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Alfonso Cuarón's 'Roma' and other riches from Venice enthrall the Toronto International Film Festival

Alfonso Cuarón's 'Roma' and other riches from Venice enthrall the Toronto International Film Festival
Yalitza Aparicio appears in a scene from the movie "Roma." (Toronto International Film Festival)

The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival is underway (Sept. 6-16), and Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang is there on the ground, seeing as many movies as possible and keeping a day-by-day, film-by-film diary. This is one in a series of entries spanning from Day 1 to closing night. For more entries and reviews, click here.

You could feel the excitement in the air before the packed Toronto premiere of “Roma,” the much-anticipated new movie directed by Alfonso Cuarón. A beautifully composed memory piece that conjures the faded Mexico City of the director’s 1970s childhood, the film was easily one of this 10-day event’s most breathlessly anticipated attractions. “Roma” arrived having already earned rapturous reviews at festivals in Telluride, Colo., and Venice, where, mere days earlier, it had won the Golden Lion, the top prize.

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The bestower of that prize was the director Guillermo del Toro, Cuarón’s pal and countryman, who served as the president of the Venice competition jury. (Del Toro promised beforehand not to do any friendly favors for Cuarón’s film, and “Roma’s” unanimously glowing reception certainly made the choice beyond reproach.) Notably, Del Toro himself had won the Golden Lion just a year earlier for his period fantasy “The Shape of Water,” the first piece of hardware he collected en route to winning the Academy Award for best picture.

None of this necessarily means that the Golden Lion has suddenly become some hot new harbinger of awards-season glory; this is a prize, after all, that has in the past gone to more recondite pictures such as Alexander Sokurov’s “Faust,” Gianfranco Rosi’s “Sacro GRA” and Lav Diaz’s “The Woman Who Left,” none of which were made with dreams of Oscar in mind.

Much to its credit, the same can be said of “Roma.” Shooting in crystalline black and white, Cuarón has made a faultlessly observed work of neorealism, an entirely accessible Spanish-language art film whose images evoke the look of vintage photographs even as they retain a lustrous, almost hyperreal clarity. It’s a vision of grit and grace; “Roma” pulses with life and energy, but it also feels becalmed, elevated, pristine.

The title refers to the city’s Colonia Roma district, where the camera settles on an upper-class family of four children, overseen by a busy, stressed-out mother (Marina de Tavira) and a neglectful, little-seen father. But the focus of the movie is on Cleo (Yalitza Aparacio, quietly wonderful), a woman of indigenous Mixteco heritage who works as the family’s maid and part-time nanny. She’s the serene glue holding this household together, but Cuarón knows that she is also much more than that.

Cleo’s story — one of impulsive love, slow-dawning regret and piercing loss — plays out in a movie that seems to be telling many stories all at once. In his wonderful 2002 comedy, “Y Tu Mamá También,” Cuarón delighted in having the camera swerve away from his three romantically entangled protagonists, seeking out fascinating, troubling corners of Mexican life unfolding just beyond their vision. He does the same in “Roma,” except this time those interludes don’t feel like digressions. Foreground and background blur together: Everything that happens — a fire suddenly breaking out in the woods near a Christmas house party, a massive tide of angry students revolting in the streets during the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre — feels like part of an irreducible vision.

Cuarón, coming off his balletic space thriller “Gravity,” is as chameleon-like a filmmaker working in Hollywood today. What unites his films, which include “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Children of Men,” is a passionate humanism that expresses itself not just through empathetic acting and perceptive dialogue, but through a command of camera movement that is nothing short of virtuosic. Like a modern-day Max Ophüls, Cuarón choreographs sequences in beautifully sustained long takes, and the duration of those takes achieves a powerful moral weight. Experience may be fragmented, Cuarón seems to be saying, but we still live and breathe in real time.

