The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: an experimental riff on Flaubert, Sarah Polley’s moving family saga, and a sobering critique of the Indonesian death squads.
Directed by Júlio Bressane
CineCycle (129 Spadina Avenue)
Flaubert gets a strange, stirring 21st-century rendition in Sentimental Education, Brazilian filmmaker Júlio Bressane’s ostensible adaptation of the 1869 novel about the relationship between a young revolutionary and an older woman. Bressane translates the 19th-century realist classic into the present and shifts the focus to the older partner, Áurea (Josie Antello), a teacher who first gazes upon her young would-be lover in an eerie Hitchcockian scene at a pool. More radical than the contemporary update, though, is Bressane’s formal daring, which delivers fragments of Flaubert’s prose in archly stagey two-shots between the leads before mutating into a wordless experimental film about bodies in motion and finally a meta-cinematic record of its own production.
This is a heady, intellectually ambitious film, and we won’t pretend to be completely onboard with Bressane’s project, which struck us as more than a little opaque. But once you get past the difficult first act it’s easy to settle into Sentimental Education’s new rhythm as a beautifully composed dance film, which reimagines the central relationship as a pas de deux in an Edenic landscape that’s just about gone to seed. It isn’t Flaubert, but it’s as strange and as striking an adaptation as you’re apt to find.
Bressane’s film screens courtesy of MDFF, and is preceded by Toronto filmmaker Stephen Broomer’s Championship, which is receiving a 16mm projection.
Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley
Harbourfront Centre, WestJet Stage (235 Queens Quay West)
Prior to its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sarah Polley’s third feature was shrouded in secrecy, described in the vaguest of terms as a genre-bending look at a family of storytellers. No wonder: as Polley soon revealed in a candid blog post, her first documentary hits close to home, returning to the moment she learned the long-hidden identity of her biological father.
While Polley’s admission might seem like a full disclosure, what makes Stories We Tell such a fascinating film is its rich ambiguity. Polley refuses to pin down the most ephemeral subject, her vibrant and enigmatic mother Diane, who passed away in 1990 and left a void that her family could only fill with a host of moving, often contradictory stories.
Those biographical vignettes form the backbone of this uncommon family drama that’s more interested in disagreements than in group hugs. Nothing is sacred: not the home movie aesthetic we typically associate with reality, complicated here by Polley’s choice to cast an actress as Diane in Super 8 recreations of her youth, and not even the filmmaker’s project of reaching out to disparate family members for information about her mother, which is criticized outright by one of her subjects.
That the film can accommodate this contrarian opinion as well as the director’s own position, and still make room for her father Michael’s touching version of events, is no small feat. If one occasionally wishes there was less onscreen editorializing about the value of sharing this family story, that democratic gesture to her own family critic is nevertheless a testament to Polley’s humane vision of storytelling as an imprecise art, a deeply personal way of staking a claim to loved ones who may otherwise be irretrievably lost.
Stories We Tell screens for free as part of the Harborfront Centre’s Free Flicks series.
The Look of Silence
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Joshua Oppenheimer follows up on his much-celebrated documentary The Act of Killing with the equally bracing and vital The Look of Silence. Where its predecessor saw members of the Indonesian death squads—the men behind thousands of anti-Communist executions in the 1960s—remorselessly acting out their crimes in garish dramatic recreations (taken in one case to the point of the perpetrator’s own nausea), The Look of Silence focuses on the investigative efforts of Adi, a village optometrist whose brother was murdered in the purge, and who now seeks to confront the right-wing paramilitaries behind it.
Where The Act of Killing sought to compromise its viewer for passively bearing witness to such grotesquely aestheticized representations of atrocity, The Look of Silence is devoted to raising and problematizing the idea that documentary filmmaking can be wielded as a blunt tool of social justice. One senses that if reconciliation is not possible for Adi, Oppenheimer at least believes that exposing such blatant abuses of power by people who still wield unbelievable clout under the harsh light of the camera, and forcing perpetrators to engage in one-on-one conversation with their former victims, might at least be the first steps toward something like conciliation. There are no easy answers here, but this is a critical film in the best sense, constantly engaging with the question of what kind of testimony documentary cinema can offer when a nation’s traumatic wounds are still open.