Religion in remote places. Films reviewed: The Witch, the Club, Embrace of the Serpent

Posted in Anthropology, Catholicism, Chile, Cultural Mining, Drama, Dreams, Indigenous, Movies, Mysticism, Supernatural, Suspicion by on February 19, 2016

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Religion can take a strange turn in remote places; this week I’m looking at three such movies. There are defrocked priests in a tiny fishing town in Chile, a shaman in the Columbian rainforest, and a preacher’s family in the woods near Salem village.

12357191_658718044294625_522435059894350027_oThe Witch
Dir: Robert Eggers

“A New England Folktale.”

It’s the 1630s in the New England colonies. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is a firebrand preacher in Salem Village. He doesn’t like the way things are going there, with all the suspicion, accusations and trials about witchcraft. So he packs up his wife and kids and settles in a clearing near the woods. But witchcraft may have followed them there.

It starts with little things. A wild boar destroying crops and the farm animals behaving in a strange way. Pretty teen Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is annoyed by the bratty little twins – they look like devilish imps. So to scare them she pretends to be a witch. But her brother takes it all very seriously. He goes looking for an old witch in the woods. And now he’s gone.xGjG7n_witch_01_o3_8778312_1439860966

Caleb is baffled by the events, but goaded on by his shrewish, pregnant wife, he looks deeper into the troubles. What does that satanic goat want? What’s happening to the milk cow? And is there a devil’s child on its way? Are there witches in the woods? Is Thomasin one of them? Or is it all just paranoia brought on by their isolation?

This is not your average horror movie. It’s an art house flic that’s more strange and creepy than scary. The images are spooky but beautiful/grotesque, and the music is great. Apparently the script is based on actual diaries from that era. So the dialogue is full of thees and thous… but don’t expect Shakespeare.  Just first-hand accounts of witchery 400 years ago.

The_Club_-_4The Club
Dir: Pablo Larraín

Four priests and a nun live in a house together in La Boca, a remote fishing village in Chile. The men are there by order of the Vatican in penance for their suspected crimes and misdemeaners. Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers: No) is their de facto jailer. But in fact they live comfortable lives. The gamble, they drink, they cuss. Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro: Desde allá, No) even has a hobby:  a greyhound he bets on at dog races.

But then something happens. A new priest arrives at their sanctuary, pursued by a strange young man named Sandokan (Roberto Farías).

Sandokan parks himself by their front gate and begins reciting things in a sing-song voice. He tells in graphic detail all the horrible sexual abuse he suffered as an altar boy by a Catholic priest. This leads to a shocking incident.

The Vatican sends an investigator – with a handful The_Club_-_6of secret files – in the person of Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso). Garcia is a hard-ass Jesuit stickler who demands the truth from the priests. This is not a spa, he says. They must confess everything.

But the priests and the nun are no pushovers. So it becomes a tug of warThe_Club_-_5 between the stubborn but suspect priests, and their powerful interloper. What are their secrets? Which of them is really guilty? And what will become of the mentally damaged Sandokan?

The Club is another excellent – but disturbing — movie from the great Chilean director who brought us “No”. He uses many actors from his previous films. This one’s a dark comedy but with a very serious undertone about the intersection of politics and religion, crime and punishment.

EMBRACEOFTHESERPSENT_01_o3_8681619_1439859054Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)
Dir: Ciro Guerra

It’s the early 20th Century. Theo Koch-Grunberg is a German Ethnologist living among the indigenous peoples of the northern Amazon rainforest. Theo (Jan Bijvoet: Borgman) is scraggly-looking man with a bony face and a long white beard who speaks the local language. He’s trying to find a shaman to show him the way to find a rare flower with mystical and medicinal properties. So with the help pf his student Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) he turns to Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) of the Arekuna nation to be his guide. Karamakate is a strong proud man who is one of the last of his people still living free in the traditional way. He walks through the forest basically naked except for a Embrace of the Serpentceremonial necklace. He carries no possessions. Everything he needs — the history, laws, medicine, geography, and stories of his people – are in his head. And he imposes strict rules that Theo has to follow if he wants Karamakate to lead him in canoe and on foot to the secret plant. He must starve himself in order to experience its power.

Flash forward half a century. Another foreign ethnographer, Evan (Brionne Davis) is back on the same path with the same goal: find pgBEVm_EMBRACEOFTHESERPSENT_04_o3_8681707_1439859084that flower! And he turns again to a much older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) to guide him. But Karamakate now says he’s forgotten everything.

The movie jumps back and forth between the two journeys, 40 years apart. And what they see and experience is amazing, stunning, frightening and spectacular. There are missionaries who dress up indigenous kids as altar boys and forbid them to speak their own language (shades of Canada’s residential schools.) Adults are turned into slaves to fuel the short-lived Amazon rubber boom in Manaus. And the jungle is full of false messiahs, drug addicts, jaguars and boas, marching soldiers and fleeing crowds… They see it all.

The whole movie is shot in some of the most spectacular black and white footage you’ve ever seen. This is an amazingly breathtaking film. It’s emotional, tragic, absurd and realistic. It’s based on the notebooks of those two explorers, which contain some of the only recorded records of indigenous people of the North Amazon. I recommend this movie

The Club, The Witch and Embrace of the Serpent all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,

Commitment. Movies reviewed: Jimmy’s Hall, The Tribe, PLUS It Comes in Waves

Posted in Canada, Catholicism, Cultural Mining, Disabilities, Ireland, Politics, Sign Language, UK, Ukraine by on July 17, 2015

Stephen O’Connell in It Comes in Waves. Photo by Jeremy MimnaghHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Most forms of entertainment ask for little commitment from their viewers: just sit there and take it all in. But sometimes they demand a little bit more.