Moment by liquid moment, “Roma” is an achievement of such sublimity that I was surprised to find myself wrestling with it, at times even resisting its pull. There is something both awe-inspiring and distancing about the perfectionism of Cuarón’s visual design, the sense of calculation that seems to underpin even (or especially) his most breathtaking moments. There are scenes when you could almost swear Cuarón was directing not just, say, the throngs of young men at an outdoor martial-arts demonstration, but also the sun and the shadows, the waves of the ocean itself. Is this the work of a technician or an artist? A manipulation or a miracle? “Roma,” a movie and a neighborhood I look forward to revisiting, suggests there may be less of a difference than we think.

Jonas Strand Grasli appears in a scene from the movie "22 July."
Jonas Strand Grasli appears in a scene from the movie "22 July." (Toronto International Film Festival)

Cuarón’s movie was hardly the only well-received Venice title that subsequently made the trek to Toronto. There was also “The Sisters Brothers,” a jaunty, unexpectedly lovely and beautifully acted comic western from the French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, who earned the Venice jury’s directing prize for this English-language filmmaking debut. I’ll have more to say about the movie and its quartet of strong performances by John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed when it opens in theaters next week.

One high-profile Venice competition entry that headed to Toronto without a prize was “22 July,” Paul Greengrass’ anguished and analytical movie about the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway committed by Anders Behring Breivik, and also of the criminal trial that followed and its effect on the survivors and their families.

A maestro of chaotic incident, Greengrass knows a thing or two about the ethical and aesthetic complications of re-creating mass tragedy on camera. But with its broader focus on aftermath (its time frame stretches well beyond the date of the title), “22 July” isn’t as radically fragmented as Greengrass’ “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93.” Nor, with its English-language performances by an excellent cast of Norwegian actors, does it feel quite as uncompromising. In some ways, we’ve seen so much hyperkinetic you-are-there filmmaking in the intervening years that this one, for all its jagged verisimilitude, doesn’t pack the same punch.

Still, the first act is appreciably swift and brutal, as we see Breivik (a chilling Anders Danielsen Lie) methodically building a bomb that will go off in Oslo, then slaughtering 69 people at a summer youth camp on nearby Utøya island. The rest of the film, which focuses on the story of Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Grasli) is more prosaic, though mercifully easier to watch, as it measures the survivors’ lingering physical and emotional trauma, while weighing the law’s obligation to treat evil with a fairness it can scarcely be said to deserve. Its lingering warning, about the rise of right-wing extremism and nationalist politics all over the globe, is as obvious as it is worth repeating.

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Natalie Portman stars in the movie "Vox Lux."
Natalie Portman stars in the movie "Vox Lux." (TIFF)

I went straight from “22 July” to yet another strong Venice import, “Vox Lux,” Brady Corbet’s disturbing and provocative new movie about the birth of a superstar, and it turned out to be a more grimly fitting double bill than I expected. “Vox Lux” opens with a mass shooting, far quicker than the one in the Greengrass film, but no less disquieting. From the embers of that tragedy rises the career of a singer named Celeste, played in the movie’s first act (“Genesis”) by Raffey Cassidy and in the second act (“Regenesis”) by Natalie Portman, who, after “Black Swan” and “Jackie,” continues to tease out the myriad contradictions of performance and celebrity with thrilling abandon.

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Corbet, an actor known for his work with chilly art-house provocateurs such as Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke and Antonio Campos, applies some of those eerie signature influences to “Vox Lux” — which, like his fine 2015 directorial debut, “The Childhood of a Leader,” is about the making of a monster. Forging sinuous links between terrorism and celebrity, art and violence, it’s also a meditation on narcissism, the ways in which a country seeking redemption can rally around a spectacle of individual innocence so forcefully that it becomes a twisted, toxic inversion of itself.

Corbet regards his pop-diva protagonist with corrosive cynicism, but what gives “Vox Lux” its double edge is that he is also clearly entranced by her. Working with original songs by Sia, Cassidy and Portman make Celeste a transfixing contradiction, a dream and a nightmare rolled into a film that often plays like both.

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