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Critics Notebook: Exploring Heaven & Hell At the Toronto Festival

Critics Notebook: Exploring Heaven & Hell At the Toronto Festival

Much has been inked about Ang Lee’s breathtaking “Brokeback Mountain” and Bennett Miller’s insightful “Capote” (the latter movie’s strength emerging from its fine performances rather than great directorial skill). Like many highly anticipated films, both front-ended Toronto, but they did more. Their protagonists set the tone for a recurring theme that ran throughout many of the fest’s most provocative offerings. They reside in some hell- or heaven-like place, sometimes both at the same time. Their position is more often than not of their own making. In “Brokeback Mountain,” Heath Ledger’s macho, emotionally challenged Ennis Del Mar lives in agony, for he is unable to fully live out his passion for Jake Gyllenhaal’s more flexible Jack Twist. In his remarkable rendition of Truman Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman takes us into the world of an astute, self-absorbed gadfly who, as a result of professional opportunism and inappropriate carnal lust, becomes a delusional prisoner of his own lonely inferno.

In the Lebanese film “A Perfect Day,” co-directed by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige–a movie gem that might be considered small in the context of such a large festival–Ziad Saad’s Malek is another man is trapped in the jaws of hell. The film takes place over the course of one very long day. Breathing is an operative metaphor: Malek, who is in his late twenties, suffers from narcolepsy and sleep apnea syndrome, a respiratory disorder. He and his mother are in the processs of having their presumably murdered father and husband declared legally dead 15 years after he disappeared during the Lebanese civil war. In this confused country, and under constant surveillance by his overprotective mother, Malek hasn’t a clue what to do with himself: He works construction, drives aimlessly around Beirut (sequences shot around various parts of the city are astounding), naps on seaside benches. A study in ennui, he nevertheless manages to keep a gun. His inferno is his stasis, his inability to act. (Parallels exist between Malek and downmarket provincial bullfighter Fernando Pacheco, aka “The Suicide, in the excellent Mexican documentary “Black Bull,” co-directed by Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio and Carlos Armella. Pacheco, however, is a creature not only of poverty but of his own self-destructive tendencies, which include rape, paint sniffing, and general abuse. While Malek inherits his inferno, Pacheco more or less opts for his.)

Both a man and a woman lock themselves into their own private perceptive hells in Australian Sarah Watt’s debut feature, “Look Both Ways,” winner of the Discovery award. William McInnes’s Nick is a photojournalist who, after discovering that he is racked with cancer, begins to view the world through a prism of dying and decay. Justine Clarke’s Meryl comes from a different place: She is a death-obsessed artist who focuses on “what-if” threats to herself and others. That these two get together is no surprise. Watts embellishes her chief protagonists’ primal responses with fine hand-painted animation and rapid stills sequences. Still, those textures are not enough to lift the overall film out of the twin morasses of too many characters and too tidy a tie-up. Anyway, Nick and Meryl’s love upgrades them to a more heavenly way of experiencing life.

Heaven and hell, whether literal or figurative, are frequently ambiguous in the most enticing Toronto fare. As Christopher Marlowe wrote 400 years ago in Dr. Faustus, “When all the world dissolves/And every creature shall be purified/All places shall be hell that are not heaven.” The title of Bosnian-born Danis Tanovic’s follow-up to “No Man’s Land” is “L’Enfer”, or Hell, so there is little doubt about the film’s point-of-view. Scripted by Polish screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz originally as a Kieslowski project, Tanovic has tranposed this tale of three anguished sisters to Paris. It feels completely like a gallic movie. (That it stars Emmauelle Beart, Karin Viard, and Carole Bouquet adds to the French lustre quotient.) The film is beautifully shot and edited, though frequently overwrought—and it’s dark, dark, dark. The baroque sensitibility is a far cry from Kieslowski. The estranged siblings are all hysterical, frustrated, unlucky with men. We never really understand why their mother, who believes she saw their father engaged in an act of pedophilia, felt the need to, Medea-like, “destroy” her daughters’ shot at happiness. “L’Enfer” is, however, an engrossing watch.

Abel Ferrara takes a much more complex view in his masterpiece “Mary,” his finest film in years. He deftly interweaves footage of a biopic on Mary Magdalene starring Juliette Binoche’s Marie; network interviews of Jesus scholars conducted by Forrest Whitaker’s hotshot TV commentator Ted; Marie’s post-wrap crisis in the Holy Land, where she attempts to understand the disciple that was Mary Magdalene, to incorporate her into her own life, and to give the repressed feminine component of the divine its due; and the atheist Ted’s crisis of faith when his newborn son lies near death. By cell phone, the believer Marie and the doubting Ted feed off each other. We expect Ferrara’s huge Christ statues, but his new, fresh views of New York City, at least as experienced by the wealthy, out-of-touch Ted, are as surprising as they are shocking. Threatening and intimidating, they are a physical manifestation of the Ted’s interior agony. The director is a man with a mission. “For Bush and Bin Laden to use the concept of religion for war is sad,” he told me after the film. “What are the real teachings of Christ? To find the truth and what he stood for is important.”

Korean director Kang Yi-Kwan’s first feature, “Sa-kwa,” winner of this year’s International Critics (FIPRESCI) Prize—is a more focused enterprise. In this nuanced, controlled melodrama, in which Kang tosses just the right amount of family-based humor into the mix, Moon So-ri’s Hyun-jung portrays a beautiful young woman whose private hell is being caught between two selfish men. One has dumped her, the other she marries on the rebound. As Hyun-jung loses her freshness and spark, Kang shifts backgrounds from bucolic nature scenes to depressing gray industrial landscapes. Human frailty in the face of life’s harsh choices is no match for the sublimity of nature. Still, Hyun-jung manages to wrest control of her fate away from the males who would hold her back. Hell has escape hatches.

No one is less afraid of exploring the capabilities of human transgression than the American director Michael Cuesta, as he showed in “L.I.E.” In the expressive, finely executed “Twelve and Holding“–perhaps my favorite film in Toronto–he shines his light even more on children than he did in his debut. They are really small adults, with all kinds of complex motivations. The film begins and ends with murders, of preadolescents by preadolescents. Cuesta and screenwriter Anthony S. Cipriano follow three young people, all portrayed by outstanding young actors. Jacob (Conor Donovan) has a facial birthmark that sets him apart. He is further isolated after losing his brother in a treehouse fire deliberately set by rivals. Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum) is a preteen with growing pains who can not help chase, even stalk, an older, troubled man. (That she reveals her body to him says a lot about Cuesta’s fearlessness, especially in the current moral climate.) At wit’s end, their obese friend Leonard (Jesse Camacho) locks his naggy, equally rotund mother in the basement. Besides friendship, what these youngsters have in common is a strong if conflicted relationship to their mothers, for whom they are occasionally instruments of action, even revenge. That action can be fatal. One person’s hell is another’s heaven. Using children for dark wish-fulfillment is not typical movie fare, and it is thanks to the Cuestas of this world that cinema can on occasion retain its rightful place as a subversive art.

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