By Marc Glassman
TIFF isn’t all about glitz and glamour. Cinephiles attend in droves, seeking out films that are rarely seen outside of festival or limited art-house release screenings. One of their favourite programmes is The Masters, which features new films by distinguished directors.
No one questions the utility of TIFF’s category. It allows new films into the festival by directors whose careers have been praised by academics, critics and–occasionally–the public over the years. If there’s a problem with this section it’s the very exclusivity associated with the name. You can only enter “Masters” if you’ve produced award winning artistically made films. Conversely, once you’re a Master, you’d have to make an outrageously bad film to be kicked out of your Elysian status.
So, how have the Masters fared at TIFF 2011?
Alexander Sokurov has come up trumps with his new film Faust. The Russian auteur, famed for his brilliant pictorial compositions and classically based narratives, has created a brilliant capper for his quartet of films about the nature of evil, which started with his film about Hitler, Moloch, and continued through a portrait gallery of dictators: Lenin in Taurus and Emperor Hirohito in The Sun.
In a controversial decision, the Venice Film Festival’s jury headed by Darren Aronofsky gave Sokurov’s film the Golden Lion, the top prize. Faust is admittedly not meant for everyone. Set in a spectacularly well conceived European village of the early 19th century, the film sets the philosophical Dr. Faust in a series of long, somewhat grandiloquent debates with a funny but sinister Mephistopheles.
Viewers of the film may be swept up by the otherworldly qualities of Sokurov’s vision. Or the director’s elaborate staging and frequent use of bloodshed and violence may put them off. They may find Faust to be willfully obscure–thought that allegation will be debated for some time. There’s no doubt though that this is the work of a Master.
Outside Satan by France’s Bruno Dumont is, like the Sokurov, a morality tale. Placed in the Cote d’Opale on Frances’s northwest coast, the film depicts the near wordless relationship between a beautiful, abused farm girl and Guy, a drifter who has decided to become her protector.
Created in a series of tightly constructed vignettes, this is a film that uses silence, landscape and violence effectively. While defending the Girl, Guy kills or severely wounds men. A fire wreaks havoc on the countryside. Eventually, Guy’s efforts can’t save the Girl from being attacked–at which point he performs a miracle.
Who is Guy? Satan? Or an angel? Dumont doesn’t tell us. Outside Satan will satisfy some viewers and anger others but, like Sokurov, it’s a unique and powerful work.
Finally, the Belgian Dardenne brothers are back with another foray into Christian mysticism mixed with tough-minded neo-realism. Cyril, the titular figure in The Kid with a Bike, is an 11-year-old who has been abandoned by his father and left in an orphanage. Stubborn, energetic and charismatic, Cyril is embraced by Samantha, an attractive hairdresser. Despite many obstacles, the two eventually form a strong alliance.
This is a fine film and one, which will open commercially in Canada. At that point, this reviewer will take on the virtues and defects of this highly emotional film. There’s no doubt that TIFF viewers will love it.
So–do Masters always create Masterpieces? No, they don’t. But even when they’re not at their best they are certainly worth viewing.