The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: Bill Morrison’s haunting experimental documentary about the Mississippi River Flood of 1927, Pier Pasolini’s controversial and rarely screened anti-fascist polemic Salò, and Denis Villeneuve’s mind-bending, cheeky English-language debut.
The Great Flood
Directed by Bill Morrison
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
There’s no better rejoinder to the old canard that documentaries are formally unambitious knowledge-delivery systems than the work of Bill Morrison. A New York–based experimental filmmaker and Guggenheim fellow whose films are often collaborations with composers like Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, Morrison approaches the problem of how to tell history—and does so by crafting evocative, largely silent montages that mix found footage from decayed film stock with original musical scores. In The Great Flood (scored by guitarist Bill Frisell), he brings this style to the story of the Mississippi River Flood of 1927, one of the worst natural disasters in American history, and one that displaced over a million citizens, many of them rural southern African Americans.
As with many of Morrison’s best films, including 2002’s haunting Decasia, there’s an anthropological charge to The Great Flood, which, without voiceovers, onscreen interviews, or much in the way of captions, gently orients us to the journeys of the displaced—including the cultural journey of those who migrated to the north and became foundational figures in Chicago blues traditions. Despite the brittleness of the source photography, arranged seemingly in order of progressive degeneration—with the last footage in each section apparently the most damaged—there’s a palpable outrage in the portraits of racial inequality that emerge from Morrison’s montage: images, for instance, of white flooding victims evacuated with care while their black neighbours are left to linger or are packed into dingy camps. For the most part, though, Morrison’s delicate images—which always seem on the verge of burning up or vanishing into the ether—wash over us, leaving us with a mournful sense of having borne witness to the most ephemeral scraps of the past.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
As one of the most frequently banned works in film history, Salò’s reputation precedes it. The last completed film of Italian poet, public intellectual, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini (and a loose adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, updated from 18th-century France to the Italian Social Republic of World War II), the film tells the corrosive story of a group of high-ranking fascist libertines who kidnap and torture 18 teenagers, stealing them from their rural homes in the closing days of Mussolini’s Nazi-inflected puppet regime.
Intensely violent and unremittingly grim, Salò is as difficult to watch as its repute would suggest, and the experience is worsened by the cultivated blankness affected by the nonprofessional actors Pasolini casts as the victims—cooly resigned to their fate except in the moments of their most extreme duress. More than 40 years later, what registers even more than the abuse is Pasolini’s hair-trigger tone, which shifts with abandon from dark satire to grotesquerie to righteous polemic. Tough as it is, Salò is essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of political cinema, on-screen depictions of fascism, or any of Pasolini’s prickly successors, from Michael Haneke to Catherine Breillat.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
Whatever else you might call the films of Quebecois Oscar nominee and, as of Prisoners, mainstream thriller director Denis Villeneuve—and some have called them calculated, serious, and bloated—you normally wouldn’t think to call them fun. And yet here we are with Enemy, the filmmaker’s first English-language excursion (though the second to be released), as well as the first of two rapid-fire collaborations with Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s turned out to be his most freewheeling, experimental, and—miraculously enough—joyous film to date, not that it has strong competition from po-faced affairs like Incendies and Polytechnique.
On the face of it, Enemy is as dark and elliptical as its predecessors. It’s the story of a University of Toronto Scarborough (!) history professor (Gyllenhaal) who, through a colleague’s chance recommendation, stumbles upon a local indie film featuring his exact double (also Gyllenhaal) in the prized role of “Bellhop #3.” The ensuing identity crisis takes Gyllenhaal prime down some dark paths, including a bout of stalking around his double’s Mississauga condo, a mysterious key party involving some likely sex workers and an angry-looking tarantula, and, even more alarmingly, a covert partner-swapping episode.
If all of that sounds a bit silly, well, it is—but for the first time in his career, Villeneuve seems uninterested in spinning his twisty material into anything more meaningful and profound than straight pulp. That’s the right choice, and it helps give just the right sleazy thriller vibe to the film’s jaundiced vision of the GTA, a place of weird jutting angles, concrete, glass towers, and smog. Gyllenhaal, for his part, is terrific in no fewer than two career-best performances, hitting every shade of cosmic confusion with bug-eyed intensity, whether he’s creeping his other half in oversized dollar-store sunglasses, baffled by his mother’s insistence that he’s always loved blueberries (he hates them, but does his double?), or brought face to face with an enormous CG spider. What can we say? We’re fans.