Rep Cinema This Week: A Syrian Love Story, Groundhog Day, and Breathless
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Rep Cinema This Week: A Syrian Love Story, Groundhog Day, and Breathless

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

At rep cinemas this week: a complicated relationship set against the backdrop of the Syrian Civil War, a seasonal romantic comedy classic, and a French New Wave masterpiece.

A Syrian Love Story
Directed by Sean McAllister

Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Tuesday, February 2, 6 p.m.

British documentarian Sean McAllister finds a complicated human drama in the middle of a hot button political issue in A Syrian Love Story. After a rocky start, which finds the director admitting a bit smugly to seeking “a real story…a gritty story,” the film nicely settles into its groove as a warts-and-all portrait of the relationship between Amer and Raghda, a pair of political dissidents who meet in a Syrian prison and spend the next 15 years both together and apart, subject to the changing political winds of the Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War.

While McAllister’s onscreen appearances and narrative interjection of his own arrest by Syrian authorities are a distraction of only tangential interest, he brings nuance to his account of the simultaneously cynical and hopeful couple’s push-pull dynamic. That’s also true of his look at how the couple’s children are affected by Raghda’s imprisonment for publishing material critical of the Assad regime. They come across as a sympathetic, articulate, and engaged lot—forced into being political in their youth by an unfair choice between leaving the country to which they’re deeply attached and opposing the government that has persecuted their family.

McAllister leans too hard on these young subjects at times, using his familiarity with them after over five years of filming to wring out some borderline exploitative accounts of their trauma surrounding their mother’s violent arrest and absence. That discomfort is hard to shake, but it doesn’t seriously mar what is nevertheless an important story about a few of the intertwined individual lives behind the Syrian refugee crisis. If the title suggests something hopelessly quaint, the film offers a resonant argument for attending to the seemingly minor but actually critical trials of individuals amidst such unfathomably large crises.

The screening is presented by Cinema Politica. Tickets are by donation, and McAllister and Amer will be in attendance at the screening.

Groundhog Day
Directed by Harold Ramis

The Royal (608 College Street)
Tuesday, February 2, 7 and 9 p.m.

Though he’s been a global star since Ghostbusters and a comic idol since his tenure on Saturday Night Live well before that, Bill Murray’s status as an offbeat romantic lead and hipster fetish object can probably be traced to Groundhog Day. Reuniting him with Caddyshack director and Ghostbusters co-star Harold Ramis, Groundhog Day initiated Murray’s still-ongoing career phase of playing guys straddling the line between manic and melancholy. Warmly but not rapturously received when it came out in 1993, the film has since become one of the most cherished romantic comedies of the decade, as well as a showcase of the tragicomic shadings Murray would later bring to his collaborations with Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson.

If we aren’t quite as sold on the film’s blend of whimsy and wisdom as most, we’re still pretty tickled by the premise of a callous jerk (Murray’s weatherman Phil) transformed into the world’s most patient man once a Groundhog Day assignment in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania scrambles the space-time continuum and traps him in a time loop that has him endlessly reliving February 2. As relatively conventional, stolid genres like the rom-com go, that’s a pretty ingenious conceit, treated with the lightest touch by Ramis and nicely grounded (get it?) by Murray and an uncharacteristically spirited Andie MacDowell.

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
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TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Thursday, February 4, 6:30 p.m.

Legend has it that much of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was shot from a wheelchair, with cinematographer Raoul Coutard pushed along by the director himself, in lieu of using a dolly they couldn’t afford. That can-do spirit, evident in everything from Godard’s novel approach to trimming the running time (cutting parts of scenes rather than removing them wholesale) to his means of keeping the script spontaneous (giving the actors their lines each morning) ushered in a new school of filmmaking.

Breathless was the first major film of the French New Wave, a clear break from the ornate period pieces then in vogue, and fronted not just by filmmakers but by film critics working for the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. It’s no surprise, then, that despite all the bold experimentation with cinematic rules of space and time, the film is also steeped in tradition. The biggest tell comes when charming no-good criminal Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo, a former boxer) admires a portrait of The Maltese Falcon star Humphrey Bogart, then rubs his lips and fixes his own expression in imitation of Bogey’s tough-guy mug. Breathless isn’t just a dead ringer for American gangster pictures, though: it’s a study in self-fashioning. Michel, after all, is more cinephile than hardened gangster, a sentimental guy who daydreams of shootouts from his dashboard but doesn’t seem to know his way around an actual gun.

Godard spoke of the film as a documentary about actors Belmondo and Jean Seberg, who plays Michel’s American lover, a novice journalist who pays her way in Paris by selling copies of the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Elysées. What’s arguably freshest about the film now, after the New Wave itself has been firmly entrenched in cinema culture, is the dynamic energy in their relationship. Fuelled by Martial Solal’s propulsive jazz score and Godard and Coutard’s restless camera, Breathless is never as engaging as when its leads lock their heads in a series of high-stakes games with goofy rhymes and grisly payoffs.