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Toronto International Film Festival highlights

By Shane Danielsen
Armando Iannucci and Lucrecia Martel shine at this year’s TIFF

Notable for a slightly smaller selection than usual (it had supposedly shed a full fifth of its usual line-up), this year’s Toronto International Film Festival proved standard in most other respects – from the quintessentially Canadian levels of passive-aggression visited upon us mostly via an omnipresent army of volunteers, to the array of “prestige” titles jockeying for awards-season prominence. I tend not to catch many of the bigger films at TIFF – not just because they’re often lousy but also because soon they’ll be well-nigh inescapable, filling multiplexes from Baton Rouge to Brisbane. But I made an exception for The Death of Stalin, and I’m glad I did: it was as pure a pleasure as I’ve had at the movies all year.

Co-written and directed by Armando Iannucci, creator of HBO’s Veep, the film was, like that show, a gleefully profane, wickedly funny dissection of ambition and its discontents, as a group of Soviet Central Committee flacks, from Khrushchev to Malenkov, struggle to fill the power vacuum left by the tyrant’s demise. Lies, empty flattery and backstabbing are the order of the day. Alliances shift without warning; no one’s word is worth anything. “No matter what happens,” one conspirator tells Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, “I will never let any harm come to you.” It’s an assurance to which she responds by burying her face in her hands and saying, “I may as well just shoot myself like Mother.”

A little of the casting seemed odd, at least on paper – Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev? – yet, as with the fact everyone was speaking English, it quickly ceased to matter. Instead, there was the delight of watching a top-flight cast (Jeffrey Tambor, Paddy Considine, Andrea Riseborough, a very welcome Michael Palin) spark off one another, their exchanges, like their drowning-not-waving comportment, becoming steadily more desperate and pathetic. And a few of the stylistic paradoxes proved inspired, such as having Stalin’s “coarse” Georgian accent be represented by a guttural East Ender. Or making Zhukov, Soviet war hero and chief of staff, a bluff Yorkshireman.

Best of all, it finally provided the great Simon Russell Beale with a big-screen role to equal his electrifying achievements onstage. As Beria, the sadistic head of Stalin’s secret police, he combined a rapist’s depravity with a pedant’s attention to detail. (His first line: “Shoot her before him but make sure he sees it.”)

Also based on a true story, and set “two weeks before the end of the war”, Robert Schwentke’s The Captain was a kind of nightmare-picaresque, following the exploits of a deserting Nazi soldier (a young private) who unexpectedly finds an abandoned car and, in its back seat, a suitcase containing an SS captain’s uniform. He puts it on – the pants are a little long, but otherwise it fits – and begins his impersonation, intending at first to find a place of relative safety and lie low until a truce is declared. But so intoxicating is his new-found power (and so limitless, as the defeated Reich slides into chaos, are his opportunities to exercise it) that he instead becomes a monster, plundering and murdering his way across the shattered remains of Nazi Germany.

As unlikely as it might sound from that précis, much of this, too, proved bitterly amusing. As with The Death of Stalin, The Captain’s preferred tone appeared to be an especially light-absorbing shade of black comedy – but every so often the laughter curdled suddenly, and satisfyingly, in one’s throat. Was our young antihero insane, or simply a perfect creature of his time? The film never arrived at a firm conclusion … and was all the better for it. Certainly Schwentke – a German filmmaker who’s spent the past decade working in Hollywood on second-tier blockbusters including Red and Insurgent – seemed galvanised by his return home. He wrote the script, and it fairly seethed with fury and bitter incredulity. The exorcism of German war-guilt still has a long way to go.

Also from Germany, and scarcely less excellent, was Sonja Maria Kröner’s debut feature, The Garden – a fine-grained chamber-piece, set in the late 1970s, about an extended family who gather in the Bavarian countryside to memorialise their recently deceased matriarch. Like another recent German family drama, Matti Geschonneck’s In Times of Fading Light, the effect was almost novelistic: advancing its narrative through carefully weighted ensemble-dynamics, and achieving much of its power via implication and understatement. Superbly acted (by a quartet of young children, in particular), The Garden manages to be quietly, almost casually, devastating. And because I know its fans are such a prickly, defensive lot, I would be remiss were I not to note that I liked it approximately einhundert times more than Toni Erdmann.

I enjoyed Louis CK’s feature I Love You, Daddy – but mostly for John Malkovich’s turn as a Woody Allen–like predator, for which the veteran thesp seems to dial his epicene levels all the way to 11. Louis CK bankrolled the film, and shot it in New York in June, entirely in secret. Somehow, serving as his own editor as well as producer, he managed to deliver it to Toronto for its world premiere just nine weeks later.

Yet while I wish I could say the result didn’t feel rushed, it sort of did. There was an underdeveloped feel to many of its exchanges, a sense that, with more time, these placeholder lines might have been improved upon, and even a carelessness to some of its execution – from Pamela Adlon essentially re-playing her character from the Louie TV series (a disappointing waste of a gifted and underused actor), to glimpses of crew and cameras in reflective surfaces. Nor, alas, did its final shot quite stick the landing.

But there was also one major revelation, and that came courtesy of Chloë Grace Moretz as the protagonist’s spoilt teenage daughter, China. In one long, static take, performing opposite a mostly silent Malkovich, she demonstrated just what a fine, compelling actor she can be, given the right material. Considering that, beneath its determinedly crass surface, the film was straining for emotional acuity, this probably represented its single-most successful moment.

And then there was Zama, the long-awaited fourth feature by Argentine master Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga, La Niña Santa) – her adaptation of an acclaimed 1956 novel by her countryman Antonio Di Benedetto, published in English for the first time just last year by New York Review Books. A masterpiece of existential longing, the source-text chronicles the sad, solitary fate of Don Diego de Zama, an administrator of the Spanish crown working in a remote South American backwater in the 1790s. Bored and disillusioned, Zama yearns for his wife and children, and waits (and waits) for a transfer that, we are in no doubt, will never come. The novel’s debt to Kafka and Beckett is profound, but is also lightly worn; it never feels merely imitative, never seems like anything but its own, strange self.

One could say the same of its screen adaptation. What Martel does with this story is little short of astonishing: the film is remarkably faithful, in spirit if not in detail, to the book. A friend described the result as not so much a film as a succession of Joseph Cornell boxes, and the comparison felt instantly, utterly right. Her framing was ingenious, her use of sound frequently astounding. I watched Zama twice in three days, and found it even richer, funnier and more beguiling on the second viewing: each frame was so meticulously composed, and so packed with information, that it demanded (and rewarded) close, sustained attention. Other films at Toronto felt like movies – good, bad or indifferent. Zama, though, was something else: real art, one of the world’s greatest working filmmakers at the summit of her powers.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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