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TORONTO ’06 CRITICS NOTEBOOK: “Half Moon,” “Venus,” “Art of Crying” Focus on Death; “Escape” and “Fi

TORONTO '06 CRITICS NOTEBOOK: "Half Moon," "Venus," "Art of Crying" Focus on Death; "Escape" and "Fi

With many of Hollywood’s biggest offerings bombing here in Toronto (stay away from “A Good Year” and “All the King’s Men“), critics have sought solace in half a dozen already proven Cannes favorites (“Volver,” “Climates,” “Babel“) and a number of smaller, newer foreign discoveries and documentaries.

For trend-seekers, death emerged over the first few days of the festival as a major theme, with films dedicated to the humorous, the poetic, the macabre, and the political aspects of shuffling off that mortal coil. But a triple-feature early in the fest of fatal flicks — Bahman Ghobadi‘s “Half Moon,” Roger Mitchell‘s “Venus,” and Danish newcomer Peter Schonau Fog‘s “The Art of Crying” – reflects just how death-obsessed our dramatists can be.

With “Half Moon,” Kurdish filmmaker Ghobadi (“A Time for Drunken Horses,” “Turtles Can Fly“) traces the journey of a famous elderly blind musician and his dozen sons as they try to make their way back to Iraqi Kurdistan to hold a musical concert – the first after the fall of Sadaam Hussein — despite the presence of bad omens. With the narrative thrust of a road-trip movie and the added suspense of smuggling a forbidden female singer across the border, the rollicking first hour of “Half Moon” may be the director’s most conventionally gripping.

And filled with striking imagery – from the cockfight that begins the movie to a fabulous magical realist interlude in a city of exiled woman singers – “Half Moon” confirms Ghobadi as a master craftsman. The movie isn’t always perfect, however, with a few detours in the road that don’t always coalesce and the annoyingly slapstick comedic presence of actor Allah-Morad Rashtian (though he’s more restrained than in “Marooned in Iraq“). Still, the narrative’s twists and the subversive, yet beautifully apt conclusion deliver plenty of poetic pleasures.

British director Mitchell also reaches poetic heights with another tale of dying; Peter O’Toole delivers a graceful, magnetic performance as an old thespian (he’s “cornered the market on playing corpses”) who falls in love with a teenage girl. Despite the potential contrivance of the set-up, Mitchell eschews sentimentality, wringing truthfulness from the friendship that develops between the old codger and his young charge, a working-class girl who gets a “Pretty Woman” makeover. A stellar cast of supporting older actors brings a sense of depth, comfort and comedy to the proceedings. One particular intimate exchange between O’Toole and Vanessa Redgrave (as his ex-wife), should be remembered as one of the most sensitive moments in Toronto this year.

A scene from Peter Schonau Fog’s “The Art of Crying.” Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The Art of Crying,” as its name suggests, also toys with issues of grief. An occasionally shocking tale of a hugely dysfunctional family, the film revolves around a highly depressive father, who uses his overwhelming self-pity and threats of suicide to control and abuse his children. When the youngest boy – a cute kid whose own coming-of-age is the story’s central spine — discovers his father cheers up when giving eulogies, he welcomes the death of neighbors and family members. With certain echoes of Todd Solondz‘s “Happiness” by way of Scandinavia, Fog’s script and direction is remarkable for its deft balance of comedy and tragedy.

Several journalists have already noted the political bent of Toronto’s screenings, with the appearance of Michael Moore and “Death of a President” over the weekend. But the threat of death in the form of politically motivated torture has been a conspicuous presence at the fest, from Philip Noyce‘s “Catch a Fire,” which shows the brutal torture of innocent South Africans who are thought to be members of the African National Congress, to Argentine director Israel Adrian Caetano‘s “Chronicle of an Escape,” a thin, but never than less engrossing thriller about men kidnapped and tortured by his country’s military dictatorship in the early 1980s.

In German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck‘s Oscar-bound “The Lives of Others,” it’s the East German Secret Police (or Stasi) who commit the manipulating, surveilling and interrogating. But in this strangely feel-good tragedy, the focus of the film rests on one secret policeman, a small, lonely by-the-book menace (Ulrich Muhe) who eventually begins to admire the artists he is spying on and tries to protect them. While the film builds to a searing climax, Henckel von Donnersmarck‘s very premise of uplifting this minor-Schindler — with slight touches of comedy, no less – doesn’t do justice to the far more horrible stories that must exist regarding the Stasi.

A scene from Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s “The Prisoner, Or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair.” Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Bypassing metaphor and getting straight to the contemporary heart of the matter, “The Prisoner, Or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair” recounts the true story of an Iraqi journalist’s humiliating and cruel treatment after he and his brothers were mistakenly taken from their house in Iraq, detained by the U.S. military and then sent to Abu Ghraib for nine months. Using footage from the arrest, the man’s riveting testimony, his own home movies and a creative use of comic-book-like illustrations of his abuse, filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein (“Gunner Palace“) paint a disturbing portrait of American injustice in Iraq and the overwhelming humanity of just one of its victims.

[Get the latest from the Toronto International Film Festival throughout the day in indieWIRE’s special Toronto ’06 section.]

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