I just saw a production — a combination of theatrical drama, 11709591_1024415027582463_3885855130064308103_nmusic, modern dance and exercise — called It Comes in Waves (Jordan Tannahill, bluemouth inc., and Necessary Angel). The audience actually rows canoes to a remote part of Toronto Island, in a Heart of Darkness journey past wild egrets and tame swans. Once there, expect to catch a trumpet 11745530_1024414667582499_268456507655648282_nand snare drum drifting past in a rowboat, Naked Guy running across a field, voices singing in the woods, campfires, Celtic dances and a Waiting for Godot-style surprise party (where the audience — us — are the guests). You walk down the beach carrying lanterns as an ethereal angel dances half a mile away. It’s a play that completely eliminates the proscenium arch, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

But what about movies? This week I’m looking at two films that require if not participation, at least commitment. There’s a historical political drama from Ireland that stimulates intellectual rigour, and a crime drama from the Ukraine that activates creative vigour.

Jimmy’s Hall
Dir: Ken Loach

Jimmys HallJames Gralton (Barry Ward) witnessed the roaring twenties in NY. 10 years later, it’s the Great Depression and he’s back home in County Leitrim, Ireland. He’s there to take care of his aging mother (Aileen Henry). He’s keeping a low profile, having been kicked out after the Irish Civil War. He’s back to work digging up peat. But no sooner does he get there than he sees kids from the town dancing the jig on a country road. Is this a local custom? No. They just have nowhere else to go. A decade earlier he had built and opened a community centre on his land, where people would sing songs, write poetry, draw, study literature, dance to jazz music, practice boxing… but the hall was closed and he was kicked out.

Now that he’s back, he’s surrounded by locals imploring him toJimmys Hall reopen Jimmy’s Hall, a place where they can enjoy life. Is there anyone, anywhere who could oppose such a thing? You bet there is. Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) the top local priest. If it isn’t run by the church, it is, by definition, no good. “He’s a communist and plays jungle music!” says the good Father.

And a high-ranked official also loathes Jimmy for his left-wing politics. His daughter, though, can’t wait to join the club. And Jimmys HallJimmy’s lost love Oonagh (Simone Kirby) is glad to see him back

But local incidents can lead to national repercussions. With Catholic and Protestant labourers striking together in Belfast the Powers That Be feared what James Gralton might inspire. As tensions escalate, who will triumph? Father Sheridan and his supporters? Or Jimmy?

Based on a true story, Jimmy’s Hall is a typical Ken Loach movie. Its politics are decidedly left-wing, but the characters and the ideologies they espouse are never cut-and-dry. For every right-wing Father Sheridan, there’s a younger priest urging compromise. And like Loach’s other historical dramas (The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Land and Freedom), it has scenes with long  — though never boring — political discussions. Not for everyone, but I liked this film a lot. Well-acted and nicely shot, it filled in a period of Irish history — leftist politics in the 1930s — that I knew nothing about.

THETRIBE_PressPhoto_04The Tribe (Plemya)
Dir: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky

It’s present-day Ukraine. A nondescript kid named Sergey (Grigory Fesenko) arrives at his new home, a boarding school for deaf kids. It’s a typical school, the classrooms and dorms flavoured by drab Soviet austerity.

Sergey is honest, polite and naïve. And he suffers like any newbie: he’s at the bottom of every possible totem pole at the school. Even a boy with Down Syndrome nonchalantly steals his lunch. Almost immediately, he’s guided by a weasely fast-talker to meet his new boss, a no-nonsense older student. Higher-ranked bullies confiscate his money, and he’s put right THETRIBE_PressPhoto_03to work.

He’s thrown out of bed on his first night and sent out to a truck stop along with two young women from the school. Anna (Yana Novikova) is a flirty, pale blond, her dark haired coworker is bigger and bossier. They ply their trade by knocking on parked truck windows, and Sergey pimps them out and collects the money. This is just part of a complex criminal gang operating out of the school.

The Tribe by the Ukrainian writer-director Myroslav SlaboshpytskiyThey sneak out at night to mug pensioners and steal their groceries. They also send young kids to ply ugly little plush toys on commuter trains, a front for unlawful behavior. They’re looking for charity donations but are just as willing to beat up reluctant donors.

His status begins to rise when he fends off four guys in a no-rules fight. He becomes a tough enforcer: he shakes down little kids for their pocket change. Literally! He holds them upside-down by their feet until their money falls out of their pockets.

Eventually he hooks up with Anna in a paid encounter, and they become a couple. But her main goal is to get the hell out of there with an exit visa to Western Europe. And as he becomes more experienced his personality is transformed.Will the moral Sergey ever come back to the surface?

The Tribe is a fantastic movie. And – get this — all dialogue is THETRIBE_PressPhoto_01in sign language – with not a word spoken in the entire movie… and no subtitles either. But it’s completely clear what they are saying. The actors are all hearing-impaired and express themselves beautifully. Each scene is shot in a single take, with one camera constantly moving down halls, around corners, and into rooms. Explicit sex scenes, violent fights… everything happens right in your face.

The Tribe and Jimmy’s Hall open today in Toronto; check your local listings. It Comes in Waves is now playing as part of Panamania, the cultural side of the Pan Am games. For more information go to

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,

Acts of God. Movies reviewed: Into the Storm, Calvary PLUS TIFF Canadian Films

Posted in Action, Adventure, Catholicism, Christianity, Cultural Mining, Death, Disaster, Drama, Ireland, Movies, Uncategorized by on August 8, 2014

TIFF14 Rising Stars © Jeff Harris Sophie Desmarais, Alexandre LandryHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

The names of the Canadian films opening this fall at the Toronto International Film Festival were announced this week, and they look really good. Haven’t seen any yet, but a few caught my eye. From Quebec, there’s a drama about a young man in Montreal who joins the nascent FLQ in the 1960s. It’s called Corbo, directed by TIFF14 CorboMatthieu Denis. Xavier Dolan’s movies are always worth seeing. His fifth one, called, simply, Mommy, revisits the themes of his first film (J’ai tue ma mere) about a mother/son relationship and all its perils. With Anne Dorval back as the mom. And Master filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin is bringing another NFB TIFF14  Alanis Obomsawin, NFB director of Trick or Treatydoc on First Nations issues. This one, Trick or Treaty, covers the battle for treaty rights. There are many other too, including a new one from Cronenberg, a remastered film by Atom Egoyan, and movies from Jean Marc Valee, and Phillipe Felardeau, both starring Reese Witherspoon for some reason. Go to for more info.

