Rep Cinema This Week: Phoenix, It Follows, and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
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Rep Cinema This Week: Phoenix, It Follows, and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.

Still from Phoenix.

At rep cinemas this week: A classy art-house thriller about mistaken identity and betrayal in postwar Germany; a smart, scary horror film about a sexually transmitted curse; and a Scientology exposé.

Directed by Christian Petzold

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

The past doesn’t quite stay buried in Phoenix, the handsomely shot, immaculately plotted new thriller from Christian Petzold, the German filmmaker who came to international prominence with Jerichow and Barbara. Like those films, Phoenix is anchored by a phenomenal lead performance by Nina Hoss, who plays Nelly, a concentration camp survivor who comes back from the dead with a reconstructed face and some old scores to settle, as she pushes to figure out whether the person who betrayed her to the Nazis was her own husband, Johnny (Hoss’s Barbara co-star Ronald Zehrfeld). What follows is a heady riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo that sees Johnny remaking Nelly, whom he doesn’t recognize except as a vague doppelgänger for his betrayed wife, into a body double recast for his own selfish desires.

Phoenix is a very smart film, handling this nearly radioactive, pulpy material with care so that the serious allegorical implications—that Johnny, like other Germans after the war, can’t bear to recognize the guilt that’s staring him in the face—come through with a measure of sensitivity. And it’s hard to fault a frame of the finale, which restores Nelly to herself through a powerful dramatic set piece. If one hesitates to call this the masterwork it’s obviously aspiring to be, it’s because Petzold’s approach is at times annoyingly precise when a little excessiveness might have better suited the psycho-thriller mechanics of the conceit. One also wonders if the seriousness of the allegory doesn’t quite sync up with the goofiness of the premise, a Clark Kent-Superman misrecognition gag stretched to feature length. Still, Hoss’s swan song more than earns the transformative title.

It Follows
Directed by David Robert Mitchell

Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)

Though the signs were there in the film’s sensitivity to aimless suburban American teens, nothing in David Robert Mitchell’s tender debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, quite prepared us for It Follows, a clever, scary, button-pushing thriller that pays homage to inspirations such as John Carpenter’s Halloween and David Cronenberg’s Shivers. Maika Monroe stars as Jay, a 19-year-old college freshman whose burgeoning romance with the new kid in town heads south when, after they have sex, he reveals that he has just passed on a sexually transmitted ghost—one that stalks its victims in the form of slow-moving apparitions that only they can see, never stopping until they die or pass the curse on themselves.

Mitchell toys with a lot of exploitative possibilities here, framing Jay’s initial traumatized state as a rape allegory and flirting with the moralistic suggestion that a young woman’s sexuality is dangerous. He’s wise to downplay that reading, dialling up the intensity largely by identifying with Jay and playing her dilemma straight. If its ideas are a bit inchoate, It Follows is still strong, pulse-pounding stuff with a warm beating heart at the centre—the work of a skillful new genre talent.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Directed by Alex Gibney

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

If the vaguely threatening letters critics have been receiving since the film’s bow at Sundance are anything to go by, Scientology’s top brass have made a big fuss about Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s adaptation of the bestselling Lawrence Wright exposé about the religion’s shadier dealings. Though the famously press-shy religion was right to expect a walloping, it probably doesn’t have much to worry about in the end. As blithely engaging as it is at times, Gibney’s doc is rather par for the course: a nasty little look at founder and professional con artist L. Ron Hubbard for initiates, a series of good anecdotes about the church’s curious treatment of faithfuls like John Travolta for the already-opposed, and not much for anyone else.

Gibney is by now an old pro at this sort of thing, so Going Clear has the sturdiness and professional sheen you’d expect of a big-deal HBO production, down to the cheeky hard cuts after a subject says a ridiculous thing and seamless mix of archival images and goofy recreations, scored to the spooky sci-fi sounds of an ondes Martenot. It’s also got some pretty good talking heads in a team of recent Scientology expats, none better than Oscar-winning filmmaker (and former Kingston resident) Paul Haggis, who, despite his hack work in Hollywood, turned out to be an awfully good whistleblower. What’s missing is a larger sense of purpose beyond the cheap shots: Going Clear lands most of its blows, and occasionally inches toward important critique, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that a less glib treatment of the church’s many human-rights violations might have been more effective.