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The World of Toronto’s Festival of Festivals

If the point needed proving, Toronto’s just-concluded Festival of Festivals lived up to its name.

You could browse among an intelligent, exhaustive distillation of the films that created most of the rumpus at Cannes, Berlin, Park City and Telluride; from Latin America, Australia, the Pacific rim and, naturally, Canada. And frosting on the cake was this year’s sidebar event, a massive 50-film examination of Soviet cinema since Stalin.

With the programming of 279 films, long, short and in-between, the Festival of Festivals clearly emerged in its 13th year as the broadest and most useful event of its kind in North America.

The news was not vastly different from Cannes: solid pockets of satisfaction but no blockbusters--unless you count Christine Edzard’s masterly six-hour, two-part adaptation of “Little Dorrit,” whose busting had mostly to do with the constraints of time. With what may be Alec Guinness’ best and most complex film performance (as William Dorrit), it’s an audacious way of telling Dickens’ workhouse saga through two sets of eyes and two psychological perspectives: the first three hours from the point of view of Derek Jacobi’s Arthur Clemens, the second from Little Dorrit’s (newcomer Sarah Pickering).

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Like “Nicholas Nickleby,” audiences take the film in one long gulp, with a dinner break, or see it over two successive days. Word is that “Dorrit"--a cavalcade of majestic performers, including Guinness, Jacobi, Roshan Seth, Cyril Cusack, Eleanor Bron, Robert Morley, Max Wall and Joan Greenwood in her final appearance--will open in New York in November. Infuriatingly, Los Angeles must wait for the trickle-down theory to work before we have it ourselves.

Some of Toronto’s greatest successes had surfaced this year at the Cannes festival: Terence Davies’ “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” which won the Critics’ Award in Toronto, used the English tradition of the pub and the family sing-along to deal with deep psychic trauma at home. Davies, like Dennis Potter, employed cozy popular songs as insulation for his painful trips into family history in a film that’s gorgeously fluid and poignant, wrenching yet affectionate.

(In the press room, Sight & Sound magazine’s redoubtable critic/editor/writer Penelope Houston could be heard to snort, “It’s splendid, really, for Terence to be collecting these awards everywhere--but he still can’t raise a cent for his new movie.”)

“Salaam Bombay!,” Mira Nair’s moving, fictionalized account of the street kids of Bombay, which in the “Pixote” tradition uses a cast recruited from the streets, won Cannes’ Director’s Fortnightly Award--for first-feature direction. In Canada it won both hearts and minds; we’ll have it to judge for ourselves within the next two months. And the dry magnificence of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “A Short Film About Killing,” which also been seen at Cannes, will surface here before long too.

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The French cinema seems to be pulling itself together after a long, tepid season. The French film with the hottest buzz around it was Catherine Breillat’s “36 Fillette,” which translates roughly as “36 Junior.” Described by one wag as Rohmer with dirty words, it’s a clear-eyed look at the wildly fluctuating moods of a 14-year-old seductress, whose alternating off/on messages lure and infuriate the 40-ish Parisian sophisticate who encounters her on his Biarritz holiday. Anyone who doesn’t realize how exactly on-target this portrait is has either forgotten or repressed his/her adolescence.

Sexuality--and sensuality--was also the core of a heady Brazilian film whose director, Tereza Trautman, was one of Toronto’s discoveries. Set during the 24 hours of a family reunion on the day they are closing their hillside mansion, sold for elegant condominiums, it manages to give the 40-year history of the family and of the social and political fabric of Brazil without a single flashback. Trautman retains an astonishing control of her interwoven stories, told in a style both passionate and elegant, raw and languid. Only its translated title, “Best Wishes,” is undistinguished.

Toronto’s tradition of exceptional documentaries was upheld by “Voices of Serafina!,” a first feature by short-film Academy Award winner Nigel Noble (“Close Harmony”), whose profiles of the young, black South African cast of the musical “Serafina!” become a personal, heart-rending pattern of life under apartheid.