This week, I’m looking at two movies about The Imp and the Angels Sally de Frehn 1946brave people facing “acts of God”. One’s an American disaster-adventure about the danger brought to a family by unstoppable winds; the other’s an Irish drama about the dangers brought to a priest by an emotional loose cannon.

INTO THE STORM afficheInto the Storm
Dir: Steven Quale

On graduation day in Silverton, a single dad (Richard Armitage) and his two sons, Donnie and Trey (Max Deacon, Nathan Kress), are making a time capsule on video. 25 years from now they’ll look back in wonder — or so they think. Instead, a series of unusually powerful, super – tornadoes strike their town during the graduation ceremony, wreaking havoc in its path. Donnie is trapped with a classmate in an abandoned paper mill on the outskirts of town. (He skipped graduation to help a girl he has a crush on get some footage for her Into the Storm 1environmental film.)

Dad and Trey set out to find them but encounter another group on the way. It’s a team of storm chasers — people who make their living by pursuing tornadoes and capturing it all on video. Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies) is a scientist, while Pete (Matt Walsh) is her boss. It’s Pete’s dream to pass through the eye of a tornado and live to tell the tale — and this is the biggest twister he’s ever seen. With the help of his tank-like car (called Titus) he treats the storm as his great white whale.

But when Dad rescues Allison from blowing away – literally! A manly man relying on the brute strength of his handgrip to overcome the tornado and save her from blowing away like a leaf — she decides to help him. They drive off to save his son; she chooses people’s lives over fame and fortune.

Into the Storm 2But can anyone beat this Grandmother of a superstorm? While there are some nice shots of huge objects bring blown away, and some wicked “flame-nadoes”, it wasn’t enough. Where are the sharks?

Terrific special effects don’t excuse the mediocre plot and script, and ho-hum acting. And it’s dripping with Tea Party subtexts: The school principal is an Obama surrogate. A good speech-maker but it’s the Paul Ryan-type Dad who can save the day. It’s also a movie about irregular weather systems that never talks about climate change. But the biggest problem is you can’t have a disaster movie that’s also an adventure flick; the two types are diametrically opposed. Disaster movies are all about sadness and braveness in the face of terrible disaster. Adventure movies are all about fun and excitement. This movie doesn’t know which way to turn. Into The Storm, while diverting, will disappear as fast as a tornado.

Wri/Dir: John Michael McDonagh

Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a priest in a small, isolated village in Ireland. A husky bearded man in his 60s, he still wears the traditional black cassock. He’s attended by a novice priest and a Machievellian altar boy who steals bottles of sacramental wine. The movie begins in confession where a disembodied man’s voice says he was savagely raped as a child – repeatedly, over many years – by a priest. That priest is now dead, but the man declares he will kill this good priest, Father James, in his stead. And he tells him he has one week to make peace with the world, and to show up next Sunday on the beach outside town to die. Quelle Calvaire!

From there the movie follows Father James as he visits his parishioners to make amends, offer forgiveness, and maybe discover who plans to kill him. But the people’s problems are not what might be expected in small-town Ireland. There’s a woman who cheats on her husband (Chris O’Dowd) with a Senegalese mechanic. The local policeman is gay, the priest’s novice is a toady, a local lad says he wants to join the army so he can murder people, and the arrogant local millionaire tosses his money around like toilet paper.62997-Calvary_013

Father James also has a beautiful grown daughter. (Not what you think – he joined the priesthood after his wife died.) They were estranged can they get along again? Everyone knows he’s a good man, but not many of them still carries the faith like he does. He’s a combination social worker, therapist, enforcer and drinking buddy, and, well, priest. Surrounded by such unrelenting cynicism, he’s beginning to question it all, too. Does he have the strength to face his upcoming Calvary?

This is a very good movie from Ireland. It has a large cast, but each character, each part seems perfectly played. Visually, it’s fantastic, with huge, aerial shots of mammoth, grass-covered rocky plateaus and beaches. And jarring images, like a discussion inside the grocer’s freezer played against an oddly beautiful background of cow carcasses. Father James is a tough, Jesus-y character facing a troubling fate even as he tries to do good and forgive the worst sins of others. Calvary challenges our perceptions of traditional Irish life and the role of the Catholic Church there — warts and all.

Into the Storm and Calvary both open today in Toronto – check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,

Women in Movies for Mothers’ Day. Films Reviewed: Under the Skin, Ida, The German Doctor

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers of the past present and future. While all women aren’t mothers, all mothers are women. So, this week, I’m looking at three fascinating movies with girls or women as the main characters.

Two of the movies are historical dramas set in the early sixties, under the shadow of WWII. From Poland comes a drama about a young woman in a convent who discovers her past; from Argentina, a dramatic thriller about a 12-year-old girl who discovers secrets in an unusual village; and from the UK comes a science fiction / art film about a woman with a strange way of meeting men.

Scarlett Johansson 3 in Under the Skin Courtesy of Mongrel MediaUnder the Skin
Dir: Jonathan Glazer

Laura (Scarlett Johannson) is a beautiful woman with black hair who lives in a rundown farmhouse. But she’s not from there. She likes going for drives in her white van, in the rolling hills and rocky roads of rural Scotland. She’s on the lookout for fit young men who are single and live alone. It doesn’t matter that she can’t understand a word they say. She asks for directions and then offers them a lift to some unspecified place down the road. And to no one’s surprise, they end up at her place for some impromptu casual sex.

Simple, right? No. This is where it gets weird, otherworldly, surreal. Basically, after they undress, she lures them across a Under the Skin  Courtesy of Mongrel Media 7shiny, black floor. She walks on the surface, but the men gradually sink down into a black pool, their bodies and minds suspended in a silent limbo. Not dead, but trapped somewhere.

Who is she? What is she? Laura speaks like an alien or a robot or a psychopath. It’s like she was handed an instruction booklet on how to Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin Courtesy of Mongrel Mediatalk like a human being. Her face and body were borrowed from someone else – she’s just a visitor. She doesn’t seem motivated by evil, and she’s not a cannibal or anything. She doesn’t even eat.

