Still from "Zama" -- Image courtesy of TIFF

TIFF17: Day Two

Sep 09, 2017 By Jason Wilson
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The key to surviving (being used VERY loosely) a film festival is being prepared and knowing where to get coffee. Pre-packing snacks is integral, especially of the healthy variety. I’ve brought mini sandwiches and sealed bags with vegetables, from broccoli to carrots, lovingly prepared by my partner who is also attending the festival. Left to my own devices, I would commit the cardinal sin of three square meals of poutine and grilled cheese, most likely (no, I swear I can put together meals).

But it’s coffee that runs the show. Toronto is not for want of good coffee spots, but the cafes directly located around the theaters hosting the screenings will constantly have long lines. Tim Hortons, especially, is a little piece of Canadiana that visitors seem to flock to, but there is better available and the lines aren’t nearly as long. If you don’t drink coffee…I can’t help you.

Armed with a large, black cup of joe, my first screening Friday morning was Zama, Lucretia Martel’s first feature-length narrative film in over a decade. It follows the exploits of the titular Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish officer in 18th century Argentina hoping desperately to be transferred to a new locale. As time presses on, and he consistently taken advantage of by his superiors, this seems less and less likely. At times, Zama evokes memories of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, but instead of Klaus Kinski’s megalomaniacal hurricane-like performance at the center, we get something a lot more contemplative from Daniel Gimenez Cacho as Don Zama. This isn’t a descent into madness so much as a descent into unrelenting despair and hopelessness. And it’s really good!

While such a description may betray a film that’s exhausting in its onslaught of misery, it’s hypnotic and engaging throughout thanks to Rui Pocas’ cinematography, especially in the film’s haunting coda as Zama sets out with a group of soldiers to pursue the murderous Vicuna Porto. They are captured – or invited to a celebration - by native South Americans covered in orange body paint in a sequence similar to the finish of James Gray’s Lost City of Z.

And though Don Zama is the central figure, and one where much sympathy lies, he is also part of a machine responsible for the terrific horrors of colonization. He’s not innocent, and the film does not forgive him his trespasses. It’s a fine tightrope act, and as both the land around him and his own people reject him he also becomes displaced.

One of the follies associated with making a schedule for festival screenings is underestimating demand. I thought I could catch Zama and be able to shuffle immediately into Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Unfortunately, by the time the line proceeded into the cinema, I was about 12 people behind the cut-off thus preventing me from seeing the Cannes sensation, at least for today. Instead, an earlier showing of Nora Thwomey’s animated fable set in Kabul, The Breadwinner, became my destination.

The Breadwinner follows an impoverished family’s struggles to make due in Taliban-controlled Kabul. Women are abused and forced inside or to wear head-to-toe coverings. When Parvana’s father is taken to jail by an insolent former student of his for vague, spiteful reasons, her family falls into even worse toil than before. Because the only male member left is a toddler, Parvana cuts her hair to disguise herself as a boy in order to provide. In many ways, The Breadwinner is more overt delivery system of suffering than Zama, and it’s not necessarily to its benefit. Based on Deborah Ellis’ novel of the same name, it is immediately troublesome that the creative core behind the film are not Afghani. That could maybe be forgiven if the film’s story was defter with how it was told. A recurring theme is a fable Parvana tells her young brother about an elephant demon who sends his jackals to steal a town’s seeds for harvest. A boy – a stand-in for her deceased older brother – goes to retrieve the seeds in what seems like an impossible journey. Similarly, Parvana is trying to raise enough money to bribe guards at the prison to get her father back. One narrative roadblock is how she tells the fable periodically, and eventually starts telling it to a friend, instead and picking up where she left off with her brother. Maybe this could be characterized as a nitpick, but it undermines the overall structure of the story. It’s poorly realized and feels needlessly muddy, which is doubly unfortunate because more stories of this nature and in this setting should be getting widespread attention. The Breadwinner just isn’t up to the task despite its raw emotion and inspired animation.

My first foray into Midnight Madness this year was David Bruckner’s debut feature, The Ritual. Bruckner had previously been the director of the best segments of horror anthology films V/H/S and Southbound, and for the most part, The Ritual lives up to the potential he showed in those bite-size morsels. Luke (Rafe Spall) and his friends are out at a pub planning their next trip together. They toss around ideas like Berlin and Belgium, but can’t seem to come to a consensus. When only one friend joins Luke for a nightcap at a late-night liquor store, they walk into a stick up. The friend is killed (brutally by way of lead pipe) and Luke cowers in hiding. The deceased friend’s trip idea was hiking through Sweden, and six months later the surviving friends are mounting a memorial trip in his honor on an extended hike.

The set-up is the film’s greatest asset because it provides a necessary context for these individuals and their general group dynamic. Never is their longtime bond in doubt. The banter is easy – and funny – and they’ve obviously been friends for many years. Their friend’s recent death weighs heavily, and Luke internalizes the blame. Things get weird once they get lost in the woods and spend the night in an abandoned cabin. The Ritual does almost everything right for the first three quarters of the movie before it becomes a bit of a convoluted nightmare instead of a horrific one. Bruckner and company cram too much mythology into its climax that it squanders the beautiful simplicity that housed the horror in the earlier moments. But, it doesn’t sink it. You can quibble that they went big when they should have kept it tight, but the ambition is admirable even if it feels misguided. The forest is such a naturally unnerving place in the dark, and when The Ritual hits the right notes, it sings beautifully. Also, it has a singularly unique monster design that works in spite of the story near the end.

Day three brings Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, Joachim Trier’s Thelma, and a few more as I trek deeper into the heart of TIFF.



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