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Stars Shine On Films At Toronto Festival

September 10, 1986|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

TORONTO — More and more, film festivals are the billboards, tip sheets, communications centers and launching sites for world cinema, crucial to its circulation and general good health. And given the present but, it is hoped, temporary moribundity of Filmex, the doings of other festivals take on added relevance for Hollywood.

Four days into its 10-day run, Toronto's Festival of Festivals is turning out to be a cannily programmed, sprawling cross section of world film today, from the last by Tarkovsky to the latest from Taiwan. It's North America's first look at the movers, shakers and heartbreakers among our movies to come.

With 306 films, 225 of them feature-length (a loose definition these days, which stretches to include "Shoah" at 9 1/2 hours and a 4 1/2-hour-long immersion in the daily life of China), no one could call Toronto's garden well-pruned. In that respect the festival has something in common with Filmex in its wide-embracing prime. Picking carefully, a serious film-goer can get the real nourishment needed after a summertime of Sugar Smacks.

And until Filmex gets off the critical list, which may or may not be until early 1987, Toronto and Montreal (a competitive festival that ended five days earlier) are important browsing grounds for American distributors. Here in force, they prowl Toronto's theaters, hoping to stumble onto next season's "My Beautiful Laundrette," unearthed here last year, or "Choose Me," winner of the audience popularity poll two years ago.

When Canada Minister of Communications Flora MacDonald congratulated the opening-night audience for having picked five Academy Award winners among its public favorites of past years, one had the sense of how much--for better or worse--Hollywood looms over even as international a festival as this.

Part of its glamour certainly comes from Hollywood. The festival has so far provided Sissy Spacek, for the world premiere of " 'night, Mother." Julie Andrews and Sally Kellerman will be here with Blake Edwards' "That's Life"; Julie Christie with "Miss Mary" by Argentina's Maria Luisa Bemberg ("Camilla"). The closing-night film is "Children of a Lesser God" with actress Marlee Matlin, who may possibly be a more recognizable name after the screening.

However, on the streets and in the festival's eight assorted theaters dotted throughout Toronto's equivalent of Beverly Boulevard or Rodeo Drive, it's not stars or industry mavens or even the scores of international press reporters who dominate the screenings--it's an informed, partisan public that knows very well what it's lining up for.

Already there are hot tickets and hot (well, warmish) tempers when ticket-holding audiences are turned away, which can happen anytime, whether the theaters are Cineplex-Odeon shoe boxes or the Royal Ottawa Museum's marbled uncoziness.

There was a polite, Canadian-style uproar at Canadian writer-director Leon Marr's oversold "Dancing in the Dark," a hot ticket because of its selection for the Directors' Fortnight slot at Cannes last May and the New York Film Festival later this month. A theater usher steadfastly refused admission to festival director Leonard Schein, there to introduce the film. Full was full, in the usher's eyes.

Overflow crowds were mutinous too at "Lily Tomlin," the documentary, which needed a court ruling in favor of the film makers and against Tomlin to be cleared for the festival.

But scenes are not really the Ontario scene. When there's a fuss, the festival sensibly programs another screening of the film and all is smoothed over.

It's that seeming placidity among English-Canadians, carried to the screen, that makes the ebullient Quebec cinema stand out so vividly. Quebec writer-director Denis Arcand's "Decline of the American Empire," the sexual reminiscences of a group of materially sated French-Canadian academics, was one of two opening-night films (Marr's "Dancing in the Dark" was the other).

Although "Decline" is actually a lot more uninhibited talk than explicit action, it still comes over with the lustiness that seems part of the Quebec temperament and foreign to the English-Canadian one.

Centerpiece of this year's festival is its massive Latin American retrospective--96 films from Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay and Venezuela, accompanied by more than 30 directors and performers, from Tomas Guitierrez Alea to Nelson Xavier.

Although the films are not being screened chronologically nor country by country and could use more extensive program notes (thumbnail political histories would help enormously), this "Winds of Change" section may betoken the next great wave of important cinema.

The Australians and New Zealanders have had their day; what has defined the best of them was their refusal to become Americanized. A broad-scale look at this recent Latin American film history may convince audiences that the next great wind will blow from the south.

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