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    Scene from the French film L'Equipier (The Light). in Toronto International Film Festival: European Vistas
    Scene from the French film "L'Equipier" ("The Light").

    Toronto Film Festival: European Vistas

    European directors featured in the Toronto Film Festival take on fascism in the past and vicious conflicts of the present.


    A large part of the enjoyment in attending a film festival of Toronto's magnitude is the chance to get caught up in stories unfolding against a wide range of international locations. If time or budget constraints limit one's travel, seeing the world through the eyes of prodigiously talented filmmakers is the next best way to go. At the 29th Toronto fest, some of the European locales on view were exotic in their allure, while others were recreations of famous cities during pivotal times in history.


    Related links: Official site

      Festival: Toronto International Film Festival: Asia in Focus
    About one in six films at the Toronto International Film Festival came out of Asia, ranging from Hong Kong stalwarts to Korean upstarts.

      Festival: Toronto International Film Festival: Indie Features
    While big-studio boutique films generated their own buzz, a number of lower-flying entries in the Toronto Film Festival pushed boundaries, possibilities and sometimes credibility.


    Three love stories very different in tone, subject and epoch provided singular pleasures on Toronto screens. Philippe Lioret's "L'Equipier" ("The Light") takes place in 1963 on the island of Ouessant, the western-most part of France off the shores of Brittany. Assigned by the government's civil service, wounded Algerian war veteran Antoine (Gregori Derangere of "Bon Voyage") arrives to fill a job that has opened due to a death in the community. He immediately meets resistance; city bred, he seems too well educated to be the new lighthouse keeper, not to mention there was a local in line for the job. Antoine gradually overcomes some of the hostility through the support of his coworker Yvon (Philippe Torreton), but their friendship is tested by the growing attraction between Antoine and Yvon's wife (Sandrine Bonnaire). Patrick Blossier's cinematography equally captures the watery light of the Breton coast and the dizziness of a romantic tryst beneath fireworks; the score by Nicola Piovani provides a lush counterpoint to the rugged lives of the islanders, whose passions are matched by the pounding ferocity of the ocean.

    "5x2," Francois Ozon's follow-up to his psychological mystery "Swimming Pool," is sort of a reverse whodunit. Or rather, a "why-they-dun-it," because the film starts with the divorce of a handsome French couple (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Stephane Freiss) and follows them backward in time through significant stages in their relationship, right up to the point where they first meet at a holiday resort. As in Harold Pinter's "Betrayal," behaviors acquire added meanings and poignancy as we learn more about the lovers' history, but fatalism is offset by the vitality of the actors, who — even when things get savage — bring a charged aura of possibility to each of the five stages in the life of the couple.

    Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in Ladies in Lavender. in Toronto International Film Festival: European Vistas  
    Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in "Ladies in Lavender."
    "Ladies in Lavender"

    British actor Charles Dance makes his directorial debut with "Ladies in Lavender," a crowd-pleasing vehicle for two great dames, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, who play elderly sisters residing on the Cornish coast before the onset of World War II. They are content in their domesticity, until they decide to make room in their home — and their hearts — for a shipwrecked young Polish refugee. Dance adapted his screenplay from a story by William J. Locke, a popular early-20th-century novelist whose works have been the basis for some twenty pictures. Although it definitely has a period feel, this British country tale is neither twee nor despairing (like in the mode of, say, an H.E. Bates). The straightforward plot holds little suspense, saving most of the screen time for the big emotions captured in small gestures by these two formidable actresses.

    Bowing in Toronto were two thrillers of note about hit men, one young, one aged. Jan Decleir plays the veteran skilled assassin in Erik Van Looy's stylish Belgian policier, "The Alzheimer Case." The hired gun suspects he's being conned by those who've signed him for one last hit — but he can't be sure, because his short-term memory lapses are seriously hampering business. With the aid of clues he ingeniously leaves for himself as important reminders, he tries to remain two steps ahead of gangsters, corrupt officials and some dedicated cops. The plot has enough twists and turns to satisfy fans of the detective genre, and Danny Elsen's cinematography is gorgeous, whether he's capturing a landscape bathed in pale Northern light, or velvety night shots that increasingly symbolize the dark oblivion facing the central character.

    Also suffering from impaired memory — but because of childhood trauma — not illness — is the Parisian killer in Ra-up McGee's feature debut, "Automne." Laurent Lucas ("In My Skin") stars as a fastidious hitman whose buttoned-down feelings and recollections resurface when he unexpectedly encounters his cherished boyhood friend, now grown into a stunning young woman (Irne Jacob of "Red" and "The Double Life of Veronique"). She's in trouble with drug dealers, and her problems soon become his. The American-born writer/director, who grew up on French movies and has clearly been influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville, deliberately chose underexposed Paris locations to achieve a cool feeling of isolation, and his screenplay is a tight jigsaw of double- and triple-crosses.