But her routine gradually goes astray. She gets corralled into a nightclub. She picks up an incredibly ugly man on the road. She loses her vehicle and is forced to take a bus. She meets another man who seems kind and cares for her, not just out for a quick roll in the hay. And she senses danger from a suspicious man wearing a jumpsuit. And then there’s the man on a motorcycle who follows her around: is he cleaning up after her mistakes? Or is he trying to stop her? It’s all very confusing.

Under the Skin is one weird movie. I liked it a lot, but beware: this is an experimental “art film” not a mainstream sci-fi pic. Modern, disturbing music, wonderful cinematography… and a baffling story.

Ida - 3Ida
Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a WWII orphan raised in a nunnery near Lodz. She wears a plain grey dress and covers her hair. She’s quiet and obedient. Now 16, she’s ready to take her vows as a nun, but the mother superior insists she first meet her only known relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). But why?

Wanda is a woman of the world. She wears lipstick, smokes cigarettes and listens to jazz. And she sleeps with younger men she picks up in bars. She’s cold, cynical and bitter. She used to be a high-ranked communist party prosecutor, but has lost her status. And she’s Jewish. And that means Anna is, too. And, Wanda tells her, her real name is Ida.

Ida wants to see her parents’ grave. Wanda laughs: what grave? But they head out to the small town. The family living in Ida - 5her home denies Jews ever lived there and has never heard of her parents.

Wanda delves deeper as Ida discovers her own hidden history. Wanda warms toward her – she’s like her dead sister, with her red hair, and three dimples when she smiles. Ida dips her toe into the real world (jazz, alcohol, cigarettes, men). Will she live in cosmopolitan urban Poland or in a cloistered life behind the convent walls?

Ida is black & white, and only 80 minutes long. It’s subtle, compact, minimalist and exquisite. The two Polish actresses are both fantastic, with their subtle, contrasting personalities gradually melding. This is a perfect movie.

The German Doctor 4 courtesy az filmsThe German Doctor
Dir: Lucia Puenzo (Based on her novel)

12-year-old Lilith (Florencia Bado) lives in a barren and dusty part of Argentine Patagonia with her two brothers. Tiny Lilith is 12 but looks younger, and still plays with a doll given to her by her dad (Diego Peretti) — a professional doll maker. He makes handcrafted figures, each one unique. They’re moving to Ushuaia, an area with a large German population, to run a family hotel owned by her pregnant mom (Natalia Oreiro). Though Argentinian, her mom went to a German school. She shows Lilith old school photos filled with swastika flags.

The hotel is a beautiful chateau in the woods, overlooking a clear, blue lake against stark snow-covered mountains. The German Doctor 7 courtesy az filmsPositively Alpine. And their first guest is a kindly, German man with a mustache (Alex Brendemuhl). He’s a doctor, but works injecting cattle with growth hormones. Heredity is everything he says, and he wants to create a perfect breed.

So when Lilith is teased and bullied at school he offers experimental hormone injections to help her grow. Lilith loves whatever is forbidden. She is entranced by the doctor, even though there’s something wrong, something sinister about him. And he offers Enzo, her dad – who objects to his experiments with Lilith – the chance to produce identical The German Doctor 20 courtesy az filmsblond, blue-eyed dolls on a massive scale. Only Nora (Elena Roger), the mysterious school archivist, suspects he’s the notorious Dr. Mengele, known for his cruel experiments in Auschwitz. Based on real-life characters, the German Doctor is a tender, but haunting, coming-of age story played out against an Argentina filled with clandestine war criminals.

Under the Skin and Ida both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The German Doctor also opens and is playing at Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival this weekend, along with many other great movies. Go to for more info.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination. Movies Reviewed: The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, The Arabian Nights

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Adventure, Catholicism, Communism, Cultural Mining, Disease, Dreams, Fantasy, Italy, Joy, Magic, Movies, Rome, Sex, Short Stories, Slavery, Women by on March 15, 2014

The Decameron Pier Paolo PasoliniHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: You may have heard his name, but not know why. He was an Italian novelist, poet, artist and director, born in Bologna. He got his start in movies writing screenplays (including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) before directing his own films. His films – he directed movies from the 1960s until the mid 70s, when he was murdered – celebrate the poor, The Decameron Pasolini 2 TIFFthe outcasts, the people in the margins. They dig at the complacent middle-class, and the oppressive and corrupt church and nobilitiy. He cast non-professionals in his films for their looks and attitude – he wanted his actors natural not contrived. Naturalism was all-important.

Pasolini was in the Italian Communist Party but was kicked out for his criminal activity. His crime? Being gay. So Pasolini embraced his status as sexual outlaw.

All of these elements – politics and sexuality shown in literature and art – come together in his movies: beautiful to watch, full of laughter, but with a rough and tragic streak running through them.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination is a retrospective of his films now playing at TIFF. This week, I’m going to tell you about three of his movies, often called a trilogy, all based on Medieval stories. They are extraordinarily beautiful films and you should see them on the big screen while you can. There’s an English romp, an Italian comedy, and tales of middle-eastern magic.

Pasolini Canterbury Tales 2 TIFFCanterbury Tales (1972)

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the classic collection of stories told by religious pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. Set in 14thcentury England, it’s filled with monastic robes, pious nuns, Oxford students, religious pilgrims. But it’s also a world full of shouting and drunkenness, farts and belches. The old are missing teeth, fat and ugly, and prone to violence. The young, though still beautiful, are selfish and arrogant. And everyone’s apt to break into raucous, unscripted laughter as they do medieval things like milling corn or polishing eggs.

But what do they all desire? Sex (and money). They come up with complex schemes to cheat on their husbands and wives. This movie is very bawdy.

But it has a dark side too. One of the earliest scenes shows a man being burned to death in the market Pasolini Canterbury tales 1 TIFFsquare: he was caught having sex with another man, but was too poor to bribe the police.

