2002 TIFF Update #6: "The Festival Remembers"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 11, 2002

September 11, 2002 does not represent "business as usual" for the Toronto International Film Festival. As the crow flies, Toronto is not far from New York City, and, in my experience, the mass psychological impact of the terrorist attacks has varied proportionately with geographical proximity to Ground Zero. Another factor not to be ignored is that a sizable portion of the media corps in Toronto for the festival is from the United States, and, of the Americans there, many call New York City their home.

The 2001 edition of the festival was effectively ended by the attacks on the United States. The "show" went on, but not with any real enthusiasm. We (meaning just about everyone with a press pass) attended screenings out of a sense of duty and because, due to the shutdown of air travel, we didn't have a choice. Yet, during the period of September 12 through September 15 (when the festival officially concluded), I saw perhaps five films - 1.25 per day (compared to my usual rate of 4-5).

For the most part, the 2002 festival successfully overcame any lingering uneasiness that remained from last year. I can't say that I have enjoyed this year's festivities as much as I did those in the pre-2001 era, but I didn't feel that I was on a knife's edge, even though, to some extent, Toronto will always be associated with September 11 for me and many others. I was not home when the United States' false shield of invulnerability crumbled. The first time I entered the Cumberland Theater this month, I felt a twinge. That was the place where I first heard the news that two planes had struck the World Trade Center. (At the time, in the absence of any real information, I assumed they were small planes and the damage would be minimal, as when a biplane crashed into the Empire State Building.) When I emerged less than two hours later, the world was no longer the same. The towers had collapsed and chaos reigned. There was fear on the streets in Toronto. The currency desired by the terrorists had taken hold, even hundreds of miles away.

Toronto honored September 11 in two ways. The first was not to schedule any screenings (press or public) until after 11 am. In addition, all festival offices were closed. It was a time for gathering, remembering, and contemplating. Not that any one can or will forget. I am no different from anyone else - I can recall in vivid detail every major action I took that day. I remember the film From Hell more clearly than any other movie I saw at last year's festival because I saw it in the midst of the chaos. The unthinkable had happened before I went into that movie; what would transpire during those next two hours? Real world events dwarfed reel world ones. For the first time, we saw that people could bring down skyscrapers as easily as Hollywood. Yet when the lights went on, the buildings were still down.

This year's other nod to last year is the North American premier of 9/11/2001, a 135-minute compilation of short films from notable directors Ken Loach, Claude Lelouch, Sean Penn, Danis Tanovic, Amos Gitai, Shohei Inamura, Samira Makhmalbaf, Youssef Chahine, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Mira Nair, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Each of these shorts has two common qualities: in one way or another, they reflect something about 9/11/01, and they observe a strict format - a duration of 11 minutes, nine seconds, and one frame. (The European way of identifying September 11, 2001 is 11/9/01, rather than 9/11/01.) The mini-films are of diverse quality. Some are powerful, some miss the mark, and more than one takes a disturbingly sympathetic view of the terrorists. Tanovic notes that the massacre in Srebrnica occurred on the 11th of a different month (July 1995). Loach recalls another 9/11 incident - Chile's President Salvador Allende was deposed and murdered on that day in 1973. Penn, the only American in the group (curious that a New York director was not selected) shows the attacks from the perspective of a widower (Ernest Borgnine) living in lower Manhattan, whose world does not extend outside of his apartment window. Lelouch illustrates the confusion of a deaf woman who doesn't understand what has happened, and Chahine presents a Middle Eastern perspective. Finally, Inarritu offers 11 minutes of virtual blackness (interrupted by occasional, brief shots of people falling from the Twin Towers) punctuated by a haunting soundtrack featuring solemn music, voices, and the sounds of bodies hitting the ground and the buildings collapsing.

If one scours the festival, it's possible to uncover several films that are especially relevant when seen in the light of September 11. The highest profile of these is arguably Tom Tykwer's Heaven, the German director's greatly anticipated adaptation of the final screenplay by the great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (who wrote it with longtime partner, Krzysztof Piesiewicz). At the time of his death, Kieslowski (the auteur responsible for Decalogue and the Three Colors Trilogy) was developing a new three-film set: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Only the screenplay for Heaven was near completion, and, through a circuitous route, it improbably made its way to the desk of the Run Lola Run filmmaker. In retrospect, Tykwer should have been guided by his first instinct and refused it. But the temptation was too great, and the result is a sadly mediocre project.

