Tanto Toronto!

Our critic wraps up 10 jam-packed days at this year’s (particularly political) Toronto International Film Festival

The 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, which overlapped the fifth anniversary of September 11 (back in 2001, the American press here were stranded by the air-traffic lockdown), had plenty of politics on its mind. From somber Bush-damning documentaries (Spike Lee’s requiem for the victims of Katrina) to flights of partisan fancy (a mock-doc that imagined the President’s assassination) to all points in between, pure escapism was hard to come by.

Even the one laugh-till-it-hurts hit of the fest was tinged with political controversy: Borat, the spinoff of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show that was by far the most discussed movie here, reportedly angered the actual government of Kazakhstan with the way the country was represented. I don’t know what their problem is — I’d rather talk world politics with Borat than with Bush any day.

Quite a few high-profile films played more for publicity’s sake than anything: When you already have a US premiere scheduled in a few weeks, the main benefit of Toronto is red-carpet glitz and a high concentration of entertainment reporters. Knowing I’d see them soon enough, I skipped Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (both praised highly by practically all who saw them), as well as Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (not so much).

Staying in the mainstream, I couldn’t resist checking out Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction. Though it wasn’t nearly the experimental dazzler its premise suggested — Ferrell plays a man who realizes he’s a fictional character in someone’s novel, then sets out to confront his maker — it charmed me and offered the bonus perk of a Spoon-heavy soundtrack.

The studio film that floored me, though, was Little Children, which looks to be a strong contender for Best of 2006. A tale of infidelity with the narrative scope and metaphoric depth of a really satisfying novel (In the Bedroom director Todd Field worked with Tom Perrotta to adapt the latter’s book), it stars Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson, the last of whom you may remember as William Travis in The Alamo. Equal in importance to the onscreen cast, though, was an uncredited narrator whose sardonic, sober voiceover was unlike any I’ve heard in a movie and went a long way to balance the serious and comic sides of the story.

World-cinema devotees with a high tolerance for exoticism applauded Opera Jawa, which used gamelan music and court dances to retell an ancient Indian legend in musical form, but I was mesmerized by Syndromes and a Century, a cryptic but beautifully deliberate work by Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Of the better-known international names, I was most excited by new entries from Aki Kaurismaki (The Man Without a Past) and Tony Gatlif (Latcho Drom), but had to miss both to catch one by Kim Ki-Duk, whose Time examined the perils of jealousy through a twisted, O. Henry-ish plot about extreme cosmetic surgery.

I saw two documentaries on my last day, both of which deserve a theatrical run: Manufactured Landscapes was a Rivers and Tides-like view of an artist’s working process, but, given the nature of his work, it involved a substantive look at the massive environmental impact of global trade and capitalism; Lake of Fire (directed by Tony Kaye of American History X) took a far-reaching look at the abortion debate, but brought a couple of captivating new perspectives to a discussion that, given changes in the Supreme Court, isn’t about to go away.

The festival’s most unique treat was seeing a film in a way that few will be able to: Winnepeg eccentric Guy Maddin was here with his latest, a 12-part silent serial titled Brand Upon The Brain!, and festival organizers (still trying, years later, to make up for the fact that they rejected his first film) staged a true spectacle for its premiere. More than a dozen members of Toronto’s orchestra filled the pit of a grand old movie house called the Elgin and played the score live, while the box seats alongside the audience housed one live narrator, three foley artists creating sound effects, and a rotund, middle-aged man in a cape and fur cap who turned out to be a castrato.

Not that it mattered with all those diversions, but Brand may be Maddin’s best film yet. And there wasn’t a single bit of politics in it — although the psychosexual implications of the plot could certainly give conservatives a sleepless night or two.

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