The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s modern Roman tragedy, local talent Isaac Cravit’s debut thriller, and Steve McQueen’s newly minted Oscar winner for Best Picture.
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films are notoriously hard to pin down. A multi-hyphenate talent, perhaps as lauded as a poet as he was as a filmmaker, Pasolini was also a hybrid storyteller, mixing high-art aesthetics with stories of low-born characters in harsh circumstances. That makes Mamma Roma, a working-class tragedy about a Roman sex worker and her beloved wayward son, a good introduction for neophytes.
The indomitable Anna Magnani, by then an international star and Oscar winner for The Rose Tattoo, plays the titular character, a former prostitute and current fruit seller who wants only to shed her origins and secure a cushy middle-class existence for her teen son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo). Of course, reality intervenes, and Ettore finds himself increasingly drawn, with crushing consequences, to the marginal life from which his mother has just extricated herself.
Pasolini’s most immediately accessible film, Mamma Roma flirts with the conventions of Italian neorealism—Garofolo is one of Pasolini’s many nonprofessional stars, his fresh face a counterpoint to Magnani’s familiar one—as well as the high emotional stakes of opera. Though it’s grounded in Magnani’s brassy, direct performance, the film is equally impressive as a work of high formalism, at times finding Mamma Roma soliloquizing on the streets of the city as she passes a neat cross-section of Rome’s flashing lights and seedy nightlife.
Mamma Roma kicks off TIFF’s retrospective, “Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination.” The screening will be introduced by Luca Caminati, Associate Professor at Concordia University. Caminati will give a talk on Pasolini’s representation of the urban landscape in the film.
Directed by Isaac Cravit
Carlton Cinema (20 Carlton Street)
There’s little that’s especially innovative about Toronto filmmaker Isaac Cravit’s Solo, a madman-on-the-loose survival thriller set at a summer camp somewhere in the wilds of Northern Ontario. As an exercise in tension-building and no-frills horror, though, it’s pretty successful.
Degrassi: The Next Generation star Annie Clark plays Gillian, a troubled teen and aspiring camp counsellor about to embark on the last stage of her job training: a solo island camping trip. Easy enough on paper—but the island is rumoured to be haunted, and Gillian has her own baggage to deal with in the form of a recent, as yet unidentified trauma.
Though the story beats are expected—what better way to tell us someone is at risk of threats either supernatural or earthbound than to strategically place a creepy doll in her tent?—Cravit sets his film apart from the crop of horror films about endangered young women by keeping things spartan. Rather than indulging in the quick cuts and jolting music cues of the genre—or, worse, its grisly violence against women—Cravit prefers stately long takes that bring out the natural sound of Gillian’s surroundings and let Clark show her acting chops. The result is refreshing in a low-key sort of way, even if the mechanics are familiar.
12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)
Despite its foundational status in American history, slavery has been a fairly taboo subject on film, rarely addressed outside of timid courtroom dramas like Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and ironic extravaganzas like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. That makes acclaimed British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the autobiography of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor)—a free man taken from his home in New York in 1841 and sold into slavery—an especially important project.
Given his visceral recreation of an IRA prisoner’s hunger strike in his first film, Hunger, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave promised to be a bold alternative to the likes of Amistad, but this is a tonal departure for the director, despite its similar interest in how faux-civilized institutions bear down on the body to break an individual’s spirit. Less formally rigorous than its predecessors, despite an abundance of long takes that neatly fit into McQueen’s filmography, the film is a straightforward and at times awkwardly expository period piece, complete with an overly stacked celebrity cast in an endless procession of glorified cameos. While this is a safer film than we might have expected given McQueen’s background as an artist, that doesn’t take away from the moments of raw force and conviction, or from Ejiofor’s powerful performance as a man forced to hide his true self to survive.