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TIFF 2015. Correspondences #6

Sleepwalkers, apostatizers, Viking ancestors and more in our next report from the Toronto International Film Festivals.
Dear Fernando,
Minotaur is the kind of film we’re able to see at such a big festival as Toronto only because adventurous programming strands like Wavelengths have the patience to present their unique tempo within the hectic atmosphere of the surrounding festivities. And its tempo is indeed unique, evoked through the opiated, satin haze of its digital photography. Two young men and a young woman, bohemian occupants of a Mexico City apartment, lounge, inactive and increasingly beset by a crushing sleepiness. Long takes in widescreen fragment their flat, making its space mysterious and jagged. The few other people who interact with this somnolent trio are all helpers, servants or delivery men, the dialog almost all functional, except for excerpts of a book read out loud periodically about a misremembered or perhaps never-happened meeting. You feel echoes of Last Year in Marienbad and also perhaps Marguerite Duras’s India Song, filmed in the lo-fi sleekness found in the films of Matías Piñeiro, where the gloss of the video images is a sheen of mystery, the screen itself strangely slippery. (It has to be said: Minotaur, despite its profound financial limitations as a production, looks far more beautiful than most Hollywood digital products.) Within this nestled, aborted story—love story, perhaps, story of a friendship, perhaps, story of privileged unemployment, perhaps—there’s a casual, sidelong indictment of an indolent bohemian class, but a critique mostly subsumed by the creeping atmosphere of an interior apocalypse, a malady (recalling Tsai Ming-liang) of ennui precise only in its victims. It simple but enchanting film, its 55-some minutes are exactly what it needs to stretch a kind of three-page fable into cinematic languor.
If Minotaur feels like a short story, a stranded one minute film in the second set of more aggressive Wavelengths shorts felt like miniature pictograph. Behrouz Rae's The Reminder, with a fine-tuned condensation of form, confronts a young boy (presumably Iranian) in an empty room facing an older photograph of a woman. On the soundtrack is read first in Farsi and then, over that, in English translation (voiced by the great online critic-collagist, Andy Rector), a letter about an encounter with a photograph. But is it this one? Is the writer the boy, now grown? Is the reader even the writer? Is this a memory we are seeing while we hear the letter read in the present? Or is the boy in an art gallery, experiencing his own fission of time and family? Wide shot, reverse shot, close up, photograph, close up: the form is as clear and potent as any of Jean-Marie Straub's recent homemade digital shorts. On the final close-up of the photograph a new one, that of a man, is overlaid on that of the woman, a final complication of memory, of narration, of ownership of this spare but suggestive story.
Fernando, do you remember Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj? He was at Toronto with his last film, the small, elegiac and lovely A Useful Life, about an aging cinematheque programmer in Montevideo. I’ve often wondered when we’d get another cinematic novella from this observant, sensitive filmmaker, and finally five years later he returns with The Apostate, another modest and deceptively tidy character study of an out-of-sorts, out-of-time man. Gonzalo Tamayo, played with a sleepy-eyed, disheveled and lax handsomeness by non-professional Alvaro Ogalla, decides to apostatize from the Spanish Catholic church. After being raised (involuntarily, Gonzalo says) Catholic by his parents, failing at seemingly every stage of his education, pining for his beautiful cousin who’s already in a relationship, and running vaguely illicit-seeming errands for his never-seen father, Gonzalo seems sick of it all—and his act of rebellion against this despondency is to request to the Church bureaucracy that his name be stricken from the baptismal record.
Except: we never see the desolation Gonzalo says he senses everywhere, and instead we see a clever, good-looking, yet somewhat unsuccessful man aging past his youth, pursued by nearly every woman with whom he crosses paths, who seems to have no profound accomplishments but also no real travails either. Is his rejection actually religious? It is certainly spiritual in a way, but Ogalla’s beautifully ambiguous performance wonderfully treads the line between melancholy and merely annoyed and/or bored. What does such a gesture mean in this world today? Gonzalo speaks more about data retention and records, as if he’s talking about renouncing Facebook, than he speaks of Christ or God. Set to Hanns Eisler, Federico García Lorca y La Argentinita and Prokofiev's music for Alexander Nevsky, Veiroj’s uncluttered eye keeps his story lean and his characters wry—like the twinkly-eyed boy downstairs, who Gonzalo tutors, and his attractive mother—each sketched for their place in the story but also lingering with hints of meaning something extra to Gonzalo’s existence or his quest, something just on the precipice of his awareness, his sorrow or his joy. The Apostate immediately brought back all that I missed from this filmmaker, at once old fashioned and forward thinking, funny and tender.
Another kind of character drama—that of patient observation, not of a quest—is showcased by Canadian director Kazik Radwanski in How Heavy This Hammer, the follow-up to his acclaimed debut, Tower. It is the kind of film that seems only possible these days in the micro-budgeted side of independent filmmaking. Here, nuance can be observed in close-up detail, a close-up at once speaking of the filmmakers dedicated attention to the limited purview of their character’s world, and speaking of the limitations of budget: no need to fill the scene with much in the way of space, set, costume or action when the intimate orbit of the camera around a myopic subject tells us how little he or she cares about the surrounding world.
In fact, it usually is a “he,” both because most filmmakers invariably are men but also because the kinds of short-sighted characters studied so closely in the movies tend to be stunted men or stubborn boys. In Radwanski’s humble How Heavy the Hammer—surely the title is the grandest aspect of the production—it’s nebbish, overweight and middle-aged father Erwin (Erwin Cotthem), who hardly seems to work, barely parents his two boys, puts in minimal effort towards his wife, falls asleep in the middle of just about any task, appears unimpressive (at best) at his hobby of rugby, and only seems modestly, indifferently interested in his only escape, a decrepit, Vikings-themed strategy video game. At times sweet and considerate, at others short and irrational, something with this man certainly seems off, as if he can’t seem to define himself beyond blurry lines in any position he should be taking in life. Is Erwin afflicted by some malady of apathy (or disease), as his wife first worryingly and then angrily suggests to him? Has he suddenly or gradually become a dysfunctional person in all aspects of his life? Or has he always been like this? The film remains without judgment, forming a story nearly recursive in structure and almost stifling in how little we see beyond Erwin’s lumbering movements. Such a small story, such an average person to spend time with—this is something no television show would attempt, no mid-tier festival film dare gamble their eligibility for an audience award on. Yet here it is: quiet, a bit pensive, a bit mysterious, and never less than thoughtful. The kind of film you love to discover at a festival.
Warmly,
Danny

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