|A scene from Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales.|
Non-American films might not show up as often on Toronto movie screens as I would like. but when they do, they usually offer an adult, different point of view, whether the subjects they raise are unique to their country or share affinities with my own. Here are four recent examples; none of them masterpieces but all well worth your time.
|Erica Rivas in Wild Tales.|
I’ve seen a lot of movies in my time but even I couldn’t believe some of the situations Szifron set up in the movie, jaw-dropping scenarios where you can only remark or gasp; he didn’t actually show that, did he? Wild Tales, at the very least, matches, and sometimes, tops anything John Waters, Pedro Almodóvar (who is one of the film’s producers, the film is a Spanish-Argentinean co-production), Ken Russell or Bertrand Blier could have conceived of – a high bar of over the top filmmaking indeed. And all of it is depicted in a gleeful, delighted tone that yet is never mean spirited or cruel. It’s as if Szifron is posing as an anthropologist, examining us human beings under a cinematic microscope ad wondering, stunned, at the crazy, excessive antics we can get up to. Admittedly, none of it quite as clever, story-wise as it could have been – there are no Usual Suspects-type brilliant plot twists on tap here or even punch lines out of an inventive O. Henry short story – but the movie is so blackly entertaining that. at the end, that doesn’t really matter. Wild Tales certainly lives up to its moniker – and then some.
|Aleksey Serebryakov in Leviathan. (Photo by Anna Matveeva, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics|
|Roman Madianov in Leviathan. (Photo by Anna Matveeva)|
Leviathan also looks great, courtesy of Mikhail Krichman’s ravishing cinematography though unlike The Return, Zvyagintsev’s equally gorgeous 2003 movie, set on Russia’s coastline, the view from here is much more forbidding, decaying, ramshackle institutions, reflecting the backwardness of Kolya’s town and the decrepit state of Russia itself. Factor in the townpeople’s generally unhealthy lifestyles, cynical take on the events transpiring around them and their often boorish, selfish behaviour and it becomes abundantly clear that today’s Russia is an unredeemable mess. Ironically, the movie is loosely based on an American incident but adapting it to the former Soviet Union makes for a perfect fit. Zvyagintsev has seen what Russia has become and it ain’t pretty.
|Hadas Yaron in Félix et Meira.|
Félix et Meira: One of the more interesting developments in recent Québécois cinema, emanating from Canada’s French-speaking province, is the, belated, recognition of the ‘other’, that is the non-French Canadian residing in the province and particularly in Quebec’s largest city Montreal, (That metropolis is composed of approximately 20 percent Anglophones and 20 per cent Allophones, with neither English nor French as the mother tongue.) Fine movies like Incendies and Monsieur Lazhar pivoted around immigrants who spoke French but came from Arabic countries, Lebanon and Algeria, respectively. Félix et Meira (Felix and Meira) is a bit different, postulating a complex relationship between two lost souls, Félix (Martin Dubreuil), a French-Canadian man reeling from the recent loss of his father and Meira (Hadas Yaron), a married with child Orthodox Jewish woman, stifled in her marriage and, like Félix, needing to make a human connection.
Director Maxime Giroux, who also co-wrote the film with Alexandre Laferrière, is clearly interested in opposites and he’s smartly seized on the Montreal suburb of Outremont as his setting, a place where, uniquely, the Orthodox live chock a block with their French-Canadian neighbours, albeit not without friction. Félix et Meira, however, is not a Canadian version of Spike Lee’s incendiary Do The Right Thing – nor does it set out to be one – but, instead chooses to tell a quiet love story, which it purveys in a ruminative, low key fashion.
|Martin Dubreuil and Hadas Yaron in Félix et Meira.|
The far-fetched nature of this forbidden relationship aside – Twersky, who comes from an Orthodox Jewish background advised on the film so its details are authentic, but he also admits that this type of relationship is not the norm, and indeed a far more likely scenario would be a Hasidic man taking up with a secular (Jewish or non-Jewish) woman – the actors come close to selling the entire movie on screen. There's a beautiful delicacy in Yaron’s and Dubreuill’s scenes together, as they tentatively gaze at each other before even engaging in any physical contact. Those moments are so moving in their longing for each other and their accompanying fears of what their connection might do to their lives, even though Meira, of course, has far more to lose.
