And finally, we come to the end of it all. Apologies for the delay — urgent family business has kept me pre-occupied and I am just starting to deal with the backlog.
This installment includes:
- The Island
- The Silence
- The Magic Flute
- When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
- Amazing Grace
Days 9 and 10 may look like I was really slowing down, but in fact one of those films (the documentary about New Orleans) is four hours long. I wouldn’t want you to think that I was shirking. Mind you, the sleep in on Saturday morning for a late start at the Festival was quite nice.
Another Festival over, but there’s always next year, not to mention the myriad other cinema, music and theatre events around town. If you have come this far, thanks for reading!
Friday, September 15th
L’Intouchable / The Untouchable
Every so often I wonder what Piers Handling, director of the Festival, was on when he picked a film, or at least when he wrote the description. L’Intouchable is one of those films.
Isild Le Basco plays Jeanne, an actress. On her birthday, Mom tells Jeanne father is Indian (as in Asian). You would never believe it from her features — French, blonde, fair skin — but it’s a movie, right? Jeanne finishes off a film shoot including a nude scene she really doesn’t want to do, but it pays for a trip to India. We can already see that Jeanne has problems in her life with a past romance, but we don’t know what it might be.
On the plane, a fellow passenger disappears — he is ill, supposedly — then vanishes and stewardess doesn’t even remember him. This is never explained, and is simply a device for her to talk to someone and get more background in her search for her father.
We sit through an interminable sequence from the airport into town, and then another to the banks of the Ganges. This has the sort of disorienting feeling you get when the director has only one take, and not a very good one, to work with and has simply spliced things together the best way possible. In Piers Handling’s program notes for this film, this is described as Jeanne’s discoveries of the “mysteries of India”.
Eventually (are you still awake?), Jeanne finds someone who knows the family she seeks, and we have yet another journey their house. It turns out that there is to be a wedding, an arranged marriage. Finally Jeanne meets the patriarch of the family who turns out to be her uncle. He gives her directions to find her father.
Jeanne goes to the school where he works, spots him through a window, follows him a short distance walking home from work, but she never makes contact.
Jeanne flies home.
The Island begins at the end of World War II. Anatoly, a Russian sailor, the engine room stoker of a ship, is forced to shoot his own captain by Germans. The guilt for this act he carries through his life, and atonement is his only goal.
Decades later, Father Anatoly (Pyotr Mamonos), lives in monastery where he stokes the boiler. The landscape is northern, bleak but oddly beautiful northern — all gray and muted brown, black, blue. People visit from all over Russia because Anatoly appears to have powers of precognition, counselling and occasional small miraculous healings for the devout.
Father Anatoly seems to have the ear of God even if he may be a tad eccentric — for example, he faces the wrong way during services. Others at monastery recognize his special status, even though they may resent him.
One day, an Admiral (Yury Kusnetsov) arrives with his daughter who has been difficult and somewhat deranged since the death of her husband. What follows is, in effect, an exorcism, but all is done by God in response to prayer.
Anatoly then discovers that the Admiral is the man he had shot years before, and that he survived. Now Anatoly can die peacefully with a clear conscience.
The Island is a very moving story of faith, contrition and forgiveness told without a hint of religiosity, a refreshing change from what passes for devotion and belief in our world.
Good mysteries don’t show up at the Festival very often. The Silence started out as a two-part TV series on Australian television and was recut as a feature for the version screened here.
Richard Treloar (Ricgard Roxborough) is a cop recovering from a traumatic shooting who now works in the police museum. While mounting an exhibit of murder scene photos, Treloar discovers a common character — a woman — in the same dress in two separate crime scenes, and her own murder makes a third. Too much co-incidence here.
Treloar’s investigation take him to the investigating officer of the old cases, a retired cop who now coaches boxers, but he gets little joy from that quarter. Meanwhile, Treloar’s wife is annoyed at taking second place to his work on these old murder cases. Things take a turn when the coach is murdered and Treloar’s wife, herself part of the homicide team, is put in charge of the case. All of the murders have clues in common even though they are 40 years apart, and Treloar has a more personal connection with them than he knows.
