The Austin Chronicle

World of Wonders

Dispatches from the Toronto International Film Festival: No. 2

By Marjorie Baumgarten, September 17, 2004, Screens

It's possible to step off the plane at the Toronto International Film Festival and travel the world. Movies from so many countries are represented here that one could spend the time here seeing nothing but subtitled pictures. The films range from entries by established masters to first works from emerging filmmakers (as well as emerging countries), and, of course, films from Canada (which, depending on where the movie is from, do or don't require subtitles).

Jean-Luc Godard's best work in years is showing at the fest. It's called Notre Musique, and it's certainly more user-friendly than his last Spielberg screed, In Praise of Love. In addition to Godard's usual analysis of contemporary society, Notre Musique includes aspects of autobiography. Like Dante's Inferno, it's divided into three sections: the Kingdoms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Hell comprises an amazing montage of war imagery. In Purgatory, Godard is one of the characters who is attending a literary conference in Sarajevo. Among the participants is a young journalist eager to contribute to world understanding instead of just reporting on it. It is her we follow in the more enigmatic Heaven sequence.

Another veteran of the French New Wave is Agnès Varda (One Sings, the Other Doesn't), who is also up here with a new film, Cinévardaphoto. Actually, it's three short films, which examine her lifelong obsession with photography and human experience. The first segment is "Ydessa, les ours et etc...," which documents Toronto art collector Ydessa Hendeles' Teddy Bear Project, a fascinating curatorial collection that transcends its theme. The other two segments use photographs that Varda took in earlier decades, which are now revisited through eyes of reflection. The first is the image of two people and a dead goat on a beach in Egypt, an image that is rich with meaning for Varda, but curiously carries none of the same emotions for the subjects. The other segment creates an animated montage of some 4,000 photographs Varda shot while visiting post-revolutionary Cuba in the Sixties. Though the film is not quite as powerful and insightful as her last film, The Gleaners and I – a true masterpiece – Varda remains one of our most honest, curious, and unflagging voices of the cinema.

Moving across Europe to Germany, Volker Schlöndorff has made the most intriguing Holocaust movie I have seen in a long time, The Ninth Day. It tells the story of a Catholic priest from Luxembourg and his experiences in Dachau. Apparently, there was an entire priests' wing at the camp, and the subject provides rich material for the telling of a Holocaust tale without any Jews. Moving to China, Zhang Yimou's follow-up to Hero (which is in current release) is House of Flying Daggers, a martial-arts spectacle that's certain to wow at the cineplex when it's released at the end of this year. Veteran Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene is also in Toronto with his Cannes sensation Moolaadé, a film that tackles the subject of genital mutilation. Though it would be possible for a Westerner to be swept away with the rare and fascinating images of tribal life in Western Africa, the film is told with a light and entertaining touch, which makes its heavy subject matter incredibly watchable, while also maintaining its indigenous approach. end story

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