Yaron, who essayed a different type of Orthodox Jewish role in Rama Burshtein’s Israeli film Fill the Void – one where her character would never ever think of leaving the fold – gives a particularly expressive and poignant performance in Félix et Meira, with none of the declamatory obviousness present in movies like Boaz Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies where Renée Zellweger’s Orthodox Jewish heroine was turned into a kosher Norma Rae.
Girard's direction is occasionally quite inventive as in a scene where Meira is sent (exiled) to a cousin in the U.S. As she walks the streets of Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn, the screen seems to expand as Meira revels in the joy of being among her own familiar kind instead of being a minority in a non-Jewish environment in Outremont. Less successful is Girard’s depiction of Meira’s husband who doesn’t register as strongly as Félix and Meira do. He is offered some sympathy as he tries to understand and sometimes browbeat his ‘wayward’ wife but it’s not nearly as generous a portrait as that given Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan) in a similarly themed role in John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo. Mostly though, this is Félix and Meira’s story and that central relationship always compels even if it’s located within a sometimes false and unconvincing milieu. When Yaron and Dubreuill are centre stage, the film is magic.
|Ronit Elkabtez, Menashe Noy, and Simon Abkarian in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.|
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem: Orthodox Judaism or rather its strictures is the subject of Gett; The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s final film in the trilogy of the life of Viviane and Eliahou Amsalem, first seen in To Take a Wife (2004) and Shiva (2008). The series began with Viviane’s deep unhappiness within the patriarchal bosom of her husband’s family, segued into the Jewish mourning period when a family member passed away and, now, ends in religious court, which in Israel is the arbiter of Jewish marriage and divorce (Israelis who want a civil wedding must arrange that abroad though it is then recognized by the state). Viviane (Ronit Elkabtez), desperate and wanting to have the freedom to remarry within Judaism, has tried and fail over and over again to convince her husband (Simon Abkarian) to grant her the Jewish divorce (the gett) she requires. The Beth Din (religious court) is her final option. (I couldn’t help thinking of an episode early in the run of The Sopranos when Tony Soprano used a unique threat to compel a recalcitrant Orthodox Jewish man to grant that gett.) While the U.S. has made great strides in forcing Orthodox Jewish men to stop blackmailing their wives by refusing to accede to the gett, Israel, too much in thrall to the Orthodox, is another matter. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem lays out the labourious process, over several years, wherein again and again Viviane and her lawyer Carmel (Menashe Noy) appear before the trio of religious judges deciding the case and fail each time to move Eliahou to do the right thing, that is when he evens bothers showing up for the hearing.
|The Beth Din, in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.|
As with Félix et Meira, it is the lead actors in Gett who rivet you to the screen. Ronit Elkabetz (The Band's Visit) may be her country’s best actress and in Gett her character’s pain and anguish are written in her face. You won’t be able to take your eyes off her and the gamut of emotions Viviane displays including, even startlingly, love for her husband, makes for an extraordinarily well-modulated performance. There’s even a hint that she bears some (though not most of the) responsibility for the dissolution of her marriage, if only in that she possessed a free spirit that she ought to have known would not sit well with Eliahou and his traditional family. Simon Abkarian is just as impressive as he takes what could have been a stock villain – and in so many ways Eliahou is indeed villainous – and renders him, if not a sympathetic person, at least an understandable one. That soliloquy where he declaims, movingly, about his deep feelings regarding Viviane, allows one to glean, if only a little, the genuine love he felt for his wife when they first married even as his demons, rooted in familial upbringing, allowed him to be so cruel to her later on. Gett is thus a double tragedy, that of Orthodox Jewish women consigned to purgatory when they want to escape the shackles of an unbearable marriage and also of a loving union that might have been if Viviane’s husband had made an effort to actually make it work. The film’s conclusion is thus not cathartic – it really couldn’t be considering how long it’s all taken to unfold – but a sad recognition of that fact, indelibly etched in the faces of the two people who were they different individuals could have navigated the rocky shoals of matrimony in another, more positive way.
LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute in the fall.