As a mystery, The Silence has a good, tangled plot, but it suffers from a device — the ghost of the long-dead dead woman leading Treloar to clues. This sort of thing is tiresome and is a lazy writer’s way of avoiding good police work or even an inspired guess. Maybe it’s Treloar’s subconscience pulling the case together, but it’s still a cheat.
These two episodes have the feel of a pilot for possible series where cold cases get solved with the assistance of the dead victims. I won’t wait for it.
The Magic Flute
Just as The Magic Flute tells of a struggle between darkness and light, the film by Kenneth Branagh will divide audiences into two camps — the traditionalists will hate it, but those who want a fresh look at an operatic chestnut will adore it.
First, a plot synopsis so that those who don’t know the story can understand what I am talking about. Tamino, our hero, falls hopelessly in love with Pamina after seeing only her portrait. He is recruited by her mother, the Queen of the Night, on a rescue mission. Pamina is held captive by Sarastro, a high priest, and he requires Tamino, with the aid of his friend Papageno, to undergo trials proving his worth. Tamino comes to see that Sarastro is really a nice guy, the Queen is thwarted, and everyone else lives happily ever after.
Branagh moves the scene to a stylized version of World War I. We have a red army and a blue army with little difference, save for the colour of their uniforms, between them. The opening sequence, the arrival of a messenger, gives Branagh the chance for the action to move quickly through the trenches as the messenger hunts down Tamino. Meanwhile, Papageno is checking for gas with caged birds, a clever translation of his classic role as a birdcatcher, and the gas itself takes the form of a dragon.
After a battle with guns and airplanes, the field is awash with dead and dying. Three celestial nurses appear, and with Wagner’s Ring playing just across town, I couldn’t help thinking of them as Branagh’s quite delectable version of Valkyries. They herald the arrival of the Queen of the Night who sings her killer aria atop a tank in the middle of the battlefield. Branagh even manages to work in the historical Christmas truce between the two armies.
As Tamino’s alliegence moves from the Queen to Sarastro, we see hints that the rivalry between these two may be one of old lovers. The war and all its destruction may be nothing more than a fight over a daughter’s loyalty.
This is no conventional staging of Mozart. For lovers of fantastical scenery, Branagh provides lots of CGI with landscapes and castles that would never fit in any theatre. This may be over-the-top opera, but there is no compromise on the music.
James Conlon conducts, and the singers include Joseph Kaiser (Tamino), Amy Carson (Pamina), Benjamin Jay Davis (Papageno), Lyuba Petrova (Queen of the Night) and the magnificent Rene Pape (Sarastro). The libretto, in English, is by Stephen Fry who delightfully transfers the original text to its new setting.
All of the music was pre-recorded, but the actors sang full-out during the shooting giving a convincing feel to their performances. One particularly tricky bit involves a dance where the music plays in normal time, but the motion of the dancers is slowed down to one third. Joseph Kaiser had to dance while “singing” the words at three times normal speed so that everything would sync up later.
Mozart’s theme of peace and reconcilliation, written over two centuries ago, performed in a setting nearly one century old, is very much for our time.
[Joseph Kaiser will appear as part of the annual Canadian Opera Company Gala at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto on April 23, 2007.]
Saturday, September 16
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Good but too long. We get the point.
When The Levees Broke was originallly an HBO documenary shot as four episodes, but actually broadcast as 2 sets of 2. Each looks at the story of Hurricane Katrina — the preparations, the storm, the flood and the recovery — and the episodic format leads to duplication when viewed at one sitting. A great three hour documentary stretches to four hours and loses in the process.
This is reportage about Katrina that doesn’t pull any punches, and clearly the political agenda is to demolish any vestige, any pretence that government agencies and officials might have about their priorities and their ability to deal with real, pressing concerns. We now know what a mess the invastion of Iraq has been, but this is a disaster on home soil on a scale unimaginable in a first world country.
Governments prefer to fight with each other rather than accepting the need for prevention before a disaster and support after one. Short-sighted planning, budget cuts, and the idea that “big government” is a bad thing get in the way of providing the very services only a government can deliver.
