In the lead up to this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the so-called Festival of Festivals announced that it would be cutting back. A totally reasonable reaction to an increasingly unwieldy program of widely varying artistry, this "restructuring" was dutifully and diligently spun by TIFF’s PR team as a tightening of the festival’s loose, qualitatively questionable screws.
But to just about anyone aware of the background statistics—festival attendance decreased in 2016 and an even more significant drop off occurred for year-round programming—it’s hard not to take this propagandizing in bad faith, especially when much of these eliminations came to the festival’s curatorial pinnacle, the consistently radical Wavelengths program. While it’s always easy to take the critical high-road in these disputes, praise must be given where praise is certainly due, and continually, year after year, the festival has showcased daring works (even if the number is currently shrinking), provided a platform for Canadian filmmakers (even if some of the programming decisions reek of distributor-festival incest), and brought worldclass cinema to the residents of Canada’s largest city (even if most of them can’t keep up with the rapidly inflating ticket prices). Still, TIFF remains a choose-your-own-adventure labyrinth of numerous, esoteric pleasures; stray too far from the path, though, and it’s easy to end up in places you’ll quickly regret.
All roads on my schedule led straight to Lucrecia Martel’s new film, Zama, her first narrative feature since 2008’s The Headless Woman. Adapted from a novel by Antonio di Benedetto (which was only recently translated into English and which I meant to read beforehand, but alas!), Zama is as narratively oblique as it is disturbingly descriptive. Paraguay, late 1700s: Don Diego de Zama, chin outstretched and sword in tow, stands on the beach shore in a reflective pose. His conscious performance of solace is almost instantly broken when a harem of nude aboriginal women traverse across the frame. He follows them to a picturesque seaside where they pose in classical, passive bathing repose. Shielded by overgrown blades of grass, the voyeur begins to masturbate. Here is where the film’s visual rules are established: his gaze is the one that will matter, or at least that’s what he thinks.
Zama renders this man’s colonialist exploits in bifurcated tableaux; each of the film’s controlled, mostly static images densely imagined as a world unto itself. Class relations and bigotry are in elaborate interplay between all plains of the image and soundscape. Black bodies are segregated spectacles, mere ornaments of the characters wealth. Martel uses their covert presence to play what is the formal equivalent of Where’s Waldo.
But it must be said this is not a mere display and immersion into colonialist psyche but an actively absurd intervention into it. As Martel breaks the 180 degree axis and regards each masterfully organized composition from a central position, it’s clear that this is a world oriented entirely around a man’s hubris, his gaze determining what is importantly foregrounded and what, often ridiculously, hides in the back of the frame. The composition and editing here is halfway between Yasujirō Ozu and Whit Stillman. Martel, from behind the camera, appears to be staging each interior shot as a practical joke, the brunt of which is almost always the oblivious Diego de Zama. When a rogue llama inexplicably wanders into the out-of-focus background during what, for him, is an emotionally tumultuous scene, we can’t help but wait for a satirical spit-take that never comes.
John Woo’s reductio ad absurdum of his own cinema in the predictably preposterous Manhunt provides an altogether different kind of pleasure: an old master abandoning all narrative creativity and formal conventionality along with it. Few filmmakers have cared less about the movie that was on the page as Woo appears to here. There’s a convoluted story involving cops, robbers, and assassins that is entirely insincere, and hardly matters. In the lineage of criticism comparing populist genre work to the most arduous of the avant-garde, this will undoubtedly be another case study, eaten alive by the most vulgar of auteurists. Woo, in De Palma-like form, turns what would typically be shot-reverse-shot showdowns into a pantheon of sensorial impressions, fading out, splitting the screen, pushing the montage just about as far as the already truncated story can handle and still be considered a work of narrative.
There’s more than a hint of absurdist poetry also lingering underneath the intentionally incoherent The Nothing Factory, a three-hour, Portuguese Marxist, neorealist musical. If this seems to like the Platonic ideal of art house attention-grabbing, that irony certainly isn’t lost on the film. Director Pedro Pinho, through a web of associative images, is deliberately toying with our sense of time: cruel but productive, I suppose. The film loops back on itself, then continues on; draws associations from its opening minutes, then proceeds for at least another half hour. It’s a structure determined almost entirely on our exhaustion.
The opening couple of hours, though proficient and poetic, are straightforward enough: a group of workers unite when they catch the company secretly shipping out machinery in the middle of the night. After being assured that their work is not being outsourced to a different country with cheaper labor and poorer regulations, they are presented with a Dardenne-like dilemma: to take a significant severance package or hold out in solidarity and occupy the factory. If the film shifts from a recognizable form of art house fare to a hybridized whatsit whose incoherence is precisely the point, it’s in transparent admission to its own—and to that of proletariat everywhere's—fantastical and far-fetched aspirations to create a grassroots alternative to a globalized economy. Everything is commodifiable and so is the film itself. It’s turn to ironic nimbleness is therefore its own half-assed bow the the holy beast of capitalism. Something TIFF knows about pretty well, I presume.