This year was an above-average one for the Toronto International Film Festival, an entity that seems to sustain a bit more abuse each year even from otherwise sanguine critics. This is due in no small part to the fact that TIFF (or tiff., per its omnipresent orange logo) works harder with every passing year to corporatize itself, shore up its brand, and fully ingratiate itself with global power players in the industry. Naturally, all tier-one film festivals cozy up to Big Money, but there’s an almost guileless transparency with which TIFF displays its go-getterism. Ironically, this pie-eyed benevolence – the vain hope that neo-liberal capitulation will mean More Stars, More Parties, More Fun!!! – is the flipside to the very measured Canadian temperament that inevitably finds these ostentatious displays so embarrassing. Public screenings this year proudly trumpeted TIFF’s role in “discovering” three big, galumphing Oscar magnets: American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, and The King’s Speech. “Let’s make the next big film,” the fest exhorted. Um, let’s not.
There was, thankfully, some dissent, a reminder that TIFF (or Ontario, for that matter) was not exclusively the province of red carpet galas and high-ticket real estate. Outside the Bell Lightbox and several other festival venues, striking employees of Bell, the Canadian telecom giant, distributed leaflets and spoke with passersby about their grievances and the company’s illegal lockout of its cable TV workers in the midst of a contract dispute. Of course, this protest was gentle and its participants well behaved; no workers crashed the screenings or provoked the wrath of Jeffrey Wells by sabotaging the wi-fi. But the fact that Bell’s name is on TIFF’s home base should be cause for chagrin, for any nonprofit cultural organization dedicated to promoting diverse points of view. Besides, seldom have corporate sponsors made such high demands of a world-class film organization. We don’t have the SPARsenal, or the Doritos Cinemas at Lincoln Center.
But then again, a film festival need not slap the name of a multinational corporation on its base of operations in order to betray its imbrication with larger systems of power. In many cases the films themselves will do the trick. As I said above, TIFF had a reasonably strong year, with a host of high profile premieres and a fairly solid crop from the spring and autumn European festivals from which to make its selections. Sure, there was the typical collection of obnoxious galas, and a typically lackluster lineup from the increasingly irrelevant TIFF Docs section. (Third World Crisis or Rock Stars. These seem to be the two bins into which TIFF Docs entries are sorted and screened.) But this is to be expected.
Nevertheless, compared to previous years, TIFF felt oddly incoherent, as though no sense of shared resonance or dialogue between the films were emerging. Instead of unconscious patterns forming, Zeitgeist slowly rising to the surface, it was just one damned thing after another. Granted, this is endemic to TIFF, which has its multiple sections and no competition. But usually some general thematic impression emerges, and not so much this time. It could well be that, four years since the global financial meltdown, the collective will actually is toward atomization and anti-connectivity.
For instance, if we compare two key films playing at TIFF this year, both from the Masters section, they are instructive not so much of dramatic polarities in the arthouse / festival cinema world, but of total incoherence. Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner, Amour, and Kim Ki-duk’s late-breaking Golden Lion awarded film Pieta, are both quite different on the surface. Amour is, by the reckoning of many, Haneke’s gentlest, most humane film. By contrast, Pieta is yet another violent, misogynistic wallow in Seoul’s criminal underworld, although truthfully, the depths it plumbs are those of Kim’s unconscious. The Haneke represents a departure; the Kim, a sorry return to form.
But look a little more closely, and this year’s big winners in Cannes and Venice have quite a bit in common. Although their directors employ rather different approaches, the films are both exercises in a kind of macho endurance cinema. Haneke has always possessed the cruel streak of a harsh, ruler-wielding pedant. True, he has made some rich, emotionally complex films, Code Unknown chief among them. But over time, it’s become apparent that he has absorbed some wildly skewed lessons from the Book of Adorno. Haneke truly believes that the masses are asses, and only by submitting to the rectitude of his cinematic vision might we possibly be saved, or at least corrected. Funny Games (both of them) at least posed this tasking from on high as a kind of joke. Now that we’ve arrived at scornful efforts like The White Ribbon and Amour, Haneke is, as they say, serious as a heart attack, and official film culture has feted him accordingly.
