Toronto International Film Festival 2008: The Burning Plain, Lorna’s Silence, & Of Time and City

Fraternal auteurs aren’t having much critical support this year.

Toronto International Film Festival 2008: The Burning Plain, Lorna's Silence, & Of Time and City
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Around the release of Babel, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga not-too-subtly suggested that he was the true auteur of his collaborations with director Alejandro González Iñárritu. The festival program notes may fan the ego flames by dubbing Arriaga “a one-man revolution in cinematic storytelling,” but his directorial debut, The Burning Plain, ultimately merely serves to showcase the emperor’s bare ass cheeks. As if to prove his authorial heft, Arriaga slams the party tricks of Amores Perros and 21 Grams hard on the screen—fractured narratives, damaged gringos aching for redemption, and Mexican sufferers so saintly that one turns down a soaking wet Charlize Theron in a half-open peignoir. Theron plays a doleful restaurant manager with a yen for bedding strangers and then lacerating her own flesh as punishment afterward; Kim Basinger is the K-Mart shopping mama (don’t ask) in a seemingly unrelated story that eventually shows that, yup, We Are All Connected. Despite a pungent (if underused) whiff of perversity to the relationship between youngsters Jennifer Lawrence and J.D. Pardo, this is sanctimonious, humorless filmmaking—not the worst entry I’ve seen so far, but it’s certainly the most arrogant.

Fraternal auteurs aren’t having much critical support this year: The Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading is getting hisses for its reported triviality, while the Dardenne brothers’ Lorna’s Silence is getting yawns for its—get this—predictable excellence. I haven’t seen the Coens film, but I consider the Dardennes’ latest picture outstanding (and, furthermore, surprising) in ways that belie its strangely jaded reception. In their first film since Rosetta to focus primarily on a woman’s consciousness, the brothers’ trademark handheld camera follows Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), an Albanian immigrant involved in a green-card plot to snatch Belgian citizenship by marrying a junkie (Jérémie Renier, who is to the Dardennes what Jean-Pierre Léaud was to Truffaut) who’s expected to summarily OD. There have been complaints about the filmmakers’ neorealist aesthetic being diluted by the quasi-thriller elements and contrivances, but have critics watched the neorealist classics recently? Roberto Rossellini’s search for emotional truth was never afraid of melodrama, and much of Lorna’s beauty comes precisely from the “contrivances” that pile up toward the end, with the heroine like Ingrid Bergman in Europa ’51, lost and found, full of madness and grace.

Terence Davies’s first film in eight years, Of Time and City is an essayistic blend of found footage and ruminating sonnets that unfurls as an alternately tender and caustic letter to his native Liverpool. “Come closer now and see your dreams. Come closer and see mine,” Davies narrates to kick off glimpses of the city’s grim industrial side, its beaches, working-class tenements, the movie premieres and wrestling TV shows that inflamed the mind of a certain queer Catholic boy. Davies scores his collage to Peggy Lee, Mahler and the Hollies (and includes a dig at the Beatles, or at least at the idea of them as Liverpool’s most celebrated voices), though the results only occasionally achieve the rhapsodic. One could understandably take issue with the oracular crankiness of Davies’s voiceover, yet much of the picture throbs with emotion. It’s a minor work from a great filmmaker, perhaps, but it’s the kind that hopefully reminds people of what a loss his absence from the screen has been.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 4—13.

Fernando F. Croce

Fernando F. Croce is a San Francisco-based film writer whose work has been published in Film Comment, Reverse Shot, MUBI, and Fandor. He runs the website CinePassion.

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