2001 TIFF Festival Update #9: "The Inequality of Equals"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 17, 2001

Arguably, one of the most fascinating aspects of a film festival is how several films that are completely different in temperament, tone, and intent can evoke the same degree of appreciation in a viewer. These days, multiplexes tend to pander to least common denominator audiences, meaning that the term "variety" applies largely to whether the lead role is played by Freddie Prinze Jr., Matt Damon, or Josh Hartnett. Things are different at film festivals, where the kinds of films to be seen and appreciated span the spectrum from hard-hitting dramas to feather light comedies. For an example, consider three films - Monsoon Wedding, Lovely and Amazing, and The Navigators. These movies have nothing in common except that I recommend all three (translation: *** out of ****).

Monsoon Wedding is the latest effort from Indian director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Kama Sutra). It's not hard to understand why audiences at Toronto applauded the film wildly during each of its two public screenings - it's a lively and infectious celebration of life and love - something we were in desperate need of this week. (In fact, the first originally scheduled showing of the movie was canceled because of the U.S. tragedies.) Nair has constructed this motion picture in such a way that even the most cynical curmudgeon with find himself or herself smiling at one time or another.

The primary story concerns the impending nuptials of Aditi (Vasundhara Das) and Hemant (Parvin Dabas), a couple who are getting to know one another after agreeing to participate in an arranged marriage. Aditi is a lively young woman who is trying to conclude a dead-end relationship with her boss. Hemant is an engineer who lives in Houston, Texas and is interested in finding a bride who shares his roots and heritage. As Aditi and Hemant are forging a fragile bond, Aditi's boss predatorily moves back into the picture and threatens both the marriage and Aditi's future happiness.

Complimenting Aditi's story are a pair of other tales - one dark and one light. The wedding coordinator, Dubey (Vijay Raaz), suddenly and unexpectedly falls for the shy and insecure Alice (Tilotama Shome), Aditi's maid. Their gentle, tentative courtship is presented with a mixture of humor and tenderness. Meanwhile, Aditi's cousin, Ria (Shefali Shetty), reveals a malignant secret she has kept for nearly two decades about how she was sexually abused as a child by a family member who may be attempting to repeat the offense with another young girl.

Most of Monsoon Wedding is frothy and enjoyable, with the lush, varied music of Mychael Danna heightening the delicious sense of celebration. (Nair's film borrows from the Bollywood tradition of incorporating vivid musical numbers into the main story.) Visually, the film also tantalizes the senses, with nearly every scene offering a riot of color. Ria's story provides the dramatic glue that keeps the film grounded - the theme of sexual abuse is treated sensitively, but nothing can hold this irrepressible motion picture down for long.

The actors all do fine jobs, especially lovely Vasundhara Das as Aditi. But the real star of this movie is its director, who, in cooperation with screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan, has crafted the kind of motion picture that represents two hours of pure, unfettered joy. Typically, movies that offer this much fun do so because they are mindless and inconsequential. Nothing could be further from the truth where Monsoon Wedding is concerned. This film manages to be delightful without insulting the characters or the audience.

At the other end of the spectrum is Ken Loach's The Navigators, a hard-as-nails drama that, instead of offering viewers an escape from reality, forces them to face some of the colder facts about living in today's world. Loach's subject isn't terrorism, but something equally destructive and far more insidious - the way big businesses routinely discard faithful employees, rewarding long-term loyalty with a few weeks' severance pay and a cheerful goodbye. This is the kind of subject matter that will strike home painfully for many men and women in today's work force. And, while Loach includes occasional flashes of humor, this is predominantly a grim motion picture.

Loach has always been know as a filmmaker with a social conscience, as one look at his resume (which includes such titles as Riff-Raff, Ladybird, Ladybird, My Name Is Joe, and Bread and Roses) indicates. The Navigators fits in well with Loach's past efforts. The sense of character is not as strong here as it has been in the director's best outings (none of the protagonists in The Navigators is developed into a fully fleshed-out individual), but the issues are as clearly presented and thought-provoking as ever.

The movie deals specifically with the privatization of British Rail, which transpired during the mid-1990s, but the themes explored by Loach apply to countless other industries in today's world. The idea of company loyalty died with the '80s. Today, it's every man (or woman) for himself (or herself), as prized employees bounce from company to company, depending upon who offers the best salary and benefits. Meanwhile, "generic" workers often find themselves turned loose for no reason whatsoever, their job inexplicably "eliminated".