Amour congratulates itself, and has been duly congratulated in kind, for slowly, grindingly displaying the agony of the elderly slipping away into the twilight of dementia, a loving, cultured couple suddenly set aslope into the Heideggerian abyss of Being-Unto-Death. Whether or not the depiction is “realistic” seems beside the point in these hosanna-administrating sessions, and actually I’m not all that concerned with verisimilitude myself. It is fully within fair territory for Haneke to use his ample gives for stilted, mechanized staging and tonally aggravated mise-en-scène to accomplish his aims. The scene in the kitchen between Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) when she has her first small stroke is highly stylized. Anne freezes, staring straight ahead for about two minutes, while Georges scrambles around, getting ready to take her to the hospital. She simply unfreezes and resumes her conversation, surprised when Georges tells her there was a problem. This is a “stroke” staged for maximum theatrical impact, and Haneke surely knows this.
And there are other such moments in Amour in which Haneke, the master filmmaker, tightens screws and heightens impact in ways that, truth be told, are not exactly narratively necessary, much less medically verifiable. There are few things more harrowing than the regression of a once-dignified human being, and so having Anne manifest her disorientation by crying out “Mama! Mama!” is as shameless, in its stern, restrained, lesson-teaching way, as anything one would find in the “bathetic” films about dying that Amour towers above in the eyes of so many critics, and Cannes jury head Nanni Moretti. So, what is really going on with Amour? Certainly, it has two of our finest living actors at its core, even if Riva’s turn (under Haneke’s direction, no doubt) is given to certain showy fillips and over-articulated “subtleties.” In truth, it is Trintignant, hunched and haggard, suppressing anger through duty, who delivers a truly career-capping performance. (Isabelle Huppert and William Shimell also provide solid back-up.) But is this what seems to make Amour a cut above the much-maligned deathbed film, which is always presumed guilty of schmaltz by dint of its subject?
No, a good deal of what Haneke has going for him is sheer ugliness. Amour (which I saw presented in 4K DCP) is the flattest, most anti-aesthetic film this director has ever produced. Aside from a few exteriors and a concert scene, it takes place almost exclusively in the couple’s Paris apartment, which is shot by Woody Allen d.p. Darius Khondji as a drab smudge of mustards and umbers, shelves and paneling. Light and shadow have no impact in this film. Visual information is purely functional. And this seems to be part and parcel of Haneke’s crushing seriousness. Aesthetic concerns, he seems to say, would be a bourgeois indulgence, while we, the master class, are charged with gazing into the Face of Death. (“Mama!”)
Leaving aside the question of whether this course is required – who among us hasn’t been with loved ones at the end of their lives, watching them go? – there is no denying that Haneke’s “new direction” is but a shift in emphasis. The overriding tone of Amour is still that of a thrown gauntlet, the act of a hardnosed artist showing us Hard Truth and daring us not to look away. In this regard, how different is Amour from Pieta? “The 18th film by Kim Ki-duk” (as the opening credits proudly announce) is indeed a repugnant film, whereas Amour is merely an act of pomposity and overweening rectitude. But one could argue that Kim at least has the courage of his perverse convictions.
It must be said, by all accounts Pieta won the Golden Lion on a technicality. Michael Mann’s jury apparently didn’t understand the rules, and went forward prepared to throw every award in the book at Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, including the top prize. When informed that this wasn’t permissible, a from-the-ceremony-stage reshuffling occurred, wherein they inexplicably gave Kim’s film the top prize, even though it was their avowed second choice. How it eked out so high a finish in the rankings is itself a mystery. But taken on its own merits, Pieta is a film that drops all of Kim’s early-aughts pretenses of civility (Spring, Summer, Fall . . .; 3-Iron) and returns squarely to the “Asian Extreme” vulgarity of The Isle, Bad Guy, and Samaritan Girl. A loan shark’s enforcer (Lee Jung-jin) is one soulless goon because he was an orphan. He neither takes joy nor feels tinges or remorse at his job, which is to destroy the limbs of his victims so as to collect their debts via phony insurance claims. He is Gangster Capitalism incarnate. So, when a self-abasing woman (Cho Min-soo) comes around claiming to be his mother, begging forgiveness, he is skeptical. Once she downs a chunk of his flesh, and after he rapes her (“I came out of here? I’m going back in!”), he softens a bit. Ah, the power of family.
It’s a disgusting display, and Kim takes great pride in rubbing our noses in sadistic violence and repeated incestuous acts. Of course, he keeps them appropriately “gritty,” so that we know full well that Director Kim takes no pleasure in these horrid displays. Rather, much like Haneke, Kim is showing us Life’s Ugly Side for our own good. The fact that both Pieta and Amour happen to be works of control-freak male directors which outline their lessons on the blackboard of elderly female bodies is less a coincidence than a signal that contemporary film culture appreciates and rewards the continuing enactment of these Headmaster Rituals.
