Iraq was the focus of a grim Toronto film festival

[17 September 2007]

By Christopher Kelly

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

TORONTO—It didn’t take much effort to identify the dominant trend at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which concluded its 32nd edition Saturday. This year, you couldn’t swing a box of Goobers without hitting at least one Iraq War-related work.

For the highbrows, there was Brian De Palma’s audaciously conceived, if clumsily executed, “Redacted” (which was produced by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s HDNet Films)—a brutal drama about a group of U.S. Marines who rape and murder a 15-year-old girl in Samarra, Iraq.

For those who prefer their high-minded cinema with a side of cheese, there was the glossy “Rendition,” in which Reese Witherspoon plays a woman whose Egyptian-born husband is mysterious taken into custody by the CIA, which believes he is a terrorist.

Floating somewhere between those two movies was “In the Valley of Elah,” Paul Haggis’ somber and maddeningly self-important follow-up to “Crash” that stars Tommy Lee Jones as a father investigating what happened to his son, a soldier who went missing after his return from Iraq.

Even the movies that didn’t directly talk about Iraq still seemed to be talking about Iraq—or at least about the turmoil of the past two decades in the Middle East and how it’s affected all of our lives.

Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s animated “Persepolis” (an adaptation of Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same title) follows a young Iranian woman growing up under a fundamentalist regime in the 1970s and 1980s. And Alan Ball’s marvelous “Nothing Is Private” is set during the Gulf War and features Arab-American characters who are victims of prejudice in a Houston suburb.

The fact that so many filmmakers are preoccupied with current events isn’t necessarily surprising—especially not at a festival like Toronto, which prides itself on showing some of the edgiest, darkest new movies around. Much more notable, however, is the grim and despairing tone of so many of these titles. Indeed, watching both “Rendition” and “In the Valley of Elah,” you can sense the anti-war rage pouring off the screen. Even in something like “No Country for Old Men,” the Coen brothers’ extraordinary adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s crime thriller that takes place in Texas in 1980, the filmmakers seem to be making a very contemporary argument: namely, that American society has gone rotten to its core and lacks any sort of moral leadership.

So how will all of this seriousness play when these movies begin to hit theaters in the coming months? My guess is: not very well. Take the case of “Redacted,” which ends with a startling montage of real-life photographs from the war, of the horribly maimed bodies of Iraqi civilians, including many women and children. Of all the films I saw at the festival—including ones about abortion, pedophilia, serial killers and even teenage hermaphrodites—this was the one that made viewers most obviously uncomfortable. At the packed public screening I attended, you saw a lot of people anxiously shifting in their seats and frequently checking their watches, even though the movie is just 90 minutes long.

And considering how many downbeat options were on display at this year’s festival, it was curious to note that the two titles that seemed to generate the loudest buzz were lighthearted comedies: Jason Reitman’s “Juno,” a teen-pregnancy comedy that plays like an unholy alliance of “Superbad,” “Knocked Up” and “Rushmore”; and “Lars and the Real Girl,” in which Ryan Gosling plays a lonely guy who falls in love with a life-sized, anatomically correct plastic doll.

Could it be that it’s still too soon for Hollywood to maturely and even-handedly address the Iraq war and for audiences to be ready for those films? (Remember, it was four or five years after the Vietnam War ended that we began to see movies like “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home.”)

Or could it simply be that, in the face of such much bad news in the real world, moviegoers—even ones at a highbrow festival like Toronto—would just rather forget themselves and their problems for a couple of hours?



“4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”
Christian Mungiu’s drama won the top prize at Cannes this year, and the hype turned out to be accurate: It’s a tense thriller about a woman trying to secure an abortion in Romania in 1987; at once heartbreakingly personal and ferociously political, Mungiu’s film grabs you by the throat and never loosens its grip. (Opens in early 2008.)

“Paranoid Park”
Gus Van Sant’s latest is another dreamy meditation on modern teen life, in the style of his great “Elephant,” about a young skateboarder who accidentally causes the death of a security guard. More than just hypnotic and lushly beautiful, this movie confirms Van Sant’s status as perhaps the most important American director working today. (Opens March 2008.)

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”
A one-of-a-kind biopic from painter/filmmaker Julian Schnabel, based on the autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor of French Elle who suffered a massive stroke. Schnabel—who is a strong contender for a Best Director Oscar nomination—handles this potentially depressing material with a tenderness and visual eloquence that proves unexpectedly uplifting. (Opens in December.)


“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”
The most anticipated Oscar-bait of the festival—a sequel to the 1998 Best Picture-nominated “Elizabeth,” starring Cate Blanchett as the Queen—went down in flames. Kitschy and overacted, the movie plays like a Harlequin bodice-ripper that’s been splattered across the screen. (Opens Oct. 12.)

A lot of folks adored Jason Reitman’s follow-up to “Thank You For Smoking,” a tart comedy about a teen girl (Ellen Page) who gets pregnant. But with the exception of a nice supporting turn by Jennifer Garner as the woman who hopes to adopt the child, I found it contrived and unbearably hipsterish. (Opens Dec. 14.)

“I’m Not There”
Scheduling prevented me from seeing all of Todd Haynes’ experimental fantasia about the life of Bob Dylan, with six actors (including Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and Cate Blanchett)allcq playing the folk singer at various stages in his life. But the hour I did see of it struck me as little more than pretentious in-joke for Dylan junkies. (Opens Nov. 21.)

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