      Bruno Ganz as Hitler in Downfall. in Toronto International Film Festival: European Vistas
      Bruno Ganz as Hitler in "Downfall."
    "Modigliani" / "Downfall"

    While the Toronto buzz for movies about Che Guevara, Ray Charles and Alfred Kinsey was furiously launching the Oscar campaigns for "The Motorcycle Diaries," "Ray" and "Kinsey," on other screens two more biopics were unspooling. Co-producer Andy Garcia acquits himself well in the title role of "Modigliani," writer/director Mick Davis's portrait of the tortured genius, and Bucharest stands in well for Paris (only a few scenes were filmed in France). Normally I'm susceptible to movies about the creative process, but the script plays like a "Who's Who" of the early-20th-century art world, where practically every character is a famous personage and greeted as such, and name-dropping becomes a shorthand substitute for character development. The movie's best sequence is a montage of painters furiously at work, as Modigliani, Picasso, Utrillo, Kisling, Jacob, Soutine and Rivera compete for a coveted prize; if only the rest of the film could have sustained that energy.

    Better realized, although frustrating in a different way, is the German drama "Downfall," set in a recreated Berlin during Hitler's final days. As the Fhrer, world-class actor Bruno Ganz carries the film, playing the leader of the Third Reich as soft-spoken and solicitous of his trusted followers, but easily provoked into paranoid rages — which get greater as the war nears its end. The movie is scripted by Bernd Eichinger, who adapted both Joachim Fest's bestseller "Inside Hitler's Bunker" and the memoirs of Traudl Junge, the dictator's secretary; it's directed with appropriate gravity by Oliver Hirschbiegel, who's crafted a more complex work than his previous hit, "Das Experiment." "Downfall" is so packed with detailed observations, it's like eavesdropping on history; but for all the carefully modulated performances, it's also two and a half hours of listening to Nazis whining about losing the war. Fascinating — if you're in the mood.

    "Walk on Water" / "Private"

    Nazis play a role as well in Eytan Fox's low-key spy thriller, "Walk on Water." As in his previously released "Yossi & Jagger" (which he shot during a hiatus on this production), the director meshes two concerns: Israeli security, and homosexuality. Lior Ashkenazi (the heartthrob from "Late Marriage") plays Eyal, a Mossad agent who at the top of the film kills a terrorist vacationing with his family in Istanbul. Once back at home, Eyal is drafted to close an old case on an escaped Nazi. Going undercover as a tour guide, he gets close to the fugitive's beautiful granddaughter, who is living in Israel on a kibbutz, and the gay grandson who arrives for a visit. Eventually the action moves to Berlin for a strained ending, but not before some provocative stretches where the script examines the role of the Holocaust in Israel today, Germans' attitudes toward their country's history, and the potential for love to overcome the darker side of nationalism.

    Private. in Toronto International Film Festival: European Vistas  
    "Private" is a narrative feature that has the realism of a documentary; it's set in the West Bank even though it was shot in Calabria by Italian filmmaker Saverio Costanzo. Long multiple takes (ten minutes or more) and the enforced closeness of the Israeli and Palestinian cast (who lived in the local house together during the shoot) make for a raw dramatic experience almost lacking in artifice. A Palestinian family living a ways from town but too close to a terrorist stronghold find themselves unwilling hosts when Israeli troops commandeer their home. The father refuses to vacate the premises, so the family is relegated to the living room where they're locked up at night, while the soldiers move up to the second floor, with the kitchen remaining a shared space. Even though both sides begin to know and understand each other better while confined to such tight quarters, this hard-hitting tale, which has its basis in a true story, is not optimistic.

    Three French films in brief, with the bad news first. "L'Intrus," one of the festival's most eagerly awaited films because of its director, Claire Denis ("Chocolat," "Beau Travail"), turned out to be a disappointment, a muddled quasi-thriller about an older man who'll stop at nothing to acquire a young, healthy heart for a needed transplant operation. Only slightly better was Yvan Attal's followup to "My Wife is an Actress"; in "And They Lived Happily Ever After" he again plays a neurotic character married to a sexy woman (as before, played by his real-life wife Charlotte Gainsbourg). Even the presence of Johnny Depp can't remove the sour taste of this story about a couple on the rocks.

    Now the good news: the happy discovery was Raymond Depardon's documentary "The 10th District Court, Moments of Trials," where Justice Michele Bernard-Requin outdoes Judge Judy in the sagacity of her verdicts, and the charisma with which she renders them. Luckily for us, a large section of Parisian life finds its way into her courtroom; the variety of their offenses and the degrees of guilt make engrossing viewing.

    Festival articles



    Toronto International Film Festival: Indie Features

    While big-studio boutique films generated their own buzz, a number of lower-flying entries in the Toronto Film Festival pushed boundaries, possibilities and sometimes credibility.

    DECEMBER 15, 2004

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