The mother of the three children at the center of Alexandre Nanău’s Toto and His Sisters is in jail for dealing drugs, and early in the documentary, she’s read a list of her offenses by a parole board and quickly denied her freedom. The scene is primarily expositional, explaining how the titular siblings have ended up alone in a Bucharest slum, surrounded by constantly swarming heroin addicts, many of whom are the children’s relatives. The film details this bleak existence largely through nine-year-old Toto and 15-year-old Andreea, who barely survive it, and their older sister, Ana, who barely functions as a not-exactly-recovering addict. The setup sounds like the worst kind of misery porn, fit more for an international edition of Intervention than a feature film, and though the director does intermittently indulge in a cheap, heavy-handed sort of sentimentalism, he’s also fashioned a slyly subversive document of the wrongheadedness of anti-drug legislation, treatment, and governmental responsibility.
To Romania’s credit, there seems to be a system in place to help children like Toto and his sisters, or, at the very least, Nanău portrays it as welcoming. Andreea and Toto go to school, have specialized tutors who work with them one on one, and even get enrolled in a challenging hip-hop dance class. For Toto, dance is a talent that he works to develop, to the point that he’s competing by the end of the film, which makes the fact that he must go home to be kept up at all hours by roving drug fiends all the more disheartening. As Nanău reveals, however, the decision to stay in the slum lies chiefly with Andreea, who ultimately enters an orphanage along with Toto, a choice that’s rooted in Ana’s growing addiction and brief stint in prison following a police raid. Andreea and Toto start to see a promising life for themselves while at the orphanage, but the same system that runs and funds the place is also responsible for removing Toto and Andreea’s mother from their lives, and whose arrest doesn’t remotely slow the local drug trade. The most notable outcome of her arrest and jail time, rather, is that Toto and Andreea flee their home out of fear and stress, as the apartment becomes a hub for a community of indifferent dope shooters almost overnight.
The psychological tolls of all of this are captured with a sobering eye, from the spiral of self-pity and addiction that isolates Ana completely from her family to Toto’s confused feelings about his mother and the idea of home. At one point, Ana nearly enters into a work program for cooking, a career she seems very interested in, and it’s telling that the one thing that holds up her entry is a parent’s signature, as she’s only 17. This leads to a major relapse, one that we never see her recover from, though she very nearly enters the orphanage with Andreea toward the end of the film. The final image of Ana, screaming bitterly at her sister for staying at the orphanage, underlines the fact that the root of her dysfunction isn’t drugs, but abandonment and the sudden, cumbersome weight of adult responsibility. It’s the same thing that leads Toto to tell his mother that he doesn’t love her anymore in the film’s heartbreaking final scene, a moment that evokes a scary, obvious question: Is it more likely that her son’s emotional abandonment will cause her to stay poor until legal, payable work arrives, or that Toto’s words will make a return to the devil she’s always known all the more inviting?
Toto and His Sisters is visually impersonal, but nonetheless conjures up risky, relevant, and quite personal ideas about drug prohibition and conveys experiences in recovery that are rattling. In contrast, Wondrous Boccaccio, the latest whatsit from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, is awash in overt style, from the purposefully stilted performances to the loud, brilliant colors of the set design to the Tavianis’ unpredictable, thrilling choice in music. In loosely adapting the titular author’s The Decameron, the brothers have made an endearing and wise comedy about the art and ultimate utility of storytelling. The film centers on a group of young men and women who flee Florence in the face of the Black Death, only to then spend 10 days telling mythical stories of fools and murderers.
The central theme, as in the source material, is in how storytelling both enables and guises darker truths and wilder desires. Even the framing device suggests a necessity in ignoring death in favor of a small slice of Eden where men and women can share tall tales. The stories are all tinged with sin, from a senior nun’s hypocritical witch hunt for a fornicating sister to two men’s cruel and finally ghastly idea to tell a fool that he’s invisible. The Taviani brothers consider the darker elements of life much easier to look at and analyze at a distance, and the writer-directors frame and light much of their shots as if they were trying to recreate Masaccio’s paintings. This is especially true of the dying and the dead we see early on in the film, images that seemingly wear the falseness of their beautiful aesthetic out front. Great films, like great stories, survive death, but those who create them crucially do not, and though Wondrous Boccaccio isn’t the Taviani brothers’ strongest film to date, it’s one that feels uniquely at peace with the limitations of art and depiction in the face of oblivion.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 15—26.
You can follow Chris Cabin on Twitter here.