The story concerns a terrorist, Philippa (Cate Blanchett), who is arrested after setting off a bomb that kills four innocent people. Philippa, a British school teacher living in Italy, did not intend to kill those people - her target was a man involved in drug trafficking who escapes as the result of a series of lucky coincidences. Fillippo (Giovanni Ribisi), a member of the Carabinieri, is Philippa's translator and guard during the police investigation of her crimes, and he quickly comes to believe in her - to the point where he is willing to risk his career and his freedom to help her escape. Meanwhile, Philippa is only interested in freedom so she can finish the work she started (killing the drug baron); her guilt-ridden conscience demands that she face punishment for the four people she inadvertently killed.

The moral ambiguities inherent in this story mark it as something from Kieslowski's pen; however, Tykwer's approach proves to be ill-advised. The mismatch is as out-of-tune as that of Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg on A.I., and the result is predictably underwhelming. Many of Kieslowski's scripts probably wouldn't work for other directors, since he alone had a sense of how to interpret them in a way that would pay the highest dividends. Certainly, the kinetic Tykwer, a great filmmaker in his own right, seems out of his element.

Heaven's tone is all wrong. The movie tries to be ethereal, but ends up seeming goofy. The story is de-politicized (at least in comparison with Kieslowski's body of work), yet there's a sense that it is trying to make a statement. The final product is passionless and largely humorless, with the downshifted Tykwer seemingly emasculated by his need to respect Kieslowski's final screenplay.

One of the problems with the film has nothing to do with the director or the script - there are deficiencies in the other critical elements. With the exception of one extraordinarily powerful scene (in which Philippa discovers the nature of her crime), Cate Blanchett's performance is muted. Giovanni Ribisi is simply awful - he spends most of the movie looking like a deer caught in a car's headlights. The music and cinematography are adequate, but I wonder whether Heaven might have been a better film if Tykwer had worked with some of Kieslowski's frequent collaborators.

Ultimately, Heaven doesn't seem like a Kieslowski film or a Tykwer film. The bizarre amalgamation of vastly different approaches results in a strange film that occasionally explores some interesting ideas (such as where the dividing line is between a freedom fighter and a terrorist), but leaves the audience dissatisfied. The quasi-mystical ending isn't likely to win over many fans, either, since it seems grossly out of place with the rest of the movie, which is supposed to be grounded in reality. In something like The Princess and the Warrior, Tykwer could get away with this (due to the nature of the film), but trying it in Heaven pre-supposes that the audience connects with the material on a deeper level than is likely. Heaven seems destined for limbo.

When is a hit man a terrorist? That's a question discussed in the subtext of Robert Duvall's newest movie, Assassination Tango, a quirky drama that I greatly admire. For this film, Duvall wears four hats: director, writer, producer, and star, ensuring that he will bear primary responsibility for the success or failure of the project. Like 1997's The Apostle, this is very much Duvall's movie from top to bottom.

He plays John, a veteran hit man who is contemplating retirement so he can care for his new family - a girlfriend (Kathy Baker) and her daughter. John's latest, and perhaps last, job is to assassinate a political figure in Buenos Aires. He knows nothing about the man he is supposed to kill, nor does he care about the particulars. This is just another job for him - he wants to get in and out. Thus, there is the unspoken question: Is John acting as a terrorist? Ask his employers and they would say no; he is killing a monster. Ask the man's backers and they would say yes. Ask John and he would shrug his shoulders. Labels don't mean much to him.

Because of a snafu in the plans, John ends up stuck in Argentina for several weeks longer than planned. While waiting for the go-ahead to kill his target, he becomes intrigued by the South American form of the Tango, and convinces the dynamic Manuela (Luciana Pedraza) to teach him the steps and the philosophy. Those of us familiar with movies like this will be expecting John and Manuela to end up romantically entangled, but Duvall's writing is smarter than that. The script doesn't deny the attraction, but it deals with the situation differently than we expect.

The film's tone is slow and deliberate. There are moments of energy, when the level of suspense is ratcheted up, but this is not primarily an action-oriented motion picture. The focus is on the "Tango" portion of the title, not the "Assassination". To that end, we are treated to a fair amount of dancing, and several conversations about the importance of the Tango to the Argentinean culture. In large part, dialogue is Assassination Tango's most obvious strength. Duvall has scripted the conversations so that they closely mirror the way people actually speak. Instead of being force-fed lines that only movie characters would utter, we hear the participants talk in a way that sounds unforced.

John isn't particularly likeable, although I suppose he has a certain charm. Assassination Tango skims the surface of a number of genre films, but is quirky and original enough never to immerse itself fully in any of them. Like The Apostle, it exists off the beaten path and will not satisfy mainstream viewers. Yet, for those who do not demand a firm adherence to formulas and genre-driven expectations, this movie offers the chance to see something a little different.

And now with quiet dignity, the world and the film festival move on to September 12. Next year, September 11 will be Opening Night.

© 2002 James Berardinelli

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