The fest’s home for the avant-garde features a mind-bending Viggo Mortensen Western, a playful riff on Shakespeare, and more.
Like Midnight Madness, Wavelengths tends to draw some of TIFF’s most self-selecting crowds, a hyper-literate bunch who know their way around Portuguese master Pedro Costa’s docu-fiction hybrids without much need of a concordance. Intimidating as the programme might seem to novices, it’s always struck us as one of the most consistent in the festival, well worth a look even for those who might be sheepish about committing to difficult art films.
Polarizing as it is sure to be, we think first-timers to the programme might do well to start with Jauja, Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso’s followup to 2008’s Liverpool. Anchored by a rumpled, naturalistic performance by the great Viggo Mortensen—who also produces, contributes guitar compositions to the score, and gets to speak in his native Danish—Jauja is a beguiling little head-scratcher. The period-Western-slash-metaphysical-head-trip tells the fable-like story of Gunnar, a Danish general (Mortensen) who sets off into the heart of darkness that is the nineteenth-century Patagonian desert—right in the middle of the Spaniards’ punishing colonial campaign to, as one officer bluntly puts it, “exterminate” the indigenous Other—in search of his teenaged daughter, who’s been kidnapped by a rogue soldier gone native, like Colonel Kurtz before him. There are shades of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, as well as Kelly Reichardt’s revisionist Western Meek’s Cutoff in Gunnar’s weird, physically taxing journey—the film is similarly presented in a boxy frame with only the most minimal camera movement, as though it’s being glimpsed through an old camera’s viewfinder—but given the surreal places it goes in the time- and space-transcending last act, we can’t say we’ve seen anything quite like it.
Jauja is gorgeously lensed, in its minimalist way, but audiences in search of ravishing images might be even better served by Costa’s newest, Horse Money. Returning to the geographic and thematic territory of his Fontainhas trilogy—which casts light on the impoverished residents of the titular slum—Costa again finds a poetry of resistance in the disenfranchised souls of contemporary Lisbon. It’s a difficult, haunted film—its protagonist Ventura (who also starred in Costa’s Colossal Youth) carries the heavy ghosts of failed revolutions and fallen comrades on his back. Some might find that political context inscrutable without having seen Costa’s earlier films. Even a complete novice, though, will find it hard to deny the beauty of Costa’s chiaroscuro digital cinematography: each shot produces a carefully sculpted and choreographed tableau of dimly lit faces and shadowed bodies navigating a procession of corridors and alleys, at once real places and back channels into Ventura’s past.
A heavy main course, Horse Money might go down easier if paired with a digestif like Matías Piñeiro’s The Princess of France. Continuing his streak of films that puckishly bring Shakespeare into contemporary Argentina with female-driven ensemble casts, the film follows a Buenos Aires theatre company’s efforts to perform a radio version of Love’s Labour’s Lost. A preternaturally accomplished young auteur with a delicate humanist touch and a penchant for wordplay, Piñeiro has always impressed us with his ability to bring distant literary texts into everyday life with humour and verve. After his previous film Viola’s smart and affecting riff on Twelfth Night, we’re eager to see what Piñeiro makes of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Though Wavelengths is inarguably the most auteur-driven programme at the festival, it does have offerings for those less keen on pursuing specific filmmakers like Piñeiro or festival staples like Tsai Ming-liang, Lav Diaz, and Manoel de Oliveira. The four shorts packages are grouped loosely according to theme—Wavelengths 3 (featuring new work from American experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs), for example, focuses on works that play with narrative, whether to delay, reconfigure, or falsify it. Wavelengths 2, by contrast, focuses on the atmospheric; we’d give it a look for contributions from Toronto-based filmmakers like Blake Williams and Jean-Paul Kelly—the latter’s The Innocents promises a shot-for-shot remake of the Maysles brothers’ 1966 documentary With Love from Truman.
Relative to the puppyish appeal of the offerings in the Gala programme, Wavelengths selections admittedly aren’t for the faint of heart: you won’t find Robert Downey, Jr. emoting to Bon Iver as he apparently does in The Judge—though Horse Money does have a rollicking folk song or two. But you will find a collection of singular film artists committed to telling stories in ways that only films can.