Cinéfranco featured image

by Marc Glassman.

11th annual Cinéfranco film festival
March 28-April 6
@ The Royal
608 College Street (near Clinton)
Box office: 416-967-1528
All films subtitled in English

Of all the specialty film festivals that transfigure the Toronto cinema scene each spring and fall, Cinéfranco has perhaps the most easily explicable mandate. All of the films screened are acted and spoken in French, with English subtitles for those of us who need assistance in one of les deux langues officielles du Canada.

Marcelle Lean, the founder, Executive and Artistic Director of the festival, has created a yearly event that appeals to the large French speaking community in Toronto and the wide number of Anglos who enjoy film and evince some appreciation of a rich culture that is literally on our doorstep.

While the programming for the festival is global in scope, Lean’s intention is to have an accessible week of screenings. The features programmed for Cinéfranco generally have strong plots, recognizable stars and pack an emotional punch. No lover of the esoteric, Lean picks films that most lovers of slightly arty mainstream movies will enjoy.

In the over 30 films being shown at the festival, viewers will be able to see such well known French or Quebecois actors as Audrey Tautou, Gerard Depardieu, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Robert Lepage, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Arsinee Khanjian, Daniel Auteuil and Pascale Bussieres. Distinguished film directors Claude Berri, Carole Laure, the Taviani Brothers, Jean Becker and Claude Miller are receiving—in most cases—Toronto premieres at Cinéfranco.

The Francophonie, the French equivalent of the Commonwealth, supports culture—often cinematic—around the world, from Quebec to North Africa to South-east Asia. Much of the best African cinema has been produced through partnerships formed through that historic institution.

Lean is acutely aware of that reality—and the concurrent one, that Toronto has a vibrant multicultural society. Her canny programming approach takes into consideration a Toronto audience that includes people of African, Caribbean and Asian roots as well as those from France and Quebec.

It makes sense, then, that this year’s festival offers three focuses: on North African cinema, films from France and new offerings from Quebec.

Ou vas-tu Moshe/Where are you going, Moshe? Is a Moroccan film that dramatizes the last days of the Jews in that historic country. From a population of 300, 000 in the early ‘60s, there are now only 3,000 Jews left in Morocco. Hassan Benjelloun’s film explores the time when Jews moved en masse to Israel.

Set in a small rural community in Bejaad, the film has comic touches but is actually quite dramatic. The death of King Mohammed V, a supporter of Jews as part of the ancient mix of cultures in Morocco, and the rise of radical Islamic thought created changes in the North African nation. The city councilors in Bejaad, previously tolerant of drinking, decided to outlaw drinking amongst Muslims in the community.

Mustapaha, a well-liked figure in Bejaad, will have to close his bar if the Jews leave—which they intend to do, quite quickly. The “joke,” of course, is that many Muslims continue to drink, but they won’t be allowed to, if the bar is rendered defunct by the authorities. Only one Jew wants to stay—Shlomo.

Much of the humour and poignancy of the film rests with Shlomo (actor Simon Elbaz) and his attempts to remain resolutely Jewish and Moroccan. Despite many narrative problems, including the fact that the film doesn’t centre on a generic Jewish “Moishe” but on a well-constructed character named “Shlomo,” this is a good, if naïve film.

Dialogue avec mon jardinier/Conversations with my Gardener is a leisurely-paced two-hander starring the brilliant Daniel Auteuil (Jean de Florette, Caché) and Jean-Pierre Darroussin (the films of Robert Guedigian) as a French “odd couple.” The conceit is: the two were schoolboy friends who pursued completely different destinies only to be reunited in late middle age. Auteuil has become an accomplished and successful painter while Darroussin, after many years working on the railway, has created a second career as a gardener. When Auteuil, returning to the rural life after decades of success in Paris, employs Darroussin, the two become fast friends after 50 years apart. A charming look at “town cat” and the “country cat,” this film carries an amazing wallop in its final scenes.

Toi, Cinéfranco’s Opening Night film, is an overheated Quebecois drama made fascinating by the incandescent performance of Anne-Marie Cadieux as Michele, a woman torn between her love for her son and her lover, a musician. Tall, lithe and elegant, Cadieux is shockingly persuasive as a woman whose sexuality drives both her husband and her lover to paroxysms of passion. Deciding to leave her husband and son for her lover doesn’t work for anyone—everyone wants Michele—and she begins to collapse under the burden of expectations being foisted upon her.

Very, very sexy, Toi is an intriguing choice for a festival opener. Will the audience love it? I suspect they will—and be pleasantly surprised that Cadieux, an esteemed member of Robert Lepage’s theatrical troupe, can be as sexy as any Hollywood star.

Cinéfranco will be unspooling film all week at the Royal, justifying its wonderfully simple slogan: “l’accent sur de grands films.”

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