Rep Cinema This Week: Porch Stories, Madame Bovary, and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
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Rep Cinema This Week: Porch Stories, Madame Bovary, 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 Porch Stories.

At rep cinemas this week: a Toronto-based romantic comedy-drama, a flat adaptation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and a smug exposé of Scientology.

Porch Stories
Directed by Sarah Goodman

The Royal (608 College Street)

Toronto filmmaker Sarah Goodman puts her documentary chops from observing the lives of others and her good ear for the rhythms of conversation to work in Porch Stories, a charming, unfussy romantic comedy-drama set around a Victorian home in Little Portugal. Shot in digital black-and-white and starring a number of local actors and musicians, the film is a modest but affecting and tidily constructed look at the lives held together by geography and happenstance in one Toronto neighbourhood.

Hidden Cameras band member Laura Barrett anchors the film with her understated lead performance as Emma, a grieving musician whose plans to settle down with her fiancé and hang up her kalimba are complicated by an unexpected visit from her couch surfing former lover and bandmate Gabriel (By Divine Right vocalist José Miguel Contreras). While Emma’s drama plays out on her porch steps, she’s observed by an old married Portuguese couple (Uerania Silveira and Sergio Sarmento) across the street and called on for advice by a neighbour and fellow artist (Hallie Switzer) wrapped up in her own romantic conundrum.

Goodman’s delicate touch is exactly right for this material, which is complicated without being convoluted. Even if the conceit of honing in on the love life of an entire neighbourhood is a bit too clever for its own good, there’s a humane quality to Goodman’s character portraits, and an emotional directness to the actors’ performances (perhaps bred by their musical backgrounds) that makes this a minor-key success.

Madame Bovary
Directed by Sophie Barthes

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

Mia Wasikowska marries young, strays often, and sulks like a pro in Madame Bovary, Sophie Barthes’s dry, more or less undistinguished adaptation of the Gustave Flaubert novel. The Cold Souls director brings her sharp eye for detail to her quiet, minimalist adaptation, but this is a misjudged project from go—a stern, solemn affair that trades the novelist’s sharp satire and witty prose style for turgid period melodrama.

For any initiates, Wasikowska plays Emma, a lower-class woman with upper-class tastes who marries a country doctor in hopes of bettering her station. When love and money run dry, Emma compulsively turns to a pair of lovers, shady and rakish both, as her refined tastes rack up a formidable debt that will inevitably bring her and the good doctor down to earth.

Wasikowska shows some signs of life as Flaubert’s famously unsympathetic heroine, particularly in some of Emma’s more childish outbursts, but she’s too often used as morose wallpaper for Barthes’s narrative flow chart approach to the novel, which brings over much of the plot but little of the class insight or perverse humour. One wonders why Barthes has omitted Emma’s gauche taste for tawdry novels, the origin of her expensive habits in Flaubert’s novel and a psychological shading that would have rendered her more dimensional here. That decision, like much of Barthes’s process here, renders this a stately and handsomely mounted bore—passable and not much more.

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

Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)

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 has 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 the ondes Martenot. It’s also got some pretty good talking heads in a team of recent Scientology ex-pats, none better than Oscar-winning filmmaker (and former Kingston resident) Paul Haggis, who, despite his hack work in Hollywood, has 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.