If ever proof was needed that the world is desperate to get back to The Way Things Were, it could be found in the opening hours of the Toronto International Film Festival. It is practically the official motto of the 47th edition of the festival, its first entirely face-to-face edition since the start of the pandemic in 2020. “Films are back and so are we” is the motto that is shouted, in so many words, by the usual pre-selection reels of bumpers and the programmers crossing stages to present each new selection.
That message was reflected in a general jubilation that ran like an electric current through every seat, hallway and row. Everyone seems elated to be back and willing to pretend that everything it is as it used to be at North America’s largest annual gathering of movie lovers. Here’s hoping, of course, that emotion is the only thing spreading wildly in this sea of mostly unmasked smiling faces; the absence of mandates is a less encouraging illustration of everyone’s desire to party like it’s 2019.
Still, I’m excited too. After two “hybrid” years in which I virtually experienced the festival from the safety and comfort of my room, it is it is It’s good to be back on the ground and once again experience all the tangible traditions of the festival. Meals with friends you see only a few times a year, or even less often during these unusual times. The walks down the avenues of Toronto that break into long stretches in darkened auditoriums. And the most unique rite of passage TIFF: ascending that endless escalator, often on the fritz at Scotiabank, which has a tendency, in the immortal words of Mitch Hedberg, to turn into stairs.
And of course it’s amazing to see so many movies projected on a big screen again; I’d gladly climb the steps of a skyscraper to reach a row of waiting seats at the top. The allure of the temporarily dormant movie theater experience found its way into opening night commentary from Cameron Bailey, the festival’s eternally poised CEO and one-man ambassador of adulation. (“The greatest movie audience in the world” is what he called us all last night, which made me think of Waylon Smithers behind the microphone at the monster truck rally: “They’re here, we don’t need to keep pushing them like that.”)
The irony of all this “back to the movies” animation is that the festival has, not for the first time, chosen a Netflix film as its opening night selection. And setting aside the threat the streaming giant actively poses to movie theaters, the movie itself, The swimmers, was projected unsightly on the huge screen at Roy Thomson Hall. As bright and flat as a postcard, the cinematography brought to mind less prestigious productions like the kissing boothkindly contributing to a unified theory of “the aesthetics of Netflix”. Each image appears to have been taken to potentially serve as a preview thumbnail.
The film is similarly dramatically textureless. It tells the true story of sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini, teenage swimming champions from Damascus, Syria, whose dreams of going to the Olympics were cut short in the mid-2010s by the war in Syria. The two eventually fled to Germany, hoping to escape the violence and continue to pursue their athletic aspirations. The journey would take them across land and sea, through multiple countries, where their lives and freedom were frequently threatened, until… well, either you know how this true story of perseverance ended or you don’t. I’ll let Wikipedia ruin the uplifting result.
You would have to be ruthless not to be moved by the details of the Mardini sisters’ plight, but also very forgiving to ignore the bland and virtuous nature of writer and account manager Sally El Hosaini (my brother the devil) has made of them, without a particular perspective beyond simple admiration. She keeps doling out little moments of inspiration along the way, like an Olympic competitor taking a breath in the pool; one wonders if these incongruous montages of pop music have been algorithmically ordered, as they feel like concessions to the assumption that subscribers will click if they put up too much of a fight for two and a half hours. There’s hardly a moment in the film that isn’t designed to tug at the heartstrings, which is a shame because the film’s stars, real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa, don’t seem to need the edgy orchestral backing. They could carry the emotion without her.
Both narratively and stylistically, The swimmers constantly tends towards a tawdry cliché, like the glimpses of the girls’ father/coach voiceover tutelage (“Find your lane. Nothing in your race”), as they are forced to put their talents on the line. water to bring them to life or… use of death during a hectic Mediterranean crossing. Meanwhile, the final 45 minutes are generic sports drama in miniature, all training montages leading up to one big climactic match. Stories about the migrant experience, and more specifically about the displacement of millions of refugees during the ongoing war in Syria, are worth telling. But there’s nothing in this narrative that feels out of place in an NBC Sports human-interest segment during the Olympics.
Here’s the beauty of TIFF, though: something better is almost always waiting down the hall. For a less sentimental and more complicated portrait of the people who cross borders into Europe in search of a better life, look instead at NMRthe latest from reliably incisive Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu (4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days). The film is mainly set in a town in Transylvania that, at first sight, could seem like an announcement of the dream of a harmonious and multicultural Europe. After all, it is made up of a cross-section of Hungarian, Romanian and German residents, each with their own customs and religions, peacefully coexisting. But there are tensions between these subcultures, and there are limits to the diversity that everyone will accept, which becomes clear when the city’s largest business, a corporate bakery, hires a number of Sri Lankan immigrants, an event that exposes the heart racist curdling of the community.
This is clearly Mungiu’s film about the xenophobia and white nationalism that has swept Europe (and beyond) in recent years. The observational austerity of his cinema should not be confused with a neutral eye; this is an enraged movie, with plenty of disregard for the ways religion and big business often fail the most vulnerable. The central sequence is a tour de force one at the local cultural center, where Mungiu simply celebrates and celebrates an increasingly contentious meeting while the townspeople completely remove their masks and express their intolerant grievances, shouting the voices of reason. in the room, as Csilla (Judith State), compassionate manager of the bakery.
What is complicated and fascinating NMR it’s Mungiu’s way of contrasting and complicating this plot by giving it nothing less than a parallel narrative: the homecoming of Matthias (Marin Grigore), Csilla’s lover, and a towering, scowling brute who seems to be teetering on the brink of violence in all times. Thematically, he could fill a few roles: It is noted that he sits in the center of the frame during that extraordinary one-shot, and indeed in the center of the story, while remaining fundamentally uninterested in the drama that engulfs this community. Regardless of how you read his prominence (or the clearly allegorical ending), Mungiu heightens the tension of the entire film with his lumbering zigzags through the city, ticking like a human time bomb. It is a blessed alternative to the simple biographical nobility of The swimmers: Important material given a disturbingly unsolvable form.
Our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival continues all week. For more information on AA Dowd’s writings, visit his Author page.