1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #9: "Obscure Treasures"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 16, 1999

This column may turn out to be exceedingly frustrating for those who don't attend film festivals. The four movies I'm going to talk about are all relatively obscure and difficult to market; it's entirely possible that none will be available for U.S. theatrical distribution. Finding movies like these, however, is one of the great joys of attending an event like the Toronto International Film Festival. Pictures like The Cider House Rules and The War Zone, as good as they may be, will eventually show up in U.S. theaters. These four films, in all likelihood, will not.

Actually, calling any of the following movies "obscure" may be applying a misnomer. Three are by directors whose previous efforts have attracted my attention. The other is by a Canadian filmmaker who has several earlier productions on his resume. Nevertheless, as any movie-goer knows, a past record in the foreign film arena does not guarantee any kind of distribution deal. U.S. fans of these directors will have to do some serious searching to find their latest projects.

Earlier this year, Erick Zonca enraptured audiences with The Dream Life of Angels, his emotionally penetrating examination of the life and death of a friendship between two homeless girls. Now he's back with Le Petit Voleur (The Little Thief), an equally perceptive but much shorter character study (the running time is only 65 minutes). This time around, Zonca narrows his focus to a young protagonist who is weary of eking out an existence doing meanial chores. So, in an effort to get on the fast track, he joins a gang of thieves, but quickly learns that their lifestyle is far from glamorous, and the threat of permanent injury or death is an ever-present companion.

For Le Petit Voleur, Zonca employs many of the same strategies he used for his previous film, and they work as effectively here to get us into the character's world and enter his mindset. All photography is done using a handheld camera. There is no incidental music. The lighting appears to be natural. And there is very little dialogue. This is a film of images and emotions, and probably comes close to conforming to Dogme 95 standards. There is also a moral to this story - that crime does not pay - but it is delivered in a natural manner that never borders on heavy-handedness. This is an absorbing and worthwhile motion picture; unfortunately, its short running length is the attribute most likely to keep it from an American release.

Also coming to Toronto with a second feature effort is German director Caroline Link, whose Beyond Silence achieved a place on my 1998 Top 10 list. Link's sophomore movie is called Annaluise and Anton, and is based on a 1931 novel by children's book author Erich Kastner. Link describes the movie as a "children's film", but the term "family film" is more accurate, since the movie has enough depth and breadth to be enjoyed by viewers of all ages. There's a magical quality to this story of two ten year old friends who yearn for what the other has and they lack. Annaluise's parents are wealthy, but they (especially her mother) treat her like an ornament, not a person. She envies the closeness of Anton's relationship with his mother. In turn, Anton, who is poor, covets Annaluise's financial security.

Link frequently allows the film to enter the realm of fantasy. There's a wonderful scene in which Annaluise, in the company of a group of homeless people at a train station, dances like a gypsy. In another sequence, the two children go on a money-is-no-object shopping spree at a local grocery store. And, for those who appreciate less cerebral moments, there's a bit that could have been lifted directly from Home Alone. However, the real hallmark of Annaluise and Anton is its character development, which is aided immeasurably by the unaffected performances of newcomers Elea Geissler and Max Felder. Age will not be a factor in any viewer's enjoyment of this motion picture.

Back for the third year in a row is veteran French director Benoit Jacquot. Last year, Jacquot debuted The School of Flesh at Toronto. This year, Isabelle Huppert, his leading lady from that movie, is back for Pas de Scandale (Keep It Quiet), Jacquot's look inside the dysfunction of an extended family. Jacquot's style is unmistakable; his films have a comfortable, almost-hypnotic rhythm that no other director can match. He makes seemingly mundane situations come alive, and keeps us interested in ordinary lives.

In Pas de Scandale, the central figures are Gregoire, a wealthy businessman who has just been released from jail, his wife, and his brother. Gregoire has emerged from prison a changed man; he no longer embraces the winner-takes-all attitude that landed him there in the first place. He has become kind, gentle, and fair-minded. His wife and brother no longer understand him, but this does not seem to concern Gregoire, who does not intend to betray his newly discovered morals to help them save face. Like the title character in Dostoevsky's The Idiot, Gregoire sees everything through a child's eyes, but his apparent naiveté is viewed as threatening by those who do not understand his motivations. Into this tale, Jacquot introduces a gallery of intriguing secondary characters (especially an attractive young hairdresser named Stephanie), whose presence influence Gregoire's actions.

The characters and events of Pas de Scandale are developed without artifice or melodrama. The individuals populating the screen for 103 minutes become as real as any characters can become. We believe their lives will continue after the movie has ended. What's more, we wish we could be a part of those continuing lives. It's a tribute to Jacquot's ability as a filmmaker that a viewer can desire a sequel to something as understated as Pas de Scandale. Of all the films mentioned here, this is the one most likely to attain some sort of U.S. distribution (although it may only be in large markets where foreign films are embraced).

Finally, there's Canadian director Jerry Ciccoritti's The Life Before This, the latest motion picture to ask the question of whether the future is fluid or has been predestined. Attacking similar themes to those presented in Blind Chance, Sliding Doors, Run Lola Run, and this year's Me Myself I, The Life Before This embraces the notion that even the smallest change in one person's actions can have a profound ripple effect upon his/her future and that of many others.

Ciccoritti opens his film with a random act of violence that impacts a number of characters gathered one evening at a Toronto coffee shop (exactly the kind of place I visited immediately after seeing this film). He then turns the clock back to the morning and follows each of these characters as they grow closer to the fatal point of convergence. But there are subtle differences in the way things happen, and, combined, these seemingly minor incidents result in a few surprises at the end.

The Life Before This is an ambitious production, and I applaud that quality. Note everything works, but the results are never boring. Ciccoritti has tried to do a little too much. There are a few too many characters and scenarios for a 90 minute movie; several are significantly shortchanged (perhaps those stories should have been eliminated altogether). And, as is often the case with movies that contain multiple, parallel plotlines, some are far more interesting than others. Ultimately, however, the film's strengths easily counterbalance the weaknesses. The Life Before This may only be the latest to enter the suddenly-cluttered genre of alternate reality movies, but it is strong enough to hold its own while weaker entries (like the aforementioned Me Myself I) begin to crumble around the edges.

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