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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Wuthering Heights, Habemus Papam, & Kotoko

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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Wuthering Heights</em>, <em>Habemus Papam</em>, & <em>Kotoko</em>

Wuthering Heights: Midway through Wuthering Heights, Hindley blinks in disbelief at the grown-up, returning Heathcliff: “What the fuck…?” Long before this groggy-hooligan double take, Brit kitchen-sink realism maven Andrea Arnold has already left her gritty imprint on this version of Emily Brontë’s novel, shooting the rustic open expanses of 19th-century Yorkshire moors with the same splintery, handheld camerawork she used for the cramped housing project of Fish Tank. Immersive, elemental sensation is all: Blood from wounds is gently licked in extreme close-up, a character smelling another’s hair during a horse ride is a luxuriant event, wind and mud are virtually supporting characters. However, while Arnold’s provocative decision to cast Heathcliff with black actors (Solomon Glave as a youngster, James Howson as an adult) both reaches back to Brontë’s original description of the character and adds a new dimension to his romance with Cathy (played by Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario), her conception of the couple as feral creatures knocking between a rugged Eden and foppish civilization, unsubtly accented with multiple glimpses of snared critters, is blunt and amorphous. Designed to hack away at the ornamental crust created by years of genteel literary adaptations, it’s a visually forceful attempt at seizing the ardor of the novel that nevertheless pales next to the abyss of passion explored by Luis Buñuel in his own strange, 1954 visualization of Brontë’s classic.

Habemus Papam: During the Vatican City counting of the votes, Cardinals silently pray not to be picked as the new Pope. The chosen candidate (Michel Piccoli) receives the news with a wincing smile that hints at the apprehension that will evolve to full-blown panic seconds before he’s supposed to address the sea of believers from the balcony. Not unlike Otto Preminger in The Cardinal, writer-director Nanni Moretti is less interested in issues of faith than in the human frailty of complex institutions, and his view of a nervous old man crushed by doubt and dwarfed by Sistine Chapel frescoes has a comic gentleness immensely enhanced by the great Piccoli’s portrayal of befuddled dignity. When the Pope furtively steps out in what boils down to a depressed, geriatric version of Roman Holiday, the film’s focus is split between his gradual realization of his fears and limitations and the broader humor of a secular psychiatrist (Moretti) who, sequestered in the Vatican, passes his time organizing volleyball matches with the men of God. A dry, melancholy satirist with a knack for serenely absurd epiphanies, Moretti here mostly meanders agreeably but toothlessly, parting the veils of ecclesiastical pomp and bureaucracy and finding nothing more subversive than a rejected thespian suffering from an extreme case of stage fright.

Kotoko: Mother love gets the Shinya Tsukamoto treatment in the Japanese auteur’s latest mindfuck, a boldly abrasive, sometimes overwhelming tour of an unbalanced psyche. Said psyche belongs to a young, single mother (played by J-pop star Cocco) who imagines sinister doppelgangers lurking everywhere, stabs potential suitors with forks, lacerates her skinny arms with razors (“I cut my body to confirm it,” she muses in voiceover) and, above all, turns any activity involving her toddler son into grueling bouts of hysteria. Only singing seems to soothe her, and one of her songs catches the attention of a masochistic novelist (Tsukamoto) who’s willing to let her beat him into a bloody pulp in order to forge a relationship with her. Filmed with a reeling, zooming camera, scratchily edited, and set to a deafening cacophony of enfant shrieks and industrial noise, this virtuoso bit of grisliness may have something to say about violence-saturated societies nurturing Medea fantasies, but any thematic exploration plays second fiddle to Tsukamoto’s insistence on sheer sensory overload. By the end, this viewer was left with little more than jangled nerves and a pounding headache, though, coming from the Tetsuo director, this may precisely be the intended goal.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8—18.