The irony, of course, is that Amour and Pieta will share a very small audience segment outside of the festival circuit. The Haneke film (already selected as Austria’s Oscar entrant) will be a three-hanky endurance test for the middlebrow set, while Pieta (presuming it finds distribution – I’m sure it won’t take long) will wend its way toward a self-selected fanboy set, those who will slot its Blu-Ray on the shelf alongside Oldboy and Ichi the Killer, failing to perceive just how different Kim’s agenda really is from Park’s and especially Miike’s. In short, neither crowd would be caught dead at the other film, just like the Funny Games fans wouldn’t have gone near Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring.
Interestingly, Toronto’s programmers opted to take a pass on the other major grand prize winner of 2012, even though it would have slotted quite nicely into the Masters program, where its presence would have been ignored by most despite contributing a touch of contact-gravitas. The Golden Bear winner at this year’s Berlinale, Caesar Must Die, has been considered in some corners to be a modest comeback for Italy’s Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, who have been off the A-list since at least 1993’s Fiorile, arguably since Kaos back in 1984. Jury head Mike Leigh has taken some heat for this offbeat choice, in a field that included much more obvious and, indeed, deserving winners such as Christian Petzold’s Barbara, Ursula Meier’s Sister, and especially Miguel Gomes’ highly distinctive Tabu. (Interesting sidenote: in the U.S., all four of these films were acquired for distribution in one fell swoop by upstart label Adopt Films. They’ve been rather quiet since blowing their wad in Berlin.)
There is no question that by comparison, the Tavianis’ film is somewhat underwhelming. Still, its absence from Toronto was strange. (It will have its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival.) Seen in the context of the other two big winners of 2012, however, Caesar Must Die has a bit more to tell us, in its deficiencies, yes, but also in its genuine modesty. Perhaps it excluded itself from a “Masters” section by being willfully clumsy, exploratory, not purporting to have all the answers. While it is true that, in its combination of documentary and “fiction” (a production of Julius Caesar and its attendant rehearsals among the inmates of Rebibbia, a maximum security prison on the outskirts of Rome), Caesar Must Die borrows liberally from recent Iranian cinema – Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, and Panahi, in particular – it is a work that is in no way aiming for bracing originality. In fact, the very selection of one of Shakespeare’s most over-performed texts would seem to signal to us that we are not supposed to be on the lookout for innovation.
What Caesar offers instead is a glimpse of a very ordinary process, one of edification within extreme restraint. Theatre director Fabio Cavalli is working with the inmates in order to help them spend their time in the creation of something meaningful. How will Julius Caesar become meaningful to these men? How does it become meaningful to, say, contemporary high school students? Cavalli, and the Tavianis, do not take this for granted. In watching the men audition – giving their name and town of origin, first angry, then crying – we see a wide range of mediocre acting. Why should any make-believe emotions be able to compete with the complex psychological situation in these men – murderers, gangsters, thieves, drug-runners – actually exist?
What Caesar Must Die shows them, and us, over the course of its modest running time is that the mere act of learning and reciting the words of another, of pretending to be someone else, can not only serve as a much-needed respite from a brutal reality. It can also be clarifying in terms of one’s own choices and values. Some have criticized the film’s blunt delivery of this message, as when Salvatore Striano, the actor playing Brutus, pauses at the line, “Rome, a city with no shame,” to note, “You too, my dear Napoli, have become a city with no shame. Excuse me, Fabio, but it is as though Shakespeare has lived on the streets of my city.” Whether or not the Tavianis have attempted to coach this “Brechtian” moment, and whether or not it works, is open for debate. But what seems more significant is that Caesar Must Die foregoes sophistication in order to accurately capture the manner in which performing Caesar provokes epiphanies for these men, most of whom have had no real engagement with literature or the arts. Naïve, yes, but beneath our consideration? Hardly.
But of course, enlightenment cuts both ways. The last line of Caesar Must Die comes from Giovanni Arcuri, the performer who played Caesar. We see him puttering around his cell, and in voiceover he laments, “Ever since I became acquainted with art, this cell has become a prison.” The process, as depicted by the Tavianis’ film, has delivered a hard lesson, and we are left with the deep ambivalence at the heart of the humanist project. Compared with Amour and, good lord, Pieta, Caesar Must Die is a film that is uncertain of its ultimate agenda, and so it cannot adopt the swagger of Perfect Art. It’s the mark of Old Masters, after all, to recognize that the world holds more questions than answers.
If these films were social actors, I’m left to conclude that Caesar Must Die is on the side of those striking Bell employees on the edge of the sidewalk, that Amour is aligned with the corporate brass, and Pieta would most likely be busting heads with the police.