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Toronto Correspondences #2: Patricio Guzmán, Elia Suleiman, Lou Ye

Reporting from TIFF on Patricio Guzmán’s “The Cordillera of Dreams,” Elia Suleiman’s “It Must Be Heaven,” and Lou Ye’s “Saturday Fiction.”
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Fernando F. CroceKelley Dong, and editor Daniel Kasman.
The Cordillera of Dreams
Dear Danny and Kelley,
After missing out on the fun last year, it’s a tremendous joy to be back with you on the festival grid, especially when said festival is the multifaceted whirlwind known as TIFF. I eagerly look forward to the feeling of anticipation and mystery I often get as I rush from screen to screen over the course of the next ten days. To a provincial cinephile like myself, the sheer amount of films to choose from will always be as thrilling as it is daunting, the experience akin to discovering untold riches while being lost in a labyrinth. Where to begin? Where to end? What to do in between? I used to lose sleep over lists and schedules, but recently I’ve learned to relax and savor the more unpredictable sides of TIFF’s sprawling lineup, being more impulsive in my selections and more open to unfamiliar filmmakers. If not quite “minimal planning but maximum enthusiasm,” as you described a recent Werner Herzog film in your Cannes correspondence, Danny, I am aiming for a more limber and inquisitive viewing approach this year. 
Which of course does not mean excluding works by old masters such as Patricio Guzmán. The Cordillera of Dreams, the Chilean documentarian’s stirring meditation on the colossal, gelid Andes range, is at once monumental and intimate, a fresco and a remembrance. “Me siento un poco extraterrestre,” says Guzmán in his haltingly incantatory voiceover as he returns to his hometown of Santiago, first seen in an aerial panorama that emphasizes the forbidding mountains flanking the city’s glassy high-rises. Admitting to having little interest in the Andes during his revolution-obsessed youth, the filmmaker turns his autumnal gaze to their natural and cultural importance, expressed in sweeping images and interviews with experts and artists. A behemoth to be captured on canvases by painters or chipped away at by sculptors, they feel protective to some and isolating to others. Shot as voluptuously as in a 1920s German bergfilm (the camera feasts on imposing ice, volcanic rock and angular crevasses), the peaks also appear as commoditized national icons, shrunk down to the logo on a matchbox. Such contradictions are ingrained in the film’s very title, in the mix of mighty materiality and oneiric strangeness. More than anything, however, for Guzmán the Andes are silent witnesses to a nation’s history of violence. 
If The Cordillera of Dreams is rock to the more fluid elements of Guzmán’s earlier essays (the cosmic meeting of sand and sky of Nostalgia for the Light and the haunted waterways of The Pearl Button), it is rock that’s been cracked by the ongoing tremors of injustice. Ancient, impassive observers, the Andes nevertheless are made to carry the scars of Chile’s brutal political landscape by the film’s poetic, startling associations. Most prominent among the interviewees is Pablo Salas, a fellow cine-activist who’s dedicated his life to documenting the street protests and police raids of the 1970s and 1980s, Chile’s “lost years” in the wake of coup d’etat that launched Pinochet’s dictatorship. (Filled with stacks and shelves of bulky VHS tapes from his decades of restless recording, Salas’ office humorously suggests its own cordillera of physical memories.) Having made films about Chile “from afar” since leaving the country after his 1973 arrest, Guzmán speaks of Salas and all the others “who stayed” with heartfelt admiration and more than a hint of rue. Though the aftershocks from past horrors continue to be felt today, he locates a tranquil sense of hope in the engagement of young people with a history that can no longer be suppressed by authorities. The mountain, as one of the film’s evocative closing images attest, can be climbed after all. 
It Must Be Heaven
A musician interviewed in The Cordillera of Dreams recalls the terror of seeing as a schoolgirl a procession of military tanks muscling down the street. Coincidentally, that very image materializes about midway through Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven, the Palestinian director’s first feature in a decade. Rather than a traumatic memory, however, the sight is here but one link in a chain of absurdist miniatures observed by a bemused silent-clown version of Suleiman, played by himself with an unwavering sad-owl deadpan. Stubbly and bespectacled under a straw hat in a manner suggesting Jacques Tati reincarnated as Jean-Luc Godard, he appears in every scene but for the intriguing opening episode, a self-contained vignette of ecclesiastical pomp and barriers and a couple of well-placed smacks upside the head. Ambling around Nazareth, “E.S.” runs into assorted neighbors (one casually helps himself to his lemon tree with shears, another regales him with a tale of a serpent’s gratitude) and does his best to stay out of potential conflicts. Some of the film’s finest moments are in these early sequences, as the whimsical humor is frequently darkened by the threat of violence—a pair of young patrolmen repeatedly try on sunglasses while barreling down the freeway, then the camera pans to find a blindfolded female prisoner in the backseat. 
Like Guzmán, Suleiman is moved by the melancholia of a volatile homeland. Looking for a studio to sell his “film about the Palestinian conflict,” the protagonist travels abroad. In Paris, he contemplates fashion-model pedestrians, gendarmes spinning on balletic scooters, and ambulances stopping by vagrants to offer them tiramisu. New York City, by comparison, is a perpetual Halloween night, coarse and prudish and gun-crazy (or, more specifically, rocket-launcher-crazy). In both places, his project is dismissed by agents and producers as “not Palestinian enough.” Identity has been a steady motif in Suleiman’s work, and It Must Be Heaven hopes to retain a specificity of spirit while aiming for some sort of bittersweet universality. Even in the most crowd-pleasing moments, disconnection is constant: Pinned to Roy Andersson-type frames, the main character is often dwarfed by buildings, landscapes, horizons, and the sheer size of the widescreen. As is often the case with collections of gags, some work and others don’t. Yet the humanistic wryness of Suleiman’s approach remains consistent, and consistently affecting. His quizzical brand of blackout vaudeville is closer to Jirí Menzel and Nanni Moretti than to Chaplin and Keaton, but like all of them he understands the power of a humble comic epiphany, the realization that sometimes heaven can be just a cold drink and a good song. 
I longed for some of that simplicity in the midst of Saturday Fiction’s torturous flashiness. Opening on a duly Pirandellian note of characters playing characters, Lou Ye’s espionage thriller unfolds in the “isolated island” of Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1941, where the return of a famous movie and theater star (Gong Li) serves as the center of a welter of overlapping intrigues. Spinning like plates in the air are the old flame director (Mark Chao), the jailed ex-husband (Zhang Songwen), the adoring fan with a whiff of All About Eve (Huang Xiangli), the weaselly producer (Wang Chuanjun), and the paternal French agent with a treasured first copy of Goethe (Pascal Greggory), just to name a few. To this congested ensemble Lou adds performances within performances (scenes from a play are repeatedly woven into the narrative) and a busy soundscape of clashing languages, eavesdropping recorders, and clattering decoders. Yet for all the perpetual motion and clamor, there’s no concealing the static void at the center of a film that mistakes clutter and muddle for complexity and profundity. Decked out in trench coats and dangling cigarettes with Sternbergian weariness, Gong makes for an alluring icon of ambiguity, and I must confess that, flaws and all, any movie that places her front and center during its climactic shootout certainly has something going for it. To see Zhang Yimou’s former muse wielding a machine-gun like Lady Terminator is precisely the kind of vision I come to TIFF for. 
Over to you, Kelley. 
Fern

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