The festival has officially begun... or, to be more exact, began approximately eight hours ago with a screening of Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Mozart's The Magic Flute at 2 p.m. I attended that showing, and also snuck in an evening film - the Palme D'Or-winning The Wind that Shakes the Barley by Ken Loach. The day went by very quickly, spent waiting in lineups and walking from one theatre to the next. I'm not particularly tired at the moment, but I only did two films after all; next Friday , I have a whopping five scheduled, so we'll see how I'm faring then. Overall, it was a solid start to the festival; the Branagh came as something of a mild disappointment (but it certainly had its charms), while the Loach completely bowled me over. Just a sidenote - because of piracy fears, the festival volunteers have become especially paranoid about cameras in the cinema halls. Before the first film began, I was simply taking pictures of the festival director (Piers Handling) doing his opening remarks and was loudly scolded by a scandalized usher (as if I were taping the film itself!) Therefore, I might not be able to deliver photos on a consistent basis, although I will still try to evade those pesky, power-trip losers.
For The Magic Flute, the D.P. Roger Lanser showed up to introduce the film; Branagh is in Venice right now, but sent a humourous taped video thanking the audience for showing interest. In an interesting bit of trivia, the film had its world premiere simultaneously both in Toronto and Venice - apparently, the latter screening was set to start only twenty minutes after ours did. Neat! As for The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Cillian Murphy was on-hand to both introduce the film and offer his comments in a Q&A following the screening (see picture below.) The actor is shockingly waif-ish in person - scarecrow indeed! I also took a video of the discussion, and although it is hardly perfect (it was taken on my digital camera, which has no zoom feature for that command), the audio is quite adequate. Currently, both YouTube and Google Video are giving me problems uploading it, but I'll keep working at it. Murphy talked about Loach's methods, approaching his own character, and the reaction to the film in both Ireland and England.
Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of The Magic Flute is a mostly winsome affair, this time performed entirely in English (the libretto is written by Stephen Fry.) The proceedings are captured against the backdrop of the Great War, although Branagh sidesteps any direct reference to nations or specific events during that time period. The setting is simply used as a starting point; in fact, apart from the bookends of the film taking place entirely within the trenches, the true meat of the story lies in faithfully retreading Mozart's plot. That is not to say Branagh and Fry have not had fun updating the piece for the early twentieth century; for example, the Queen's attendents are now nurses tending to wounded soldiers at the frontline, and the bird catcher Papageno is a "pigeon" military messenger (get it?.) Ultimately though, the main concern of the story is that of Tamino and Pamina, two lovers separated by a scheming mother, a powerful lord and character-testing ordeals. The film is characteristic of the pace (and length) of an opera; dilemmas that could be solved in a matter of minutes are stretched out for several scenes, and the individuals attempting to overcome their obstacles spell out every motivation and feeling by immediately shifting into tenor/baritone/soprano/bass/etc. Yet if one is willing to buy into this world without reservation, the twists and turns can be quite captivating. Interestingly enough, what surprised me the most about Branagh's direction is how much he relies on other films for inspiration; the first twenty minutes unfold at the speed of Moulin Rouge!'s own opening, and some shots echo Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy (believe it or not.) There is a lot of use of miniatures and similar visual effects work that seems unnecessary, although the opening sequence (which lasts possibly more than five minutes) is something of a marvel - the camera moves from lingering on a small flower in the ground that Tamino picks up, to sweeping across packed trenches along the battlefield, to moving upwards to the sky, dancing with the fighter planes zipping through the clouds. All in all, there is nothing particularly exciting about this attempt at opening up the work; apart from a few clever lines, Fry's text is rather flat, and no major changes have been made to the story. But it is definitely worth a worth a look for Branagh/Mozart enthusiasts eager to see a fresh and visually ambitious take on the opera. B-
Although I have seen very few of Ken Loach's films (aside from this one, only Sweet Sixteen, Ae Fond Kiss and his contribution to 11'09"01), I can safely say that this is one director's worldview I truly gel with. The Wind that Shakes the Barley is a thrilling story of how several passionate IRA revolutionaries banded together in the early 1920's to put an end to British oppression. At the forefront are two brothers, Demian (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney), who decide to head the movement after a series of deadly and merciless attacks by the Black and Tans (a brutal force responsible for "policing" all of Ireland) pushes them over the edge. For the entire two-hour running time, Loach holds the viewer's full attention in his grasp - aside from a few moments developing camaraderie between the group's members and a tender romance, the tension is unrelenting. And despite the fact that the film's perspective is deeply grounded on one side of the conflict, the film still manages never to resort to off-putting jingoism. True, the British forces are portrayed as authorities determined to suppress dissent at any cost, yet they are hardly moustache-twirling villains (one scene even shows the ambivalence one official feels at his violent orders.) Loach is more interested in the state of affairs amongst the IRA members, especially once debate emerges regarding how the new Ireland should be run. The true complexity emerges here, once Loach deconstructs the Anglo-Irish Treaty as an agreement that simply spawned another hierarchical, forbidding regime. Like last year's Manderlay, what I came away with were similar questions about nation-building and how one's well-meant ideals can quickly errode for the purpose of pusuing a "greater good" (which may not be "good" after all.) Towards the end, the film does fall prey to overpreaching, but that can hardly negate the strength of what came before. Cillian Murphy is perhaps the only well-known actor in the cast (and he is pitch-perfect in the role, never overplaying the character's zeal), but everyone is excellent. B
Lineup for tomorrow:
Big Bang Love, Juvenile A
Lights in the Dusk
A Grave-Keeper's Tale