Religion and the supernatural are omnipresent. Angels, devils and wood spirits are as likely as a passing neighbour to appear outside a window. A widow wears out a succession of husbands by being too good in bed. An arrogant student fools his mentor into thinking a great flood is coming. Three brothers go from cavorting in a brothel to plotting dangerous and murderous schemes. And a bright red devil shoots the black-clothed sinners of hell out of his ass!

Most of all, it’s a place where large-breasted women and plain-faced men stand around staring… naturally, naked.

Decameron, Il (1971) aka The Decameron Directed by Pier Paolo PasoliniThe Decameron (1971)

Based on 14th century writer Boccacio’s sexual comedy, these piqaresque stories centre on Naples and other medieval Italian cities. Women are tricksters who fool hapless travelers, while sinners look for sex. It’s a comedy about sex, thumbing its nose at church-mandated restrictions.

Here’s a typical story. A nunnery is off limits to all men but the elderly. A young guy, sensing opportunity, pulls his hat down low – like Bob and Doug McKenzie — and pretends to be a deaf-mute simpleton. He gets hired as a gardner. Soon enough, all the nuns are sneaking out to the shed for their daily roll in the hay. But what happens when the mother superior gets her turn? He tells her he’s had enough. He can Pasolini's The Decameron 3 TIFFspeak! It’s a miracle!

This is an amazing movie (I liked it even better than Canterbury Tales) shot around ancient castles and down narrow allies.

Arabian Nights (1974)

The 1001 Nights is the famous collection of intertwined stories-within-stories across the Arab world. Pasolini skips the tale of the Persian Scheherazade as the storyteller, and instead uses a loving Ines Pellegrini in Pasolini's Arabian Nightsrelationship between a wise and beautiful slave-girl named Zummarud, and her young master. She’s smarter than all the men she encounters, and somehow manages to snub potential buyers at her own auction — rich old men who won’t satisfy her sexually – in favour of love at first site. But she is kidnapped by a spurned buyer. This launches a series of journeys as she outsmarts the men she meets and eventually – disguised as a man – rises to the level of king. And all the way her lover, Nur ed-Din tries to find her.

She’s played by Ines Pellegrini, an Italian woman of Eritrean background, and he’s Franco Merli, a Pasolini's The Arabian Nightsteenaged boy Pasolini apparently spotted pumping gas.

Pasolini skips the most famous stories – the Ali Babas, Alladins, and Sinbads – and instead adapts less-well-known ones. Especially the sexy parts.

Like Canterbury Tales and the Decameron, The Arabian Nights was rated “X” when it first came out. Though it includes a lot of nudity, it’s very tame, sweet and almost naïve, by present-day standards. Some of the same actors show up in all of these films. Franco Citti (usually with bright red hair) plays the devil in Canterbury, an unrepentant sinner and homosexual in Decameron and a magical demon in Arabian Nights. Ninneto Davoli (Pasolini’s former lover), is the toothy, curly-haired clown who bursts into tears or laughter, or else stares, dumbfounded, at new things he encounters. Pasolini himself also appears in small — but central — roles arabian-nightsin his own movies — as Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, or as a master painter in The Decameron, who says his art is never as good as what appears in his dreams.

Arabian Nights was shot in Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran and Nepal, and to say the locations are breathtakingly beautiful doesn’t do them justice. It’s mind-boggling, ranging from lunar landscapes and strange curved mud homes, to cavernous, white-and-blue tiled cathedrals, and ancient wooden Nepali shrines. And the faces of the local actors and extras add still more beauty and authenticity to the locations. (A collection of still photos from this film by Roberto Villa is on display now at the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto.)

Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination is playing now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; details on Beginning next Thursday is the CFF a festival of low-budget and independent Canadian films at the Royal:  go to for more information. And cult favourite The Room is playing at the Carlton starting tonight.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,

Older Women. Movies Reviewed: Philomena and If I Were You

Posted in Academy Awards, Acting, Adoption, Catholicism, comedy, Cultural Mining, Feminism, Toronto, UK, Uncategorized, US, Women by on November 27, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

412715_402768383177285_547971069_oThis week the Toronto Film Critics Association awarded the 2013 Scotiabank Jay Scott Prize for an emerging artist to Matt Johnson, who made the fantastic movie The Dirties. Congratulations – great choice, great new filmmaker. Matt Johnson directed, produced and starred in that comedy/horror meta-movie I reviewed earlier this fall. This is could be the beginning of something big.

They say male movie stars can keep working until they die, but women stop being stars at age 35. It’s hard for older women to find lead roles in movies. Even Oscar winners. But they do exist. This week I’m looking at two movies starring award-winning, older actresses. There’s a British drama about a woman who wants to fill in a gap from her past; and an American comedy/drama about a woman who wants to undo a romantic triangle.


Dir: Stephen Frears

Martin (Steve Coogan) is a former high-power party politico who suffers a fall from grace. He finds himself back in his previous profession: journalism. Reluctantly at first, he ends up pursuing a story about a retired, working-class woman named Philomena. Philomena (Judy Dench) was young, unmarried and pregnant when she was sent to live in a nunnery. She loved her infant son. So, one day, she was shocked and horrified to see her little boy driven away, before her very eyes, by a rich couple! She wanted to keep him, but she never saw him again. He was gone, adopted.

Now, many years later, Philomena wants a chance to see him before she dies. The nuns claim to have lost all her records in a fire. So Martin decides to write about Philomena’s story and to help 1379271_586138671449549_348510874_nher find her long lost son. So off they fly to America. Philomena is suspicious. Maybe he’s just using her to sell his story. Martin, on the other hand, is maddened by her quirky opinions and constantly-changing decisions: I want to go home… Let’s stay for another week… Gradually, Martin’s heart softens as he and Philomena get to know and trust each other better.

Will they locate the adult son? And if they do, will he want to meet his biological mother? Will he even remember her? And, finally, will the convent ever explain why they did what they did?

