Arts Review

The Masters, a TIFF Report from Marc Glassman

The Masters, a TIFF Report from Marc Glassman featured image

Films covered in this preview of The Masters program are:
Our Time by Carlos Reygadas
Peterloo by Mike Leigh
Loro by Paolo Sorrentino
The Wild Pear Tree by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
The Image Book by Jean-Luc Godard

TIFF is famously divided into programming categories, some of which have proven to be controversial. Their “Spotlight on Canada”, invented in the mid-80s, was initially hailed as a remarkable boost to our slowly building film industry. By the time it was eliminated a couple of decades later, it was derided for ghettoizing Canadian films, which should be “good enough to fit into the world.” “City to City,” focused on films produced in well-known metropolises, seemed like a great idea until Tel Aviv was picked and anti-Israeli protestors took to the streets to oppose the series. Even Cameron Bailey’s “Planet Africa,” curated by him in his younger days, was eventually eliminated because it was felt that the films could enliven “Contemporary World Cinema” and other categories. People still miss “Planet Africa”’s parties.

I certainly hope “The Masters” is never eliminated—it more than fulfills a niche that is easy to understand and of truly high quality. Simply put, The Masters program is where new works by great directors resides. Getting into the series is an accolade in itself. This year, a number of the finest filmmakers in world cinema are represented in The Masters including Jean-Luc Godard, Iran’s Jafar Panahi, China’s Jia Zhang-Ke, Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino, Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas, Britain’s Mike Leigh, Germany’s Christian Petzold and Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Though every film in this program won’t be a masterpiece, they are pieces by masters and are undoubtedly worth viewing.

Mexico’s Reygadas is a filmmaker of depth and style. His films move at their own pace, often quite slowly, as relationships between characters are explored, often against a background that’s starkly beautiful. My favourite film by him is Silent Light, which is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico, where everyone speaks in a medieval German dialect. The film won the Jury Prize at Cannes and one of its featured players was Miriam Toews, the great Manitoba novelist, who was raised as a Mennonite.

Reygadas’ new film Our Time deals, like Silent Light, with a marriage in crisis. Set on a cattle ranch, it is about a wife’s affair with an American horse trainer, all of which is jealously observed by her husband. The fact that Reygadas and his wife play the estranged married couple adds an extra frisson to the film, which is, after all, a drama. Isn’t it?

I’ve often mentioned that a smart way to negotiate the huge amount of features available at TIFF is to follow programmers whose style meshes with your own. Most of the films in TIFF’s vast catalogue have notes signed by their programmer so it’s quite easy to decide if you like one curator over another. One of my favourites is Piers Handling, the outgoing CEO and director of TIFF.  He’s chosen four films for the Masters program and they all look to be potential festival favourites.

Mike Leigh’s Peterloo forms one part of Handling’s quartet of choices. Leigh has created a great body of work espousing the cause of the underdogs in U. K. society: unionists, Irish revolutionaries, tough maverick Scots, people trying to maintain their dignity while on the dole. With Peterloo, he brings us an historical piece about an unforgivable attack by British military against a large group of poor workers who were demonstrating for the right to vote. The tragic event is nearly 200 years old—it truly happened in 1819—and Leigh concentrates on telling the stories of a group of the protestors whose fates were transformed by what occurred that day.

By contrast, another Handling selection, Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro, is a satire on the contemporary political scene in Italy.  His protagonist Prime Minister Andreotti, an immensely corrupt politician, was a precursor to the even more famous scoundrel, Berlusconi. Always stylish, Sorrentino–and his film–is bound to attract controversy and attention.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree is the latest entry into the festival sweepstakes by Turkey’s finest director. As in previous films, the young protagonist, named Sinan in this case, must travel between the city—and his future life—and the gorgeous countryside, where his past has taken place. Drawn back into his life in the Dardanelles, Sinan has to deal with his relationship with his father while trying to move forward with his life. Like Handling, I find every film by Ceylan to be cerebral and intensely compelling.

Completing the quartet of Handling’s Masters selections is the great Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book. The winner of a Special Palme d’Or at Cannes, the film is an essay on what we see in this fraught time. Handling observes of Godard and the film: “His ontological enquiry into the image continues to be one of the most moving in history.” That’s good enough for me.

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