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The war within, explored in 'Omar,' 'Canopy' and 'Break Loose'

Toronto film festival: War is the topic of several films at the festival. Filmmakers Hany Abu-Assad, Aaron Wilson and Aleksey Uchitel dig particularly deep.

September 07, 2013|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

TORONTO — — The state of war is also a state of mind, terrifying even the bravest as it changes and challenges them.

This is what we are seeing reflected on movie screens. The stories of foot soldiers are shifting, becoming more intimate, more stripped to the bone, more concerned with the ripple effect of war's violence.

At the Toronto Film Festival, war is the subject of several films. But three films in particular, two making their world premieres at the festival, provide insight into war's impact on its fighters.

Unlike "Patton" or "The Longest Day," there are no great campaigns filling the screen with men and machinery. Nor are there bloodily dirty assaults of the sort we saw in "Full Metal Jacket," "Platoon" and "Saving Private Ryan." There are no special units diffusing bombs à la "The Hurt Locker" or a band of "Inglourious Basterds" staging theatrics to destroy the enemy. Even disillusionment is cast in everyday terms, none of the soul-questioning soldier's angst of "All Quiet on the Western Front" or the insanity of "Apocalypse Now."

WATCH: Toronto Film Festival trailers

On the most fundamental level, the men in "Canopy," "Omar" and "Break Loose" are in survival mode. No doubt they could tell you what they were fighting for, but the focus is on the gritty reality of merely staying alive, finding their way back to normal — and figuring out what normal is.

They exist in environments where violence — avoiding it, enduring it or inflicting it — is a way of keeping score. Some find courage, some hang on to their humanity if not always their dignity. Others have stopped feeling, stopped being, anything at all.

"Canopy," set in 1942, is only a sliver of the giant expanse of World War II. It follows a downed Aussie pilot in the jungles near Singapore and marks a strong feature debut for director Aaron Wilson. "Break Loose" opens on the threshold of the millennium in the waning days of the Yeltsin era. Prolific Russian director Aleksey Uchitel has his eye on the violent drives of four ex-soldiers, now part of an elite force fighting the rising rebellion in their homeland.

"Omar," already a provocation and the Un Certain Regard winner at Cannes earlier this year, comes to the festival with an awards run in sight. From director Hany Abu-Assad, Oscar-nominated for his controversial discourse on suicide bombers, "Paradise Now," his new film is, in a sense, a love story. No "Casablanca" sentimentality, no giving up love for the greater good, "Omar" is a harsh, hard story of a young Palestinian man, the girl he wants to marry and the West Bank rebellion. A man who finds himself at war not by choice but by circumstance. He is the collateral damage.

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Abu-Assad, Uchitel and Wilson use the medium to tell their war stories in very different ways. Yet deep chasms between ethnicity and ideology are there in the subtext. As are the psychological wounds on the men — deeply embedded, extremely private and unstintingly profound.

The films choose different entry points to take us there. For "Canopy" it is on the ground in enemy territory, whereas "Break Loose" envisions a generation that sees violence as its trade. "Omar" exists in a state of siege, the time-bomb tension of occupation. Of the three, "Canopy" is the most experimental, "Break Loose" the most distressing, "Omar" the most searing.

In "Canopy," Wilson creates a remarkably immersive experience. There is virtually no dialogue, and what dialogue there is likely won't be in a language you understand. That is the point. Wilson drops us into jeopardy alongside the downed pilot, Jim (Khan Chittenden), in a densely overgrown Singapore jungle that suggests the film's name. His parachute has left him hanging high in a tree. He wakes to the sound of something crashing through the brush below. He knows he must run.

Chittenden, already a favorite on the Aussie indie circuit, is riveting: the fear when he spots Japanese soldiers on patrol; the frustration as he sorts through his woefully small survival kit; the tremor in his hands as he tries out the compass; the battle against the insects that rise from the swamp and descend from above; and the terror when he crashes into another man (Mo Tzu-Yi).

PHOTOS: Toronto Film Festival 2013

In Wilson, we are introduced to a fearless filmmaker — one who trusts his audience to feel the racing pulse of one soldier fighting not to win a war but merely to live.

"Break Loose" is as brash as "Canopy" is contemplative. It begins with a call to arms in the middle of the night. German (Alexey Mantsigyn) rolls out of bed to meet his buddies on the front lines. That night it is a local disco, packed with drugged dancers. For the men, there is fun to be had, heads to break. The next morning, it's a factory closing, riot gear and more beatings required. The resentment that their military service means so little burns hot, the lack of opportunity even hotter.

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