1376398_598313250232091_1715824787_nThis movie is a real tear-jerker. Based on a true story, it’s a very touching mother and son drama, with a few unexpected shocks and surprises. And there are at least two scenes that make the audience bawl. On the other hand, it’s quite sexless and sterile – not just the nuns. There’s no romance and no passion. Just anger at injustice, a sad longing for the past, righting wrongs, and a mother’s love for her child. Even though I could feel the movie deliberately tugging at my heart strings, it didn’t matter, since they did it so well.

Judy Dench’s character is rich and expertly played, while the always- funny Steve Coogan is a perfect foil. Well-directed by Steven Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, The Queen) with an excellent script, co-written by Coogan.

If I Were YouIf I Were You

Wri/Dir: Joan Carr-Wiggin

Madelyn (Marcia Gay-Harden) is happily married and a successful professional. But when she accidentally spies her husband, Paul, eating a romantic dinner with a beautiful young woman — when he said he was working late — everything falls apart. Is he cheating on her? Is their whole relationship based on a lie?

Flustered and confused, she finds herself following the young woman home. But rather than confronting her, she ends up saving her life. And so they meet. The Spanish beauty Lucy (Leonor Watling) admits that her lover Paul is still married and 411587_301446369896869_1132661752_ohasn’t left his boring old wife, and Madelyn, in turn, confesses that she caught her husband – she calls him “Fred” – cheating on her with some “bimbo”. They decide to follow each other’s advice on how to rescue their respective relationships. But only Madelyn knows that Fred and Paul are the same man. Can she fool Lucy into leaving her husband?

To distract her, Madelyn encourages the aspiring actress to pursue other goals. She takes Lucy to an audition for a play, King Lear, but somehow ends up cast alongside her. Will Madelyn succeed in her scheme? Or will her web of secrecy come unraveled? And are and her husband still in love?

413963_301441686564004_281730971_oIf I Were You is a cute comedy/ drama. It has some very funny sequences full of unexpected twists — it’s sort of a screwball comedy, with the main character juggling  hidden identities and secrets. And the opening scenes – from one to the next to the next — are brilliant. But later on, the movie seems loaded down with clichés and groaners. You have to wonder why so much screentime is devoted to the theatrical sub-plot. That’s not what the movie’s about. Most of all, this movie is a vehicle for the lead actress, Marcia Gay Harden. She’s at the centre of every single scene, and all other characters exist only to react to her (they love, hate, fear or admire her). To like the movie, you have to like Marcia Gay Harden. I do like her, so I enjoyed this film. It’s clever, cute and worth seeing.

Philomena and If I Were You both open today in Toronto (check your local listings).

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,

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December 9, 2011. Couples. Movies Reviewed: Shame, Salsa Tel Aviv, Carnage

Posted in 1980s, Catholicism, comedy, Cultural Mining, Dance, Drama, Family, Israel, Mexico, Penis, Porn, Sex, Sex Trade, Uncategorized by on December 8, 2011

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Couples. I think you know that phenomenon – all these people you used to know as individuals who suddenly turn into half of a couple, beginning right about now. They are easily spotted, what with their matching Christmas sweaters and pompom-ed toques. Who start talking in the We form instead of the I? I’m sure you know some of these “couples”.

Well this week I’m reviewing three films — three case studies — that deal this strange anthropological phenomenon – couples – at various stage of their development, their habitat, their migratory patterns, and their means of reproduction. One where the a camera was placed inside a nest and all coupling was filmed in detail — and their state of coupling is continual, but short, efficient, and then it’s gone; another where a member of the species migrates from Mexico, and accidentally inhabits another couple’s nest; and a movie where a couple of couples initially peacefully coexist, but soon run the danger of tearing one other’s heads off.


Dir: Steve McQueen

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a successful, young-ish ad exec who lives in a swank New York apartment. He can pick up women without even trying, and seems to have an insatiable need to sleep with a different woman each night. His extremely douche-y boss (James Badge Dale) known for his awful old pick-up lines, takes him along as a wing-man to pick up bars using awful pick-up lines, but Brandon is always the one who gets the lucky. And if not, there’s always prostitutes or porn. The one thing he can’t have, though, is any commitment or responsibility – they’re an instant killer, and he’ll do anything to avoid them.

Well in comes his estranged and needy younger sister, Sissie (Carey Muligan), who totally messes up his desired (though shallow and meaningless) lifestyle when she moves into his shag-pad. Her presence unnerves him, and sends him on a increasingly desperate cycle of depravity in his relentless quest for sexual and emotional satisfaction. Will it lead to some (pardon the expression) climactic event? Although they seem to have some kind of ominous backstory from their childhood making them so screwed up, it’s their present-day lives that are crucial.

Shame is a disappointing movie. It seems to be a moralistic look at sexual depravity and its consequences, but where it doesn’t even seem all that depraved. None of the characters are very likeable. And while there’s almost constant full frontal (and back-al) nudity, it’s not very erotic, more detached, mechanical, cold. While aesthetically and visually it’s great, with its long takes, off-centre and partially obscured close-ups, and while it’s a generally watchable – I didn’t want to walk out or anything – it left me as cold as the characters seem to be, with an implied moral tsk-tsk about the consequences of sexual indulgences.

Salsa Tel Aviv

Dir: Jorge Weller

Yoni (Angel Bonani), a bumbling botany professor who acts like a young Cary Grant, meets an equally awkward novice nun, “Victoria” (Angelica Vale) at a Mexican airport. They end up sharing a hotel room when a flight is cancelled. Afterwards, they find themselves together again on a flight to Tel Aviv (he’s heading home, she abroad). A Spanish speaker, he helps her through customs. Later his uptight fiancée Dafna (who won’t even kiss him unless he’s sucking a mint) takes him to a Salsa studio where she takes dance lessons. There he meets Vicki who seems very familiar to him. The nun’s habit was just a disguise. She used it to sneak into the country and meet her macho, deadbeat, salsa-dancing boyfriend who left her behind in Mexico with their kid. Vicki/Victoria and Yoni end up in a series of increasingly suggestive situations. She knows about his fiancée, but he knows nothing about her life. Is a romance developing between Vicki and Yoni? Or will they each stick with their respective mates?

