Northern Exposure

It’s customary by now to introduce any report on the Toronto International Film Festival with ritual acknowledgment of its ever-escalating significance. This year, Canada’s new National Post trumped everyone by fabricating a quote from Roger Ebert that Toronto was now “more useful, more important than Cannes.” Ebert actually wrote that Toronto was second only to Cannes, but no matter. There was a sense of global drama when the city’s homeless, mixed with celeb-spotters outside the opening-night bash for local hero Atom Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey, brandished signs that read “World Class My Ass.”

If the New York Film Festival is an exclusive boutique, Toronto is a vast and savvy department store. More than half of the 319 movies are North American or world premieres. There’s the Cannes floor where you can relive the controversies of last spring (Aleksandr Sokurov’s Moloch is impressive, Bruno Dumont’s no-less-deranged L’humanité impressively ludicrous) and the frantic two-day specials orchestrated by an army of New York and L.A. publicists for “offbeat” studio releases like American Beauty. There’s the midnight bargain basement for rummaging through knowingly cheesy horror flicks and porn-star portraits. There’s the delicatessen presenting specialties from exotic festivals like Locarno (the Chinese self-help doc Crazy English) and Karlovy Vary (the Slovenian slacker film Idle Running). This year, you could also review the somewhat shopworn Dogma collection: Although Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots (twice denied to the NYFF) was present only in Jesper Jargil’s on-set documentary, The Humiliated, Soren Krogh-Jacobson’s much-touted but mediocre Mifune, and American fellow travelerHarmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy were much in evidence to make the essential point. For all its vaunted naturalism, Dogma is mainly devoted to dayroom dada. Each movie requires at least one actor to run wild in the guise of a drooling, mentally challenged holy fool.

The hottest stuff in Toronto is flown in straight from Venice. Frédéric Fonteyne’s Un Liaison pornographique–coyly recounting a sexual affair that turns to bittersweet love as a series of he-said, she-said interviews–seemed destined for Lincoln Plaza. Will anyone reserve a place for The Wind Will Carry Us, the new Abbas Kiarostami film, which won second prize in Venice? More challenging and original than Taste of Cherry, the movie–a comedy based on alternating presence and absence–opens on a winding road to nowhere (actually Kurdistan) and concerns a visitor from the city who spends most of his time talking, on the cell phone and otherwise, to people unseen. Although the protagonist’s mysterious mission goes on, perhaps for weeks, the movie’s golden light makes it feel like a siesta reverie, shot over the course of a single afternoon.

The Wind Will Carry Us won’t be in New York, alas, but one of the NYFF discoveries is the hitherto obscure Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa, represented by his haunting Rip Van Winkle comedy, License To Live. Slightly ahead of the curve, Toronto pulled together a Kurosawa retro, ranging from his early Excitement of the Do Re Mi Fa Girl, a 1984 softcore “pink” movie about university shenanigans that evokes the international new wave of a quarter-century earlier, through several straight-to-video policiers, to the uncanny 1999 ecological thriller Charisma (named for the malignant tree that is the movie’s villain). All are characterized by a mix of absurdist sight gags, deadpan violence, and sudden slapstick eruptions–to which Charisma adds a measure of metaphysical horror.

Lost at Cannes, Charisma was redeemed in Toronto. If the former festival is a pagan bacchanal, the latter stands for sober reformation. At least that’s how the local audience responded to Kevin Smith’s Dogma (the movie, not the movement), taking what seemed like restrained civic pride in the revelation of homegirl Alanis Morissette as God.

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