Toronto Film Fest 1993: Movies, Film Critics, Awards

After the chaos and madness of the Cannes Film Fest in May, and the dull, lackluster AFI-L.A. Festival in July, it was sheer pleasure to be a guest of the Toronto Festival of Festivals. The 18th edition, which concluded last week, was just as good as the 17th one: About 300 movies, representing 46 national cinemas were screened during the ten-day event.

It just happened that this year the festival coincided with Rosh Hashanah, and that on the fourth day of the event the Middle East dramatic breakthrough was announced–which provided additional reasons for celebrating. After seeing four or five movies a day, I would rush to my hotel and watch CNN (Thank you, Mr. Turner) late into the night.

Every once in a while, it's reassuring to be in agreement with the selections made by viewers (The People's Choice Award) and critics (the Metro Media Award). Two of the three films I chose for the international critics' award won top prizes. But let me start with Toronto's public, arguably the most enthusiastic and receptive a filmmaker can hope for.

British Auteurs

After making the disappointing, compromised Hero (with Dustin Hoffman), the great British director Stephen Frears went home to make a delightful comedy, The Snapper, based on the second of Roddy Doyle's Barrytown trilogy (Alan Parker filmed the first one, The Commitments, two years ago). Frears' distinctly Irish working-class farce quite deservedly won the People's Choice Award. It's been a long time since I saw such a stellar ensemble of actors.

Deep Spacer is a happy go luck father whose young teenage daughter gets knocked up by a mysterious man; she simply won't tell who is her baby's father. But living in a small Dublin neighborhood, where every act is observable, it's not easy to keep such a secret and soon gossip and scandal erupt ferociously.

Ultimately, The Snapper is frenzy, chaotic comedy that pays tribute to the ever-lasting power of the nuclear family and the intimacy of family ties. Doyle's dialogue is witty, sharp, and, like the picture's title, snappy. In moments, Doyle's incisive writing approximates poetry, delivered by half a dozen fetching characters that are at once realistic and larger-than life.

The British film industry is in deep financial trouble at the moment, but you won't know it if your judgment was based on film festivals and awards. The winner of the critics' award was another British comedy-drama, Mike Leigh's Naked, which I saw in Cannes. Along with Ken Loach, whose new, excellent Raining Stones was also screened in Toronto, Leigh is without a doubt one of the most gifted–and important–filmmakers in the world today.

An auteur par excellence, the skewed, wildly imaginative humor of Leigh's previous films, High Hopes and Life Is Sweet, are also on display in Naked, except that the mood of the new film is darker; it's charged with deeper, pessimistic undercurrents. Once again, Leigh has made a searing critical expose of contemporary life in London.

Johnny, the mythic hero of Naked, is a young angry man, an honorable descendant of the protagonist (Jimmy Porter) of John Osborn's Look Back in Anger, and other “angry” dramas of the late l950s. A philosophical wanderer, Johnny is a wild, disturbing man, whose ferocious personality both brightens and troubles the world he travels. On the run, John's life seems meaningless, but within his intellectual vacuum, his inner spirit somehow remains strong and unbroken. David Thewlis, who won the acting award in Cannes, gives a most powerful performance, as he rages from one encounter to another. This haunting drama is a must-see for all viewers, but particularly for Margaret Thatcher and her entourage.


Two excellent films received honorary mentions: Jane Campion's The Piano, which I described in my Cannes report and will review when it opens later in the fall, and Krysztof Kieslowski's Trois Couleurs: Blue (Three Colors: Blue), my personal favorite, in not the best film, in Toronto this year.

Born in Poland in l941, Kieslowski has been making films for 20 years, yet it was only with the landmark The Dekalog, his film series inspired by the Ten Commandments, that he established international celebrity. Dekalog has never been distributed commercially in the U.S., but Kieslowski's 1991 mysterious drama, The Double Life of Veronique, was shown–and is also available on video.

Like other Polish artists, this gifted director is now in exile in France. The new movie is part of a trilogy devoted to the three colors of the French flag, standing for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Kieslowski tells the intimate story of Julie (played by the beautiful Juliette Binoche in a mesmerizing performance), a young woman who lost her husband and daughter in a car crash. Stripped of any ties–and emotional support–Julie simply withdraws from the world, cutting off her contact with humanity.

But life being life, Julie soon realizes that her husband's work in progress, a musical composition aimed at celebrating Europe's impending unification, needs to be finished. The ambitious, poetic, and ultimately up-lifting movie describes Julie's re-emergence from anonymity and her re-entrance into the human world.

To say that Blue, which won the Venice Festival Award last month, is a deeply emotional film experience is an understatement. Kieslowski is a master of the subtle cinema, one dependent on mood and ambience, small gestures and words uttered in desperation, light and shadow. It also features grand, evocative score, composed by the genius musician Zbigniew Presner, who won our (L.A.) critics award in l991 (for Veronique) and l992 (for Damage).

There were so many interesting movies that it's simply impossible even to name their titles in this article. I would say that of the 33 movies I saw in nine days, at least two thirds were rewarding, an extremely high ratio for any festival.

Scent of the Green Papayas

I would like to single out The Scent of the Green Papayas, which I missed in Cannes and rushed to see in Toronto. Almost wordless, and marked by great pictorial visuals, it's one of the most beautiful films I have seen in years. Directed by Hung Tran Anh, this Vietnamese-French co-production is set in Vietnam in the 1950s, when the country was under French occupation. The film's heroine is Mui, a 12-year old servant, who frames the sensitive tale with her delicate presence–and consistent point of view.

One of the picture's great achievements, other than its gorgeous painterly tableaux, is that politics remains in the background and its impact is felt in a most subtle way. A major contribution to the cinematic literature about growing up, The Scent of the Green Papayas also provides a wry commentary on life's unexpected twists and turns.

Of the many American movies shown in the festival, two impressed me very much: Robert De Niro's directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, a great coming-of-age saga that, to my relief, was not derivative or imitative of Martin Scorsese–it's not Bronx's Mean Streets. The other achievement was Ruby in Paradise, directed by Victor Nunez, the vastly underestimated independent Florida filmmaker. It was the best indie film I saw at Sundance, where it received the most prestigious Grand Jury Prize. I will review this wonderful film when it opens in L.A. in October.

Running a good film festival is not an easy task, as it might seem. I would like to extend my personal thanks to Michelle Maheux, who brought her charm, skills, and experience to the smooth operation of the press office. And of course, to Helga Stephenson, executive director of the festival, and her deputy, programmer Piers Handling, who head one of the best festival teams in the world.