Salsa Tel Aviv is a light rom-com about culture-crossed relationships. It’s 90% Spanish, 10% Hebrew, with the main roles — and the director as well — originally from Latin America. Uruguayan-Israeli Bonani, a former model, looks the part, but seems to be just starting in his acting career. Vale, a telenovela superstar in Mexico, is right in her element, doing lots of physical comedy (usually sleepy, drunk, confused or tongue-tied) as well as a competent romantic lead. Nothing spectacular, nothing very original, just a cute, classic romantic comedy.


Dir: Roman Polanski

Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) invite Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) to have a talk. You see, their 12 year old sons got in a fight, with one of them hit the other with a stick, so they decide have a civil, community-minded discussion, outside of lawsuits and recriminations. They’re all educated, sophisticated and rich professionals in NY City.

Penelope is committed to resolving the issue; Nancy as well, but she’s feeling sick; Michael is taking the easy way out, avoiding confrontation; while Alan, a corporate lawyer, is barely there – spending most of his time sending messages and talking loudly into his cell. When caffeine and alcohol are added to the mix, things begin to degenerate. What starts as a nice talk (filled with mildly hidden feelings of antipathy) gradually unravels into a psychological cesspool of anger, spite, and bitterness. Like in Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel, they can’t seem to leave that apartment – they seem psychologically trapped in their escalating fights.

This short film (79 minutes), a drawing-room comedy based on a one-act play by Yasmina Reza, is a very funny and acerbic look at how grown-ups act and what lies just beneath its surface. It doesn’t do much that a live play can’t, except maybe close-ups — It’s basically a filmed play — but who doesn’t want to see an entertaining play with four famous actors they like?

Shame is now playing, Salsa Tel Aviv is on for one show only this Sunday afternoon as part of the Chai, Tea and a Movie series at the Sheppard Cinema, check for details; and Polanski’s Carnage opens in two weeks — check your local listings.

Also opening this weekend: Paul Goodman Changed my Life, a new documentary about the influential counterculture figure of the 60’s — a bisexual, anarchist, writer, philosopher — starts tonight at the Royal; Brooklyn Boheme plays tonight at Toronto Underground cinema; and some really fun Japanese movies, including Linda Linda Linda about a highschool girls’ rock band, and Always: Sunset on 3rd St. 2, a nostalgic sequel to last year’s flic about the residents of a struggling postwar Tokyo neighbourhood are playing for free at the Royal this weekend, courtesy of Toronto’s Japan Foundation.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining . com.

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Is It All In The Story? Movies Reviewed: Red Riding Hood, The Adjustment Bureau

I don’t about you, but one of the main reasons I go to the movies is to see a good story. I want to feel like I’m being taken into the plot and meeting the characters – I want to care if they live or die, and I want to find out what’s going to happen to them.

So people making movies look around for stories to use, if they can’t come up with their own. Awful source of plots are things like video games, 1970’s TV comedies, long forgotten Saturday morning cartoons, TV commercials, or ideas churned out by executives trying to duplicate the success of previous blockbusters. Good sources are things like novels or short stories, plays, along with myths, legends, and, believe it or not, fairytales and folktales. So today I’m going to look at two movies with stories that come from possibly good sources, but may or may not translate well into movies.

The Adjustment Bureau

Dir: George Nolfi

(based partly on a short story by Philip K Dick.)

David (Matt Damon) whose parents died when he was young, is a young and ambitious Kennedy-like congressman from New York, trying to make it to the Senate. But he blows the election when an old video surfaces of him mooning the camera in his days as a fratboy. But as he practices his concession speech in the men’s room, he has a fleeting encounter with a strange woman, Elise (Emily Blunt), he meets there. Love at first sight?

But their meeting confuses some cosmic order of destiny. When he goes into work, everyone has been frozen, except him, and the men in hats, and their faceless enforcers, are wiping clear everyone’s memory.

Who are these men in hats? Are they angels? Conspirators? Aliens? Or just accountants? Doesn’t matter. They tell him he has to follow what’s written in a book, that tells him what to do. And he’s not supposed to be with her.

Wait? Everyone’s lives are predetermined and there is no free will? No, no, no, they tell him. Just the superior – you know the politicians. The muggles all just live their lives, but the golden boys like David, are important people so the accountants take special care of them. The men with hats can pass through doors at will, and keep track of what the uber-menschen are up to all day, or so a sympathetic hat-man, Henry, tells him.

So will Dave be able to resist getting together with his lifemate? Or will he choose a life of politics? Blah blah blah…

Philip K Dick wrote the books that were turned into movies like Blade Runner, and Total Recall. So does this one work? No! it feels like a high-concept movie based on some producers scribbling down ideas on a cocktail napkin.

While it starts out good and interesting, this movie left me angry with its fake thriller trailers (it’s actually a romance, not a thriller) it’s badly thought-out characters, and its almost random plot-turns. People can only hide from the hat men near water – why? Are they fish people? Ado they swim? Are they allergic? Naaah, no reason. To pass through magic doors they have to wear their hats. And turn doonobs to the left! Why? umm… no reason. They all talk about a book – who wrote it? but when you see the books, they’re just roadmaps – no writing that I could see. And do they freeze the whole world anytime anything goes awry? Who cares…

It’s also a movie with 20 main characters, but except for Emily Blunt’s ballerina, they’re all men. The men in hats? The politicians? The people he knows? The people he talk to? All men. Even the other dancers were mainly male. What’s that all about…?

The whole movie seems like an ersatz excuse to show off more special effects. I thought the Adjustment Bureau was a waste of time.

Red Riding Hood

Dir: Catherine Hardwicke

…is very loosely based on the children’s fairytale Little Red Ridinghood, so its story is best described in the form of storytelling.

Once upon a time, in a valley by the mountains and beside a dark forest, there lived a drunk woodcutter and his wife and their two daughters. Now, everyone in the village knew there was a big bad wolf that lived in the woods, so, each month, on the full moon, they locked all the doors, and put out a pig for the wolf to eat, so he wouldn’t attack the villagers.