In 1995, British Rail left government control and the portion in South Yorkshire became East Midland Infrastructure. The employees were subjected to new buzz words and theories. Customer Satisfaction replaced safety and efficiency as the #1 priority. A "mission statement" was developed. And employees were subjected to demeaning and pedantic training films. Soon, workers found themselves facing uncertain futures with jobs that could be eliminated any day. High quality became a victim of the obsessive need to cut costs. Loach allows us to see the shortsightedness of these management policies without ever launching into a didactic sermon. He doesn't have to - we instinctively believe everything we see on screen because many of us have experienced this in our everyday work environment.

As is typically the case, Loach coaxes effective performance out of unknown actors. This is one way he keeps the films more real and immediate, believing that familiar faces can distort the gritty, near-documentary style he prefers. The Navigators would have been a more powerful feature had we developed a stronger emotional connection with one or more of the characters (we see occasional snapshots of their home lives, but nothing substantive), but, even as it is, this is a worthwhile motion picture whose central topic will resonate with many who see it.

Somewhere between the pure joy of Monsoon Wedding and the grit of The Navigators lies Lovely and Amazing, a dramatic comedy from Nicole Holofcener that tells the tale of a mother and her three children. Lovely and Amazing is the kind of motion picture that can make you laugh one moment and cry the next. It is at times serious and at times very funny. But it is always perceptive, and that quality, more than any other, is what makes it worth a recommendation.

At first glance, there couldn't be four more different people than Jane (Brenda Blethyn) and her daughters, Michelle (Catherine Keener), Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), and Annie (Raven Goodwin). Jane is a good-natured, caring, middle-aged women. Michelle is trapped in an unhappy marriage while working an unfulfilling job at a photograph development shop. Elizabeth is a mostly unsuccessful actress who is questioning her career and her choice in men. And Annie, an adolescent African-American girl adopted by Jane, is struggling with the rigors of puberty. Yet there is a common thread that connects these women: insecurity about their personalities and bodies. Jane is undergoing liposuction to lose inches around her waist. Michelle, aware that her husband is unfaithful, contemplates dallying with an underage boy who finds her attractive. Elizabeth worries that she's not sexy enough to get the right roles. And Annie's answer to problems is to pig out on MacDonald's food, even though everyone comments that she's getting fat.

It's Holofcener's insight into the female psyche that makes Lovely and Amazing such an engrossing motion picture. The director displayed a similar aptitude with her women characters in her previous outing, Walking and Talking. She has recruited a talented cast to bring these characters to life. Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer, and Catherine Keener (who co-starred in Walking and Talking with a not-yet-infamous Anne Heche) are all good. On the male side, we are treated to appearances by James LeGros (as Elizabeth's emotionally detached lover), Jake Gyllenhaal (as the teenage object of Michelle's fantasies), and Dermot Mulroney (as a big-time Hollywood actor).

This is not the kind of motion picture that will find much favor in multiplexes, but the strength of character development is such that it almost certainly will uncover a healthy audience in art houses. Holofcener crafts each of her characters carefully, showing their creativity and neuroses. And, while there's plenty of humor to be found in this 90-minute feature, there's never an occasion when we're laughing at the characters. We come to like these people, warts and all.

And that brings to a conclusion my coverage of the 2001 Toronto Film Festivals - one of the strangest and most surreal 10 days I have ever spent in any city at any time during my life. This is certainly a festival I will remember for the remainder of my days on this planet, although not for the right reasons. It started out like any other gathering of filmmakers, publicists, actors, critics, and movie-lovers, then went horribly wrong because of something that happened 500 miles away. The festival continued after the World Trade Center disaster, but no one's heart was in it. We clutched at movies as a means of temporary escape. This was no longer a celebration of film; it was a search for succor.

Just looking at the films, I believe 2001 was a considerably weaker year than either 1999 or 2000. But it's hard to say, since I only viewed about 10% of what was available, and that could have easily been the wrong 10%. (For example, I didn't see the top prize winner, Amelie From Montmartre, nor did I see the best Canadian film, Atanarjuat.) Because my flight back to Philadelphia was repeatedly canceled, I stayed until the end of the festival, but nothing I saw during my extra three days in Toronto changed my mind. So, when I departed the city shortly after the festival had ended, I felt dazed and confused. Nothing about the past week somehow seems real. And yet, at the same time, there's a starkness about everything. That's a paradox that all of us are dealing with - and none moreso that those whose loved ones are still listed as missing.

I will return to Toronto in a year for the 2002 Film Festival. Nothing will keep me away. I do not fear flying, so I will take a plane. And, almost certainly, next year will be a more joyous occasion, when coffee shop conversations will be about which movies should be seen and which should be avoided, not what the latest body count is or what form the retaliation should take. But I will be in Toronto on the one-year anniversary and I wonder whether the shadow of this year's events will be long enough to chill the day more than just a little. Are my memories of the good times in Toronto powerful enough to overcome the sensations of shock and disbelief? Only time will tell...

© 2001 James Berardinelli

Back to Main Festival Page