By Kevin Lally
My final day at the Toronto International Film Festival began and ended with films by Italian directors whose work I've admired in the past--Gianni Amelio and Emanuele Crialese--and they didn't disappoint.
Amelio (Lamerica) adapted The First Man from an incomplete manuscript by Albert Camus which was discovered in the wreckage of the car accident that killed the famed author. The autobiographical tale recounts Camus' impoverished childhood in French Algeria, raised by an illiterate mother and fearsomely strict grandmother. Amelio adds scenes of Camus' surrogate, Jacques Cormery (Jacques Gamblin), returning to his homeland as a celebrated writer in 1957, amidst the violent turmoil between French citizens and native Arabs. In flashbacks to the late 20s, we see the decency and resilience of the young Jacques, and how his outlook is shaped by his family and his future is saved by a teacher who sees his potential. Through his antagonistic relationship with a sullen Arab boy, we also discover why the adult Jacques is willing to speak out for the Arab community despite the raging controversy that erupts among his fellow Frenchmen. Throughout, Amelio's evocative depictions of two different eras and his sensitive direction of his actors add up to a moving portrait of an artist's formation.
With Terraferma, Crialese (Respiro, The Golden Door) creates a masterly drama of colliding cultures on the tiny island of Linosa, near Sicily. The story centers on a fishing family whose younger generation is embracing the changing times and the opportunities for tourism on their picturesque island. The drama kicks into high gear when the family patriarch rescues a group of illegal African immigrants at sea, one of whom is about to give birth. The family provides the refugees shelter, choosing compassion over the Italian government'sedict that these unwanted visitors must be turned away, even if they're drowning.
The engaging director, who deservedly won the Special Jury Prize at the recent Venice Film Festival,was in Toronto for the Thursday night screening and told a simply incredible story about the casting of first-time actress Timnit T. as the pregnant African. He first saw her face in a news account: She was one of only four survivors out of 77 African refugees on a boat that drifted for three weeks, found barely alive under a pile of dead bodies. Crialese only wanted to meet her, but it became clear that she was perfect for this movie role. She refuses to talk about her past because it is "impossible to express," he said. Happily, he reported that she now lives in Holland, is married and expecting a child this month. It all coincides with Crialese's philosophy that "movies and life are the same"--and his new movie is bursting with life.
I saw 23 movies and one shorts program in six days at Toronto, and I still regret not being able to fit in more movies that sounded decidedly worthwhile. Personal highlights include Steve McQueen's Shame and Alexander Payne's The Descendants, which Erica Abeel has discussed here at Screener; Cedric Kahn's heartbreaking French drama A Better Life (not to be confused with the recent Chris Weitz film of the same name); the wild Norwegian black comedy-thriller Headhunters; the delightful Danish screwball comedy Superclasico; and Andrea Arnold's moody, sensual new version of Wuthering Heights.
As for that shorts program, it was one of six programs of Canadian shorts, and the collection was of generally high caliber. Two of the highlights were Andrew Cividino's inventive, apocalyptic satire We Ate the Children Last, in which pioneering transplants of porcine digestive systems turn human beings into ravenous cannibals; and ORA by Philippe Baylaucq, a dancemovie shown in 3D and filmed using infrared thermal imaging technology. Those who've already given up on 3D thanks to too many shoddy exploitation pictures need onlytake a look at this groundbreaking work of art.