a Healthy Disdain


TIFF Neorealism

On now through August 28, Days of Glory continues TIFF’s efforts to redefine the summertime cinema-going experience. A sidebar companion to Spectacular Obsessions, the series celebrates the masterworks of Italian neorealism, offering welcome respite from summer’s mindlessly bombastic blockbuster fare. The postwar movement gave rise to some of cinema’s absolute essentials, often eschewing escapism for powerful tales of working class woe. TIFF’s tribute is duly comprehensive, featuring 23 classics and rarities, as well as an in-person discussion with accomplished Italian film scholar, and Queen’s Media Professor, Frank Burke.

Speaking recently from his summer home in Tuscany, Burke offered an encyclopedic account of neorealism’s origins, scope, and legacy, and his appearance, prior to a screening of Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (August 5, 6:30pm), is not to be missed. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Il Posto itself is a time-honoured triumph. Though it arrived more than a decade after neorealism’s late 40s heyday, Olmi’s bittersweet coming-of-age tale still rings charmingly, awkwardly, and masterfully true.

TIFF Neorealism

That authenticity, along with the film’s concern with an ordinary young office worker, is emblematic of what Burke cited as neorealism’s radical attempt to “minimize the manipulation of cinema.” Employing real locations, non-professional actors, and confronting harsh postwar economic realities, the movement represented a clear-eyed rejection of the fascist fantasies of the Mussolini era.

Among Burke’s picks for those looking to the Lightbox for a neorealism crash course are two of Roberto Rossellini’s famed War Trilogy — Rome, Open City (August 10, 6:45pm) and Pasian (July 29, 6:30pm). Both shot in the immediate aftermath of German occupation, against actual, bombed-out urban and rural backdrops, Burke identifies the pair as the original standard-bearers of the neorealist movement. Open City is a cat and mouse chronicle of a resistance leader’s bid to escape Gestapo clutches, and is, without exaggeration, one of the most influential films of all time. Paisan, scarcely less seminal, is a six-episode story of Italy’s liberation, co-written by TIFF’s man of the moment, Federico Fellini.

TIFF Neorealism

Third on Burke’s list was opening selection Bicylcle Thieves. Thanks in part to the availability of high quality prints, Burke explained that Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 release has supplanted Rossellini’s films as neorealism’s most iconic, though Bicycle Thieves certainly remains a masterpiece in its own right. The story of a father robbed of the tool he requires to earn a modest livelihood, it’s a simple scenario with the gravest of stakes, and continues to resonate with audiences and filmmakers 63 years on.

In addition to Bicycle Thieves, Burke recommended Giuseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice (August 10, 9pm) as a particularly accessible selection for those new to neorealism. Despite its director’s ardent left-wing leanings, this seductive, Oscar-nominated crime drama is one of the few films in the program to exhibit overt Hollywood influence, and brims with sensuality, suspense, and heavy elements of film noir.

TIFF Neorealism

As for my personal picks, fans of contemporary indie auteur Kelly Reichardt will feel instantly familiar with De Sica’s moving paternal tribute, Umberto D. (August 1, 6:30pm). A stubborn but downtrodden and disenfranchised pensioner, the eponymous Umberto, with faithful pooch in tow, is evidently the great granddaddy of Reichardt’s heartbreaking Wendy and Lucy. Alienated, in debt, and facing eviction, his dire financial straights threaten to deprive him of even his beloved canine companion.

For purists, Luchino Visconti’s La Terrra Trema (August 21, 4:30pm) is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of true neorealist form and content, with it’s nonprofessional cast and class exploitation narrative. Shot in a seaside fishing village in eastern Sicily, the film was initially funded by the Italian Communist Party, and features a raw, detailed evocation of the townsfolk’s daily struggles, both physical and economic.

Lastly, Mamma Roma (August 22, 6:30pm), from Pier Paolo Pasolini (of Salò infamy) is a tragic tale of twisted motherly affection, prefiguring 2009’s much-loved Mother from Bong Joon-ho. Anna Magnani is sensational as the titular Mamma, an endearingly outrageous ex-prostitute with a fearsome determination to forge a better life for her formerly estranged, misfit son. Considered by many to be the director’s best, it’s no wonder this singular work was the sensation of TIFF’s Pasolini retrospective last year.

For a complete list of films and show times, visit Tiff.net. All screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Tickets are available online, by phone: 416-599-TIFF, or in person: TIFF Bell Lightbox, Reitman Square, 350 King Street West.

(This content originally published via BlogTO, July 29, 2011)


Best of Hot Docs 2011

Best of Hot Docs 2011

Often overshadowed by its flashier, fiction-friendly cousin, Hot Docs remains something of a hidden gem for Toronto cinemagoers, despite its stature as North America’s largest documentary film festival. Certainly, though, whatever it lacks in TIFF’s style and star power, it more than compensates with the terrific substance of its programming. Altogether, I saw 18 of the 200-plus films on offer, and was very seldom disappointed. Indeed, the following films – my top 5 of the festival – will rival anything else released this year. Hats off to Hot Docs 2011 for some truly inspired selections.

5. PROJECT NIM (UK-USA, James Marsh)

The story of a mercurial primate captured in the misguided service of human curiosity, Project Nim is King Kong writ small. Ostensibly, with respect to Nim, that curiosity was scientific – a test of the timeless nature vs. nurture question, and whether a chimpanzee raised in human surroundings could be taught to communicate, via sign language, in the same fashion as a human child.

