The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a look at the legal push for marriage equality, a visionary documentary, and a modest return to old haunts for Bernardo Bertolucci.
The Case Against 8
Directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Early in The Case Against 8—Ben Cotner and Ryan White’s documentary about the Supreme Court decision that overturned Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages in the state of California—attorney and conservative hero turned marriage equality proponent Ted Olson announces that this is one of the most important civil rights cases in United States history. Perhaps out of a certain reverence for that significance, the film itself is a relatively safe bet, nicely illuminating the case’s behind-the-scenes process and its personal and political significances for the four co-plaintiffs without doing much to rock the boat.
Like most television documentaries about big issues, The Case Against 8 is limited by its form. There’s a TV-ready schmaltz to the filmmakers’ decision to depict the substance of the trial by having its participants read from their own transcripts over a swelling string score. The slickness of the packaging also minimizes a number of interesting points of contention. One comes away, for example, with the not terribly convincing impression that Olson took the case out of the goodness of his heart, and that the gay rights groups who initially protested his involvement were merely partisan spoil sports, unable to see the forest for the trees. No doubt, those activists would tell a different story if they were interviewed.
Whatever its weaknesses as a nuanced piece of LGBT history, the film is indispensable for process wonks curious about the way such human rights cases are assembled. Its tidiness aside, it’s also moving as a portrait of two dedicated couples fighting for their access to a basic human right.
Directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
The latest project from Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Manakamana is one of the most singular documentaries to come along in some time. Unlike the Lab’s previous feature Leviathan, which chaotically dispersed cameras throughout a New England fishing vessel to capture something like a cubist portrait of the industry, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s film trains a single camera on a cable car suspended over a hilly region en route to the titular Nepal temple, following nearly a dozen distinct groups of passengers (including a trio of goats) as they make their way to the pilgrimage site.
As simple as the conceit sounds, the rewards are many. For one, the view through the car’s window as we dip and rise over the valley is sublime, looking at times like a rear-projection special effect. Much as one is alternately thrilled and hypnotized by this slow, vicarious ride over the hills, though, the real stars are the passengers themselves—some of them shy, others hammy, and all of them parked in front of the camera for their ten minutes of fame as if in a screen test for the film we’re watching.
Me and You
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci returns after a ten year hiatus with Me and You, a chamber drama about a pair of estranged middle-class siblings hiding out from the world in an abandoned basement. A doodle in the vein of smaller films like Stealing Beauty rather than a large-scale historical canvas like 1900, the film is an amiable if not especially memorable portrait of youth in the most minor of revolts.
Jacopo Olmo Antinori (a pockmarked young dead ringer for Malcolm McDowell) plays Lorenzo, a teen with an unusually close rapport with his mother who bails from his class skiing trip to hole up secretly in the basement, a sanctuary where he can listen to Arcade Fire and The Cure under his oversized headphones and read the sort of books angry young men have read for ages. Lorenzo’s life vacation goes without incident until his long unseen half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco), from his father’s earlier relationship, drops by in a concerted effort to kick her heroin addiction in isolation. So begins a beautiful friendship, as they say.
Bertolucci typically thrives in such restrained settings, and if Lorenzo and Olivia’s privilege-based bond isn’t nearly as compelling as Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider’s in Last Tango in Paris, it’s at least watchable on the strength of the performers’ interesting mugs and some fairly inventive art direction. Some of the filmmaker’s pet motifs —shades of incest, nascent radicalism, youth rejecting the waste heritage of their parents—are remixed here to middling effect, but there’s a certain narrow pleasure in watching a filmmaker return to his old stomping grounds with modesty rather than bluster.