memoir of a girl coming of age in revolutionary Iran; from such major releases as "In the Valley of Elah," "Into the Wild" and "Eastern Promises" to the latest closely observed realist drama from Ken Loach, "It's a Free World . . . ," an undeniable sense of urgency and relevance was palpable this year. (Many of the films at the festival had played previously at Cannes and Venice, but Toronto served as their North American premieres.)

Indeed, the preponderance of movies on offer were so of-the-moment and of-the-world that the anomie portrayed in the period movie "Control," Anton Corbijn's poetic portrait of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, was positively jarring. Despite the movie's arresting visual style and actor Sam Riley's uncanny lead performance, it felt oddly disengaged compared with the sense of social engagement and global consciousness that animated the films that surrounded it.

(If there was an unwelcome critical mass, it was in the mini-trend of texting during screenings, which reached an epidemic of irritating proportions; the festival either should start making preliminary courtesy announcements or issue blinders.)

But this year's TIFF wasn't all heavy lifting. With more than 300,000 filmmakers, journalists, programmers, studio executives, agents and cine-tourists descending on the city, trudging in and out of theaters with bleary eyes and tattered schedules, the festival at its best resembles a Fellini-esque celebration of cinema at its most joyous, at its weirdest a scene out of Nathanael West's "Day of the Locust." As festival-goers chattered before the lights went down, no one had a bad word to say about such upcoming films as "Atonement," "No Country for Old Men" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." The dark comedy "Juno" emerged as an early buzz film, with Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding" and Alan Ball's "Nothing Is Private" proving to be the most polarizing.

With the likes of George Clooney, Sean Penn and Jodie Foster in town to promote movies ("Michael Clayton," "Into the Wild" and "The Brave One," respectively), it's not surprising to see packs of photographers suddenly taking over a city street like so many lupine predators. But the frenzy reached an even more manic pitch when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie swooped into Toronto on Saturday. With the couple in town for the North American premiere of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," the scene outside the Four Seasons Hotel was a scrum of SUVs and shouting paparazzi, the bars and cafes inside the hotel approaching a critical mass of hoisted elbows and swiveling necks.

Pitt had just won a best actor award at the Venice Film Festival for his portrayal of the eponymous outlaw. For her part, Jolie went to New York two days later to attend her first meeting as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, having visited Iraq two weeks earlier. Another convergence of its own, and somehow in keeping with the tone of a festival clearly energized by cinematic engagement with the world.