Rooney Mara and Michael Fassbender offer lesser efforts at Toronto Film Festival

ScreenerBlog

The 2016 Toronto International Film Festival is hosting 296 feature films, and this year my task of wading through all those entries has been made slightly easier because I had already seen 14 of their higher-profile features at early screenings back in New York. Of those, opening-night film The Magnificent Seven, Snowden, Denial, Moonlight, The Birth of a Nation, Bleed for This and A Monster Calls are all worthy selections, and I was especially keen on Manchester by the Sea, Christine, Loving and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson.

With all that viewing behind me, that leaves more opportunity for venturing out into the unknown. Still, it’s hard to resist films that boast one or more marquee names; on Saturday at TIFF, I learned the lesson that talented stars don’t always equal quality.

The Secret Scripture, the new drama from veteran director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), has a promising cast in Rooney Mara, Vanessa Redgrave, Eric Bana, Jack Reynor and Theo James, but it’s an earnest and clunky tale in which the Irish Catholic Church once again does something despicable. Redgrave is Roseanne McNulty, a haunted old woman who’s been committed to a mental institution for 50 years; Mara plays the young Roseanne, a waitress in Sligo who falls in love with a World War II fighter pilot (Reynor) and suffers outrageous consequences because she’s so forthright and the social forces around her are so perversely oppressive. No doubt Mara was attracted to the role because it runs an emotional gamut and says something about injustice against women who spoke their mind in a certain place and time, but this is old-fashioned melodrama that is better suited to the Lifetime channel, despite its big-screen production values.

I followed The Secret Scripture with an entry from the neighboring United Kingdom, Trespass Against Us, based on its father-son pairing of two terrific actors, Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender. Big mistake. In Adam Smith’s debut feature, Gleeson plays Colby Cutler, the patriarch of a family of outlaws who live in a chaotic, unsightly trailer camp. Colby is militantly anti-education, to the point where he sincerely believes the Earth is flat. Fassbender is his son Chad, who suffers from his illiteracy and wants to create a more stable life for his two young children, including schooling and a home away from the trailer camp. Yet Chad still gets a thrill out of luring the local cops into high-speed chases—a contradiction the movie never makes credible. Again, this looks like a case of gifted actors signing on to characters that let them gobble the scenery with abandon, never mind the quality of the story and script (here by Alastair Siddons) surrounding them.

Much more fulfilling was prolific French director François Ozon’s latest film, Frantz, an adaptation of a 1930 play by Maurice Rostand, which was made into the 1932 film Broken Lullaby by Ernst Lubitsch. Set in 1919 in Quedlinburg, Germany, it tells the story of the relationship between a young German war widow and the mysterious Frenchman who claims to have been a devoted friend of her late husband. Gay filmmaker Ozon slyly leads the audience to suspect a more-than-platonic bond between the two men, then sets the movie on a completely different and very complicated path. Compelling 21-year-old Paula Beer just won the “Best New Young Actress” prize at the Venice Film Festival, and Pierre Niney (Yves Saint Laurent) is equally strong as the traumatized French soldier.

Ozon, who took questions from the audience at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, said he wasn’t aware of the Lubitsch version when he first developed the project. “What can I do after Lubitsch?” he fretted. But the original film was from the perspective of the Frenchman; for this version, Ozon turned the tables and presented the point of view of the German widow. He also called his film “an answer to Lubitsch,” since in 1932 the great dictator couldn’t have known about the fate awaiting Germany in the years ahead. He also noted that his film has “echoes of today” in its portrait of the nationalistic rancor between France and Germany after the First World War. (Ozon said the picture expresses “my connection to Germany as a Frenchman,” and it’s his first film largely in German.)

Also notable is that Frantz is in gorgeous widescreen black-and-white, with occasional sequences in color when the characters begin to emerge from their post-war gloom and start to enjoy life again. Music Box Films will release Frantz in the U.S.

Speaking of color photography, another highlight of the day was Water and Sugar: Carlo Di Palma, the Colours of Life, a documentary about one of the undisputed pioneers of color cinematography. The film, produced by Di Palma’s widow Adriana Chiesa and directed by Fariborz Kamkari, is rather raggedly assembled (the explanation of the title is almost an afterthought in the final minutes), but the makers have gathered an impressive group of Italian and international interviewees (Bernardo Bertolucci, Ettore Scola, Lina Wertmuller, Giancarlo Giannini, Wim Wenders, Ken Loach, and many more) and the clips make a strong case for Di Palma’s fantastic eye—from the black-and-white comedy hit Divorce Italian Style to his pioneering use of color in Antonioni’s Red Desert and Blow-Up to his twelve films with Woody Allen, who became an intimate friend and pays tribute to his late DP here. Hey, TIFF, how about a sidebar of Di Palma films next year?