In practice, while Nim, marvelously, did develop a significant vocabulary, it was often his caregivers who surrendered to their latent animal instincts, regularly and outrageously departing from standards of scientific propriety. Meanwhile, as Nim rapidly matures from plaything to powerful and threatening, we see him betrayed, abused, and abandoned.

Throughout, director James Marsh (of the Oscar-winning Man on Wire) relates Nim’s plight with consummate skill, slickly combining archival footage with subtle reenactments and outstanding production values. Alternately magical and moving, Project Nim is, in both form a content, a remarkable demonstration of our communicative capacities, as well as a potent reminder of the extent to which we remain rooted in our basest urges.

4. BOY CHEERLEADERS (UK, James Newton)

In light of my other selections, Boy Cheerleaders represents a much-needed boost to the adorability quotient of this best-of-fest list. Accounting even for Being Elmo, there cannot have been a more endearingly uproarious film at Hot Docs 2011. Originally produced for the BBC, Director James Newton presents the wonderfully improbable story of the DAZL Diamonds, the only all-boys team to compete in the UK’s National Cheerleading Championships.

Whereas, today, it would be relatively unremarkable for nine lovable scamps from south Leeds to have joined a street dance crew, in this case, “cheerleading” means cheerleading, pink pom-poms and all. Typifying that distinction is the group’s sensationally camp head coach, the ice-blonde Ian. Despite sounding something like a Yorkshire Richard Simmons, he commands total respect, and is a firm-but-fair father figure.

As many of the boys are from single-parent homes, the competition also serves as a surprisingly poignant source of mother-son solidarity, even for all its gender-bending pageantry. Hilarious and terrifically touching, its inclusion was a no-brainer, both on this list, as well as on my Mother’s Day itinerary.

3. HOW TO DIE IN OREGON (USA, Peter D. Richardson)

A film of extraordinary compassion, sensitivity, and candor, the highest tribute I can pay How to Die in Oregon is that I sincerely wish it had been screened for the Supreme Court of Canada prior their narrow, 5-4 decision against Sue Rodriguez, who petitioned to de-criminalize assisted suicide in 1993.

Of course, the verdict may have remained unchanged, but it is genuinely difficult to conceive that the majority justices would not have been moved, variously, by the poise, courage, and grace of the film’s subjects, as captured with astonishing intimacy by sophomore documentarian Peter D. Richardson. His protagonists are several of the 500-plus terminally ill Oregonians who have gratefully availed themselves of the state’s Death with Dignity Act, as well as an advocate of a similar law recently enacted in Washington.

His fullest portrait is of the amazing Cody Curtis, a radiant 54-year-old wife and mother of two, suffering, from inoperable cancer. To say that the film is heart wrenching is a considerable understatement, but it is also truly gratifying to witness, first-hand, the autonomy, peace of mind, and contentment for which Oregon’s law allows.

2. HELL AND BACK AGAIN (USA, Danfung Dennis)

While I would never deny that the Oscar-nominated Restrepo is an important, and extraordinarily courageous piece of filmmaking (a fact underscored by Tim Hetherington’s recent untimely passing), its unrelenting assault of frontline footage ultimately left me more inured than immersed. Initially, I was wary that Hell and Back Again – another high profile, first-person foray into the Afghan war – would yield a similar result.

Instead, I found it quietly devastating. To be sure, that’s not to be taken as saying the film is lacking in sound or fury. Indeed, photojournalist-director Danfung Dennis conveys the chaos of his embedded deployment with an intense, graphic, and high-definition immediacy.

His true masterstroke, however, is in artfully interweaving his stunning battlefield images with glimpses of the physical and psychological battle waged by Sergeant Nathan Harris, a recovering soldier who, upon returning to the U.S., is abruptly confounded by the mundanity of civilian life. Notable, too, for foregrounding the plight of bewildered Afghanis caught in a literal and ideological crossfire, Hell and Back Again hits hard, and from all sides.

1. THE REDEMPTION OF GENERAL BUTT NAKED (USA, Eric Strauss & Daniele Anastasion)

If this were merely a list of the best titles at Hot Docs 2011, The Redemption of General Butt Naked would obviously occupy positions 1 through 5. Instead, veteran filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion will have to content themselves with top spot alone.

Though broadening the parameters does introduce some competition, Butt Naked comfortably remains the best film I saw at this year’s festival. In fairness, considerable credit is owed to the film’s subject, General Butt Naked himself. Now known as Joshua Milton Blahyi, he is everything a documentarian could hope for: forthcoming, charismatic, and, formerly, a murderous warlord, responsible for countless atrocities. (Under oath, Blahyi himself cites a figure of 20,000.) During Liberia’s unfathomably anarchic civil war (1989-1996), Blahyi led the Butt Naked Brigade, a militia of cannibalistic child soldiers who fought with the voodoo-inspired belief that nudity and invincibility were one and the same.

More improbable than even that description, however, is his newfound career as an evangelical preacher, and his apparent determination to seek out his surviving victims in order to atone for his sins. Wisely, Strauss and Anastasion let the magnetic Blahyi do almost all the talking. At times his contrition appears genuine, but, at others, you sense he’s willfully exploiting an evident national need to forgive and move forward. Expertly crafted and comprehensively fascinating, the film is every bit as indelible as its title.

(This content originally published via Next Projection, May 12, 2011)

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