Planners assume that a population can be relocated on short notice because their frame of reference is the middle class, everyone with at least one car, and the presumption that there is enough road space and gasoline in a metropolitan area to get everyone out of town. Left behind are the poor and the ill, at best afterthoughts in the grand scheme.
Food and shelter are nightmares especially when emergency officials don’t know where everyone is or the conditions they are living under. Thousands of people were eventually relocated to cities all over the USA and now, even though they have no home standing in New Orleans, the government is ready to cut off their support payments. Meanwhile, the private sector, friends of the administration, are more than happy to turn a profit in rebuilding the city.
Watching this film, I was struck by the number of people and systems where emergency planners assumed that only one, or maybe two, things went wrong at any time. Something like Katrina does not surgically knock out one power station, one communications tower, one small dam. Even with the history of violent storms in the southern USA, the plans and the capability to respond to a major disaster simply didn’t exist.
The governments of the United States, Louisiana and the City of New Orleans failed their citizens after Katrina. Politics took precedence over compassion and support. Will the US electorate remember? Will they care?
When The Levees Broke will grow in value with time as a document of what went wrong, of a time when the United States so badly lost its way that it could not look after its own citizens, as a reminder that it should not happen again.
I could not help contrasting the media outrage at Death of a President south of the border with the reality of the horror and the desperation of New Orleans, and the callous disregard of the Bush administration. Bush and his cronies deserve to be soundly defeated and see their “great works” undone. Sadly, the best we can hope for is a new gang who will dismantle the worst of his excesses. Another Katrina will still be possible.
[Closer to home, the city of Buffalo still has 100,000 people without hydro service a week after a major snowstorm. At least they still have their houses.]
In Amazing Grace, director Michael Apted wrestles with a classic problem: how to tell a story of a Good Man, a story where the black and white hats are clear to see and we already know the outcome. The trick is to make the characters and events intriguing enough that we want to see how things come out.
William Wilberforce, MP, (Ioan Gruffudd) introduces a bill to ban the slave trade, but it is doomed to fail because the sugar lobby desperately wants to preserve it. The sugar lobby? Spices, especially sugar, are in high demand, but they need a workforce to grow and harvest. The sugar plantations of the West Indies were built and run on the labour of vast pool of slaves. Disruption of this arrangement was portrayed as undermining the economy and security of Great Britain. Think of oil, but think of the 18th century.
We meet Wilberforce later in life when he is ill and dispirited by his lack of political success, but there will be one more try, the eventual, triumphal conclusion of his crusade.
As a young man, Wilberforce was an ardent reformer supported, albeit discreetly, by William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) who will later become the youngest Prime Minister in British history. We see the early battles and the political trickery thwarting attempts to change such a major part of the economy. The era of war with Napoleon is not a healthy time to undermine powerful interests, and Wilberforce’s star declines for many years. Eventually the war ends, times improve, and Wilberforce gets another chance.
Wilberforce and his supporters regularly introduced bills to abolish the slave trade and they were just as regularly voted down. Then an obscure bill appears that will limit crown liability in such a way that ship owners and their insurance companies cannot afford to stay in the slave business. It slips through the House thanks to the same trickery — ensuring that the opposition is busy on something else far, far away — as that used to dilute Wilberforce’s own support years before. Even with this, slavery took many years to die out, but this was a major step.
Albert Finney has a lovely supporting role as the reformed captain of a slave ship who now lives simply as a churchman atoning for past sins. His character is credited with writing the hymn Amazing Grace from which this film takes its name, and which gives the lyric a completely new meaning.
Michael Gambon has a nice turn as Lord Charles Fox, originally an opponent of Wilberforce, but an unexpected and crucial supporter in the end.
Other supporting actors include Rufus Sewell (Thomas Clarkson, a reformer and early inspiration to Wilberforce) and Romola Garai (Barbara Wilberforce, wife to William, and another ardent anti-slaver).
Amazing Grace has all the earmarks of a Masterpiece Theatre extravaganza, but it is actually intended for theatrical release. Be sure to watch the credits for the massed pipes of the Irish Guard playing Amazing Grace.