TORONTO — If the point needed proving, Toronto's just-concluded Festival of Festivals lived up to its name.
You could browse among an intelligent, exhaustive distillation of the films that created most of the rumpus at Cannes, Berlin, Park City and Telluride; from Latin America, Australia, the Pacific rim and, naturally, Canada. And frosting on the cake was this year's sidebar event, a massive 50-film examination of Soviet cinema since Stalin.
With the programming of 279 films, long, short and in-between, the Festival of Festivals clearly emerged in its 13th year as the broadest and most useful event of its kind in North America.
The news was not vastly different from Cannes: solid pockets of satisfaction but no blockbusters--unless you count Christine Edzard's masterly six-hour, two-part adaptation of "Little Dorrit," whose busting had mostly to do with the constraints of time. With what may be Alec Guinness' best and most complex film performance (as William Dorrit), it's an audacious way of telling Dickens' workhouse saga through two sets of eyes and two psychological perspectives: the first three hours from the point of view of Derek Jacobi's Arthur Clemens, the second from Little Dorrit's (newcomer Sarah Pickering).
Like "Nicholas Nickleby," audiences take the film in one long gulp, with a dinner break, or see it over two successive days. Word is that "Dorrit"--a cavalcade of majestic performers, including Guinness, Jacobi, Roshan Seth, Cyril Cusack, Eleanor Bron, Robert Morley, Max Wall and Joan Greenwood in her final appearance--will open in New York in November. Infuriatingly, Los Angeles must wait for the trickle-down theory to work before we have it ourselves.
Some of Toronto's greatest successes had surfaced this year at the Cannes festival: Terence Davies' "Distant Voices, Still Lives," which won the Critics' Award in Toronto, used the English tradition of the pub and the family sing-along to deal with deep psychic trauma at home. Davies, like Dennis Potter, employed cozy popular songs as insulation for his painful trips into family history in a film that's gorgeously fluid and poignant, wrenching yet affectionate.
(In the press room, Sight & Sound magazine's redoubtable critic/editor/writer Penelope Houston could be heard to snort, "It's splendid, really, for Terence to be collecting these awards everywhere--but he still can't raise a cent for his new movie.")
"Salaam Bombay!," Mira Nair's moving, fictionalized account of the street kids of Bombay, which in the "Pixote" tradition uses a cast recruited from the streets, won Cannes' Director's Fortnightly Award--for first-feature direction. In Canada it won both hearts and minds; we'll have it to judge for ourselves within the next two months. And the dry magnificence of Krzysztof Kieslowski's "A Short Film About Killing," which also been seen at Cannes, will surface here before long too.
The French cinema seems to be pulling itself together after a long, tepid season. The French film with the hottest buzz around it was Catherine Breillat's "36 Fillette," which translates roughly as "36 Junior." Described by one wag as Rohmer with dirty words, it's a clear-eyed look at the wildly fluctuating moods of a 14-year-old seductress, whose alternating off/on messages lure and infuriate the 40-ish Parisian sophisticate who encounters her on his Biarritz holiday. Anyone who doesn't realize how exactly on-target this portrait is has either forgotten or repressed his/her adolescence.
Sexuality--and sensuality--was also the core of a heady Brazilian film whose director, Tereza Trautman, was one of Toronto's discoveries. Set during the 24 hours of a family reunion on the day they are closing their hillside mansion, sold for elegant condominiums, it manages to give the 40-year history of the family and of the social and political fabric of Brazil without a single flashback. Trautman retains an astonishing control of her interwoven stories, told in a style both passionate and elegant, raw and languid. Only its translated title, "Best Wishes," is undistinguished.
Toronto's tradition of exceptional documentaries was upheld by "Voices of Serafina!," a first feature by short-film Academy Award winner Nigel Noble ("Close Harmony"), whose profiles of the young, black South African cast of the musical "Serafina!" become a personal, heart-rending pattern of life under apartheid.
"The Cry of Reason" is a portrait of Beyers Naude, an Afrikaner who had been touted as a future prime minister until the events of the Sharpeville massacres turned his life around. Naude has been described by Desmond Tutu as "a resplendent sign of hope for South Africa and for the world," and Robert Bilheimer's film does him full justice.
"Comic Book Confidential" by Ron Mann ("Poetry in Motion") is an exceptionally handsome study of the mad world of the comics and their makers.