The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: A postcolonial travelogue set in the Amazon, a beautifully crafted romance, and a visceral depiction of the Holocaust.
Embrace of the Serpent
Directed by Ciro Guerra
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra writes back to a pair of white ethnographic tomes on the Indigenous tribes of the Amazon with the beautiful, if muted, Oscar-nominee Embrace of the Serpent. Part postcolonial exercise of resistance and part travelogue, the film works best as an elegiac B-side to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (and by extension, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), tracing an equally fraught downriver journey into the ugly heart of the European conquest of Indigenous cultures.
Guerra’s film tells the tragic colonial story of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his tribe. He’s played by Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar in the two phases of his life. As a young man, Karamakate embarks down the river in search of a rare, possibly tribe-saving plant with German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grunberg (played by Borgman’s Jan Bijvoet). In later years, a more chastened, disenchanted Karamakate goes even further into the jungle with American botanist Richard Evans Schultes. His journeys bring him on a kaleidoscopic tour of the ravages of colonial interference in southern Colombia from the early to mid-twentieth century, allowing him to take in a beautiful country razed by the rubber trade and abusive evangelical missionaries.
Guerra is an accomplished visual storyteller, getting evocative black-and white-footage of lush jungles and dark, rippling waters. And his approach of excavating Karamakate and the threatened Indigenous tribe he stands for from European ethnographic texts is undoubtedly a bold one. One only wishes the film had more to say about this contested space, offering more than by-now familiar bromides about white invaders’ penchant for materialism and madness masquerading as reason. That’s an important argument, to be sure, but not such a novel one as Guerra intends in the wake of a century’s worth of postcolonial literature.
Directed by Todd Haynes
Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)
Long a favourite of film theorists and high-toned cinephiles—and perceived as a clever but frosty semiotician by nearly everyone else—Todd Haynes makes a compelling bid for more mainstream tastes with Carol, a poignant adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian pulp novel, The Price of Salt. Though it’s as impeccably crafted and steeped in film history as earlier efforts, such as Far From Heaven and HBO’s Mildred Pierce, Carol is the director’s most emotionally accessible work by a mile: a deeply romantic two-hander built largely on furtive glances, double entendres, and coded expressions of love.
Cate Blanchett stars as the titular 1950s Manhattan socialite in the midst of a separation who falls hard for Therese (Rooney Mara), a younger shopgirl and aspiring photographer with a fetching far-off stare. Though the women are an instant match, their connection is systematically forced underground by a prosaic world of homophobic family members, would-be partners, and a legal system that deems their relationship a psychological disorder to be treated. Repressed from all of these sides, the women go on a distinctly American covert road trip that solidifies their love away from everyone who could tarnish it.
This push-pull relationship between the individual and the greedy world around her is powerful stuff, impeccably realized by Haynes at the top of his formalist command. This isn’t just the best period recreation of the year, but the most evocative and self-aware. It imagines not just 1950s small-minded America but its distorted cinematic mirror image, forged in a tradition of melodrama that Haynes knows inside out. That the two central performances are so tender and real amidst this directorial playfulness is a small miracle, and a testament to Haynes’ command of the story.
Son of Saul
Directed by László Nemes
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
László Nemes leaves an indelible first mark with Son of Saul, the Hungarian filmmaker and ex-assistant to slow cinema stalwart Béla Tarr’s impeccably directed if intellectually dubious feature debut. A runner-up at Cannes and critical darling on the fall festival circuit, the immersive, 35mm shot film follows the travails of Saul, an Auschwitz-Birkenau inmate who makes it his personal mission to find a rabbi to secure a proper burial for a boy killed in the gas chambers. Saul’s quixotic, hopeless quest becomes for Nemes a way to channel the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust on a single brave soul’s journey through it and toward something like redemption.
Your mileage will vary on the question of whether Nemes’ formal gambit of presenting Saul’s story as a you-are-there frontline experience of the Holocaust—filmed just over the protagonist’s shoulder and just out of the way of unspeakable violence—is bold or exploitative. We weren’t so persuaded, and found the experience akin to a solemn video game shooter that at once revels in violence and scolds its audience for taking part in it vicariously. But there’s no denying Nemes’s craft, or his singular focus, which makes this as troubling and impressively sculpted a debut as we’ve seen in some time.