The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a contemporary Portuguese spin on a classic, the best Canadian film of the year, and a fierce documentary about bearing witness to atrocity.
Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One
Directed by Miguel Gomes
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes follows up the gorgeous black and white tone poem of Tabu with Arabian Nights, his intellectually rigorous, humane, sobering, and gently erudite adaptation of Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights by way of Portugal’s plunge into austerity. True enough in spirit if not in content to the source material, this is aesthetically and thematically varied stuff, and all the better for it. It’s an imaginative, funny, and sometimes anguished look at contemporary Portuguese life that tempers its seriousness of intention and working class sympathies for the downtrodden with digressions about exploding whales and a chicken running for municipal office.
Gomes frames his adaptation as a contemporary folk tale anthology that’s the product of his (or his onscreen surrogate’s) failure to tell an all-encompassing story about his country, and Scheherazade’s insistence on taking up the charge in his place. The result is one of the most powerful and deeply pleasurable stories about storytelling we’ve seen in years, an earnest essay film about the cinema’s strengths and limitations in capturing the plight as well as the quiet dignity of the poor and the ineffable essence of a nation in crisis.
The Lightbox screens Gomes’s modest epic in three parts, the tickets for which can be purchased separately. Disparate as the tales are, we’d definitely start with the first volume, which finds Gomes delivering a wry mini-essay on his intentions and setting up the outer frame of the story.
The Forbidden Room
Directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Guy Maddin surpasses his earlier ecstatic heights with The Forbidden Room, co-directed by Evan Johnson. Maddin has long carved a niche for himself as Canada’s most singular living auteur, with his penchant for German Expressionism, silent cinema and melodrama, and his compulsion to marry those forms to casually taboo-breaking plots and boldly non-realist acting. In that regard, The Forbidden Room is much of the same, but, you might say, more so. It’s at once his most excessive film and his most deeply pleasurable, a seemingly bottomless cave of charming, star-studded (Mathieu Amalric! Hannibal’s Caroline Dhavernas!) vignettes in tribute to the cinema’s dreamlike aura and innate connection to memory and desire.
If that sounds a bit heady, rest assured that The Forbidden Room is also funny as hell, recklessly careening from set pieces involving a daydreaming volcano to a step-by-step guide to taking a bath, which naturally dissolves into an equally daft sequence featuring a submarine full of marooned deep-sea dwellers who turn to the air bubble in their flapjacks as their last oxygen supply. Needless to say, the logic is associative and free-floating and the effect alternately exasperating and enchanting.
As part of Canada’s Top Ten program at TIFF, Saturday and Sunday’s screenings will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers, fresh off their $100,000 prize win for Best Canadian Film at last week’s Toronto Film Critics Association.
The Look of Silence
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
Joshua Oppenheimer follows up 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.