Toronto Film Festival '07: Day Three
Movie Of The Day:
Silent Light (dir. Carlos Reygadas): It is not hyperbolic at this point—even among critics like Noel, who didn’t care for the film overall—to say that art-damaged Mexican director Reygadas’ third feature (following Japón and Battle In Heaven) begins with one of the most magisterial opening shots ever filmed. Without going into too much detail, which couldn’t possibly do it justice anyway, Reygadas’ camera catches dawn breaking on a new day in a Mennonite farm in Mexico. Like many of the exteriors in the film, it’s an image so idyllic and beautiful that it would be easy to believe that these farmers—completely severed from the modern world in their dress, religion, and Plautdietsch language (a German derivative)—had carved out their own piece of heaven on Earth. Then Reygadas cuts to the interior and it’s a different story: A large family sits solemnly at the breakfast table, praying quietly at first, but once they’re done saying grace, the tension still remains, broken only by the sound of the pendulum’s swing. After eating, the wife and many kids leave for the outdoors. The man, now alone, sobs in heavy jags.
Soon enough, it becomes clear that the husband has been having an affair with another woman and isn’t inclined to end it, no matter the emotional wreckage it causes in the long term. His wife knows about the affair, but can’t really do anything to stop it. Their ongoing miseries are set against a backdrop that’s vividly realized, charting a way of life that’s conspicuously out of place and out of time, yet appealing despite the terrible mess these characters are in. Reygadas, a filmmaker with an extraordinary eye for widescreen composition (and a proclivity towards long takes that some—ahem, Noel, ahem—resist), takes his time as the seasons pass and the betrayals take permanent root.
Many have called Silent Light an extended homage to Carl Dreyer’s 1955 transcendentalist classic Ordet, but they’re only half-right, in ways that are telling. Yes, the film is set in isolation among the religiously devout. And yes, it closes with a moment of grace that unmistakably connects the two movies. But where Dreyer’s world is narrow, suffocating, and punishingly austere—not that there’s anything wrong with that, considering that I nearly wrote my Master’s thesis on Ordet—Reygadas often proves himself a sensualist with more in common with Terrence Malick than Dreyer. Two magnificent scenes in particular—one where the lovers kiss with colorful lens flare swirling halos around them and another long sequence where the family bathes in a pool—show just how removed Reygadas’ sensibility is. At bottom, Silent Light is less about faith (as in Dreyer) than matters of the heart, which might explain why its big transcendental moment left me curiously cold. In Ordet, the presence of God was constantly at issue; here it merely informs the action, and so the ending doesn’t carry the same weight. Still, after the stultifying Battle In Heaven, which teemed with every pretentious high-art trope in the book, I’m freshly convinced of Reygadas’ talent. (B+)
Eastern Promises (dir. David Cronenberg): I honestly don’t know what to make of Cronenberg’s latest, which makes me happy that Keith Phipps is responsible for writing up our formal review back home. It’s an engaging thriller, done in the crisp, just-this-side-of-pulp style of Cronenberg’s superior A History Of Violence, but I couldn’t dig up much behind the surface, which is either my failing or his. Much like screenwriter Steven Knight’s Dirty Pretty Things, the film delves into London’s immigrant underworld and with Cronenberg at the helm, it does so more seductively, here poking into a hidden Russian subculture and the dangerous people who rule the roost. Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts are both in fine form as a cold-blooded “driver” for the Russian mob and a midwife trying to protect an unclaimed infant while searching for its proper home. There are some Cronenberg-ian body-horror touches, too, especially in how tattoos can define (and limit) a person’s identity. But in the end, what does it all mean? My opinion of it will surely improve if someone gives me a deeper reading; until then, I’ll just savor my memories of one hellaciously brutal fight scene. (B)
Nightwatching (dir. Peter Greenaway): Let me start with this disclaimer: I haven’t liked a Peter Greenaway movie in 18 years. After 1989’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover, I’ve felt that the amusing puzzle-pictures of his early career have tailed off into the stuffy, joyless obscurantism and prudish perversity of films like Prospero’s Books, The Pillow Book, and 8 ½ Women. So it was with enormous trepidation that I decided to give Greenaway another chance with Nightwatching, inspired mostly by the plot description (about the firestorm surrounding Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch) and the unexpected presence of The Office’s Martin Freeman in the lead role. Truth be told, I spent much of the first 70 minutes (or 152) or so squirming in my seat, bored and annoyed by Greenaway’s theatrical staging and his typical refusal to clarify the frenetic action on screen. And then, it started to click a little for me, right at the point where the finished painting is unveiled and Greenaway gets into the invigorating specifics about why it caused such a scandal. Finally, finally, finally, here’s a biopic about an artist that actually reflects in a substantive way about his art! For that, and Freeman’s surprisingly robust performance, I’ll give it a pass. (B-)
Juno (dir. Jason Reitman): Yesterday, Noel worked to deflate the enthusiasm behind one of the festival’s biggest “buzz” items. Now I’m here to re-inflate it. To cut Noel some slack, twee little indie comedies like Juno have a tendency to either win you over or put you off. (For example, I’m for Wes Anderson and the recent Anderson knock-off Rocket Science and against the likes of Little Miss Sunshine and Garden State.) 10 minutes into Reitman’s follow-up to Thank You For Smoking, I definitely wasn’t feeling it: The too-quirky dialogue, singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson’s cloying music, and the snide attitude carried over TYFS all put me off completely. But from the scene in which Ellen Page—completely winning as a 16-year-old knocked up by her shy friend (Michael Cera, also wonderful) —confesses her pregnancy to her family and then later meets a upper-middle-class couple (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) anxious to adopt, the film permanently wore down my defenses. Reitman has a weakness for going too broad for comic effect, but he and first-time scriptwriter Diablo Cody reveal human dimension to even the most stridently stereotyped characters. (Garner is particularly moving.) In his festival blurb, Noel described Page’s character as “committed to quips and quirks first and foremost,” and it’s here where we disagree the strongest. Page does indeed speak in snarky quips, but there’s a lot of sweetness behind that protective layer of irony; from the moment she decides to put the kid up for adoption, she cares—first and foremost—about doing the right thing for it. I loved her for it, and the film, too. (B+)
You, The Living (dir. Roy Andersson): Andersson’s follow-up to his mind-blowing black comedy Songs From The Second Floor has been referred to here as More Songs From The Second Floor or Outtakes From The Second Floor. Andersson hasn’t changed his unmistakable style (long, static, elaborately orchestrated takes in deep focus) or his dour philosophical perspective one iota. Basically, Andersson is saying that we’re all living in a bleak, unfeeling, Godless universe with no possibility of salvation, so why not have a few laughs about it? To me, You, The Living is a clear case of diminished returns, despite a handful of brilliant sequences. (One about a tablecloth trick gone wrong is a particular standout). The vignettes in Songs were connected to a cohesive vision of society on the brink of apocalypse; here, they just don’t quite syncopate as powerfully. (B-)