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TIFF 2016. Correspondences #9

Our correspondent wraps his Toronto film festival experience with "Austerlitz," "Moonlight," "Snowden," and "Land of the Gods."
Moonlight
Dear Danny,
As I type this final entry in a state of literal suspension—aboard my flight home, between a rainy Canadian morning and a muggy Californian afternoon—I begin to wonder whether my festival choices were too safe. I read your takes on experimental works with pleasure, as well as a hint of envy toward your adventurousness. My sole excursion this year into Wavelengths territory was Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz, which I admired more than you. Concentration-camp tourism understandably dismays the sober director of My Joy, yet there’s a mordant edge to his unbroken views of visitors, including teeming long-shots that resemble Jacques Tati frames. People amble through these zones of unspeakable suffering as if at a particularly prosaic mall, guides barely hang on to their groups’ attention (“Folks, could you not eat in here, please?”), knowledge is shaky and selfie-sticks are ubiquitous. Still, I thought Loznitsa’s gaze in the midst of these gawking crowds was not merely scolding, but more interestingly open and complicated: Do the attitudes of these passersby, so packed with technological advancements yet so vaguely curious about a grave past, reflect only complacency and ignorance, or also perhaps a variety of personal ways to confront horrors they can hardly imagine? Rigorously balancing the dangers of historical amnesia with the variegated revelations of people-watching, it suggests an unlikely collaboration between Claude Lanzmann and José Luis Guerín.
Exceptionally sensitive acting and flow distinguish Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ second feature film and a patient, lyrical study of identity. Split into three sections to chart its protagonist’s grappling with the self from boyhood into adolescence and adulthood, it introduces troubled Chiron as a child (played by Alex R. Hibbert) on the run from taunting schoolmates and divided between real and surrogate families. In a brief oasis amid the pain of his teenaged years, he (Ashton Sanders) sits before the ocean with a friend (a moment “so quiet all you can hear is your own heartbeat”) and experiences carnal discovery simultaneously illuminating and forbidden. Bulked-up and close-off, the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is a hurt cherub rattling inside a bruiser’s body; a call from the friend who shared that instant under the stars (André Holland) reveals the chink in his hard armor. “Ooh, it seems like a mighty long time...” Often shot in roving shallow-focus that registers the characters’ tensions toward their own desires, Moonlight combines gestures and movements of striking intimacy with unfortunately didactic scenes and rather pat resolutions. (It sets out to frankly challenge stereotypes of masculinity and race, only to back off and settle for a therapeutic embrace.) Flaws and all, it lingers in the mind with the melancholy languor of a short poem made delicately flesh.
A very different lost boy is scrutinized in Oliver Stone’s Snowden. First seen as a hand twirling a Rubik’s Cube in gigantic close-up, CIA whistle-blower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a skittish egghead whose brittle bones take him out of military training and into the data-covered halls of post-9/11 national security. (“The right little whorehouse” for any computer-lover, declares one of his mentors.) The battlefield has gone digital, and the protagonist’s prodigious cyber-facility plugs right into the grid of global surveillance. The more he learns, however, the more the conservative Snowden comes to distrust the system he’s supporting. He turns rogue integer, but Stone’s film remains mostly trapped in its own nefarious network, that of biopic clichés. Replaying the conversion narrative of Born on the Fourth of July while lacking its heat and complexity, it evokes infinite realms of possibility and danger brought about by technology but is itself disappointingly earthbound. Prying institutional eyes are visualized as tendrils of light and drones crash down in the midst of epileptic fits, though the focus stays narrowly on a Boy Scout’s education. (Gordon-Levitt’s warm mimicry gives hints of slyness behind the officiousness, but as a dramatic character Snowden fully deserves a co-worker’s derisive nickname of “Snow White.”) About as electric as a Wikipedia page, Snowden does make its paranoia stick: The laptop I’m writing on now has a band-aid over its webcam.
I ended my TIFF experience on a modest but gratifying note, Danny, with Goran Paskaljevic’s Land of the Gods. The plot is very simple: An aged traveler, Rahul (Victor Banerjee), returns after decades of absence to the village where he grew up in the Indian Himalayas. Family members and former lovers are encountered, rituals are observed, and some sort of serenity is achieved as the visitor gradually loses his sight. A film of humble epiphanies, as befits its wandering protagonist, but crafted with a vivid and sympathetic eye by Paskaljevic—almost as much of an outsider as Rahul, the Serbian director of Cabaret Balkan is attuned to the quiet spiritual planes of the rural landscape and its inhabitants. Above all, there’s the pleasure of seeing the great Banerjee on the screen, his character at times out of breath in the high altitudes yet always hungrily inhaling his surroundings, as if trying to seize lost memories and people back into his soul. It closes on a glacial vision described by an increasingly blind man as a place where the earth meets the heavens. At the risk of sounding very corny indeed, I must say that, with its discoveries and friends, this film festival fits that description to a tee.
So long, my friend. Until next time, safe travels and mucho cinema.
Warmly,
Fern

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