Valerie, the older daughter was pretty and strong, and good at hunting, and she promised to marry her best friend, a poor woodcutter like her father. But her mother said she had to marry the rich blacksmith instead. Her friend said, “Come away with me. Let’s leave this village.” But Valerie didn’t know what to do. Should she go with the woodcutter she loved, or stay with the blacksmith who her mother wanted her to marry?

Well, one day, the big bad wolf came back to the village and killed Valerie’s younger sister, despite the animal sacifice. So the village decided to call in a famous priest to catch it. Father Solomon was a cruel man: he murdered his own wife and locked up his two daughters, and traveled with a private army and an elephantine torture chamber. But he was also good at hunting wolves, and (or so he said), it wasn’t a regular wolf attacking them, but a werewolf. And this werewolf was someone from the village, but no one knew who that was. When it was a wolf, only its eyes remained human, so it looked like a giant animal.

Did she live happily ever after? And which husband did she choose? And did she stay or did she go? And who was it who turned into the werewolf? And what about the scary priest – will he kill the villagers in his crusade? And will she ever put on her red ridinghood, go through the forest with a basket of goodies, and visit her grandmother?

Red Riding Hood is a partially successful kids movie retelling a well known children’s story. You get the feeling there’s a tug-of-war going on. Hardwicke directed the blockbuster Eclipse before this one. Red Riding Hood seems to waver between the director’s artistic vision of a feminist, sexualized look at three generations of empowered women fighting a medieval culture war against religious excess and patriarchal violence and repression; and the producers’ mercenary attempt to recreate the success of Eclipse, that smarmy, anti-sex vampire/werewolf franchise of a weak and powerless highschool girl whose only thing of value is her virginity, and whose only choice is which superhero boy she’ll choose to rescue her helplessness from the baddies.

Julie Christie, Virginia Madsen, and Amanda Seyfried are all good as a three generation triumverate and the center of the movie, while the boyfriends are really just Valerie’s arm-candy. Gary Oldman as Father Solomon is a great villain, almost as frightening as the childcatcher in Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. In this strange medieval universe, the men look like prancing Peter Pans lost somewhere in Sherwood Forest… while the woman all just stepped out of a commune near Vancouver. There’s a nicely multi-racial cast, and some cool scenes that like bacchanalias from a Hieronymus Bosch painting, but the sets all look artsy-craftsy, like they were constructed indoors for a stageplay or pantomime.

Problems? There are long gaps between lines, especially in the beginning, that are painful to watch – it really drags the movie down. And the whodunit/who’s the wolf plotline took away from the much more interesting rivalry between the women and the evil priest. And it’s not a grown-up movie — clearly aimed at pre-teen romantics, but still includes some horrific violence and scariness. It’s a so-so movie but one with some great ideas and images.

Red Riding Hood opens today in Toronto; The Adjustment Bureau is now playing: check your local listings.

Movies for Grown-ups. Films reviewed: Of Gods and Men, Nora’s Will, Unknown. Plus upcoming film festivals

Well, if you ever need a break from standard Hollywood fare, I’ve got a few movies that are watchable but slightly outside expected norms.

This week I’m going to talk about three movies notable for having mature characters (meaning they’re over 14); movies that deal with questions of identity, religion, and the concepts of alienation and acceptance; and movies that take place in small communities within larger ones. They also take place outside the United States: one in Berlin, one in Mexico City, and one in a small village in Algeria. And these movies all feature great actors, even in the smaller roles.

Nora’s Will

Dir: Mariana Chenillo

Jose shows up at his ex-wife Nora’s apartment one morning to find the coffee being made, fresh food in the fridge, everything arranged for the day, but with Nora in her bedroom, dead. They’ve been divorced for 20 years, but he still lives right across the street.

Jose (Fernando Luján) is shocked by her death, but even more surprised when he discovers her plans are still unfolding. Nora is a Jewish, Mexican woman, and it appears she arranged for her funeral to coincide with a final Passover dinner. She has left little post it notes all around her apartment, and the calls start coming in as planned – her eccentric cousin from Guadalajara is on her way, their children are returning from their vacations, and her doctor is also showing up, and so is her Rabbi.

Jose bristles at both his ex-wife’s religious beliefs and her arrangements, so he makes it his unspoken goal to mess up all her plans. He suspects she had a lover, and wants to find evidence of that in her apartment. Even after her death he is still obsessed with his ex-wife. And in order to do what he can to disrupt the funeral he offers pepperoni pizza to the kosher rabbi, festoons the apartment with giant floral crosses, and tries to hide all the post-it notes about her planned last supper. And once the rumour escapes that Nora may have committed suicide, Jose’s disruptive plans spin out of control, with a possibility that there will be no where at all to bury her. His daughter in law is pissed-off, her housekeeper is suspicious, and the various other characters all seem ready to explode. Can JOse pull everything back together again? And does he want to?

This is a pretty funny movie, sort of a gentle, drawing-room comedy about middle-class, urban life in Mexico – something I’ve rarely seen in a movie before. And it reveals (in flashbacks) some unexpected secrets of the family – or at least secret to the movie viewer – so it keeps your interest as the stories unfold, and the plot gains more depth. Nora’s Will is a good, funny and, in the end, poignant portrayal of a damaged relationship, and their need for closure. And it won eight awards from the Mexican Academy of Film, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

Of Gods and Men

Dir: Xavier Beauvois

This is a movie about a peaceful monastery of Trappist monks in Algeria in the 1990s. They don’t proselytize or evangelize; instead they just make honey, tend to the sick and the poor, and spend the rest of their time in prayer and meditation. But civil war tensions enter into their lives, when Islamist extremists are getting closer, and start attacking nearby villages, and the equally violent — though ardently secular — military wants to place armed gunmen inside the monastery.

This is based on the true story, (made clear even in the ads) of their tragic massacre, so their fates are not a surprise, but the movie is about the period before then when they debate whether to stay in Algeria or go back to France.

The movie itself is constructed in a very formalistic way – scenes of their uneventful daily routines are contrasted with the increasingly violent events encroaching on their lives. Each short section is concluded with a silent tableau of the white-robed monks praying. