TIFF dramas spotlight a brave Armenian and a defiant poet

ScreenerBlog

I saw four and a half films at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday. (After 40 minutes, I just couldn’t tolerate any more of the absurdly pretentious dialogue of Wim Wenders’ conversation-driven 3D curiosity, The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez.) I’ve already written about the amazing La La Land; here are short takes on the other three films I caught.

I will gladly watch Oscar Isaac in practically anything, and he’s the lead in The Promise, the new epic drama from Hotel Rwanda director Terry George. Mr. George seems to be specializing in catastrophic chapters in history, and the topic this time is the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, a crime that is still not acknowledged by Turkey more than a century later. Isaac plays Michael, an Armenian apothecary who wants to be a doctor; he agrees to marry a local girl not because he loves her, but because her dowry will help finance his medical studies in Constantinople. But there in the capital, he falls in love with the graceful Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who’s in a relationship with crusading American Associated Press reporter Chris (Christian Bale). This fraught love triangle is soon eclipsed by history, as the Turks oppress and try to snuff out the Armenian population.

The initial setup of the plot is creaky and unconvincing, but once the terror campaign against the Armenians begins, the film pulls no punches; Isaac earns his salary with the hardships his character suffers. As mentioned, this period is still a very sensitive subject for Turkey, so this outspoken, uncompromising depiction of genocide is bound to ruffle some feathers. The filmmaking can be rote, but the horrors The Promise depicts are appalling, and its impressive large-scale treatment of this WWI tragedy deserves the big screen.

One of the great performances of this festival is surely Cynthia Nixon’s as the famed poet Emily Dickinson in veteran British director Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion. Davies was there at the Scotiabank theatre to introduce the film; he recalled that he first became enamored of Dickinson’s poetry at age 18 after hearing Claire Bloom read it on the radio. He called Dickinson “the greatest American poet of the 19th century.”

As Davies depicts her, she’s also one of the most complex, leading a constrained and chaste life, yet outspoken and defiant against her staunchly conservative father. Davies’ script is filled with witty bon mots, but his trademark austere style with static camerawork will limit the film’s prospects. Even so, Nixon’s fierce embrace of Dickinson’s passion, fury, stubbornness, intelligence and contradictions is the life blood of the movie and alone makes it worth seeing, along with her eloquent readings of Dickinson’s poems.

I was shut out of Pablo Lorrain’s Jackie (starring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy), so a last-minute alternative was Forever Pure, Maya Zinshtein’s disturbing documentary about what happened when Israel’s popular, working-class Beitar Jerusalem Football Club hired two Muslim Chechen players, at the behest of its shady Russian oligarch owner, Arcady Gaydamak. (Beitar had long taken pride in its exclusion of Arab players.) The undisguised, gleeful hatred on display at the team’s games, to the point of boasting about their racism, is shocking in its brazenness. And a call for tolerance by formerly beloved team captain Ariel Harush earns him vicious enmity overnight. The Beitan fanatics’ slogan “Forever Pure” is chillingly ironic, of course, in light of how the Nazis regarded their Jewish forbears.

Like some aspect of our current U.S. election season, sports here becomes an outlet for ugly sentiments usually kept below the surface. Zinshtein’s document of that unfortunate football season becomes a timely warning about similar nationalistic fervor brewing around the world.