“The Cry of Reason” is a portrait of Beyers Naude, an Afrikaner who had been touted as a future prime minister until the events of the Sharpeville massacres turned his life around. Naude has been described by Desmond Tutu as “a resplendent sign of hope for South Africa and for the world,” and Robert Bilheimer’s film does him full justice.

“Comic Book Confidential” by Ron Mann (“Poetry in Motion”) is an exceptionally handsome study of the mad world of the comics and their makers.

“Cane Toads” by Mark Lewis is a deadpan look at the creature imported by Australia 50-odd years ago to rid itself of a beetle that was destroying the sugar cane crop. What no one had quite considered was that the beetles flew, but the toads did not. Breeding prodigiously, these engagingly ugly critters, which reach the size of large dinner plates, now threaten to engulf the region. It’s a pleasantly mad, slightly overextended effort.

The festival opened with David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers,” the most expensive Canadian-financed film yet and probably the most audacious choice for an opening night event. (Even the director was a little startled: “Are you sure you don’t want a comedy?” he had asked festival director Helga Stephenson.) It was the festival’s way of putting Canada’s very finest foot forward, but it paved the way for a rousing debate.

Part of the lure of this festival for Canadian film makers is its $25,000 Toronto-City Award for excellence in Canadian production. Juried by an international panel, that prize went to “The Outside Chance of Maximillian Glick,” an oleaginous, sub-television-worthy trifle by director Allan E. Goldstein. Granted that Cronenberg now looks like the big time, judged on merit alone, his film towered over any other Canadian entry. He should have been given the prize and the money, to keep or redistribute as he saw fit.

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When there is general lamenting about the state of English-language Canadian films, the encouragement if not canonization of mediocrity in this manner only perpetuates the problem. All this, in a city which so obviously cherishes film; it’s schizophrenic. (The vitality of films from French-speaking Quebec are another matter altogether; witness the “Decline of the American Empire” of two years past.)

Toronto audiences are almost half the joy of festival-going. That audience is everywhere in Toronto: turning out for Pedro Almodovar (whose “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” won the audience poll as the Most Popular Film) or Lino Brocka or the exhaustive Russian overview.

The Russian films were a double discovery, and once found they made it almost impossible to turn your attention to anything else. Screened at theaters dotted all over the center of town, they reached their natural habitat out at a huge theater in the richly ethnic Bloor Street area, where pirogi parlors, kosher delicatessens and rathskellers sit shoulder to shoulder with Belgian waffle ice cream shoppes.

The Soviet films also brought out the city’s Russian or Russian-speaking audience for the first time, in the way that its Asian population responded to the Asian-Pacific roundup of last year and the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking residents were lured by the New Latin-American Cinema retrospective in 1986.

The Soviet section deserves monographs and magazines all its own. It’s frustrating that such a treasure trove of films may never come to Los Angeles. What we might hope is for an excerpt of its most startling discoveries.

And among such relatively unknown directors as Kira Muratova and Dinara Asanova, my own favorite is the extraordinary Vasily Shukshin, peasant-born in 1927, who became a film school classmate of Tarkovsky’s. Shukshin, actor, director, screenwriter and author, became a hard-living people’s hero, a little like the singer-poet Vysotsky, and died at 47. Tough, ruggedly good-looking, exultantly proud of his ancestry and the country he came from, Shukshin’s most indelible image comes from “The Red Snowball Tree,” as he speaks caressingly to three young birch trees, as though they were maidens--only minutes before his criminal ex-associates gun him down.

In a way, Shukshin becomes a metaphor for the best and the most frustrating things about festival-going: an almost lost artist whose work becomes a personal cause--although like Abel Gance or Andrei Tarkovsky or Larisa Shepitko, the work has to be seen , not read about.

As audiences, we need these films; as critics and writers they’re an occupational necessity. We have to look up from the “Cocktails” and the “Coming to Americas” that bound our days or lose all perspective and most of our heart.

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So a film festival like Toronto’s, by and large irreproachable (except for “Memories of Me,” which had no business within hailing distance of any serious festival), becomes fuel for the enthusiasm that we must all have or wither in our jobs--and our lives.


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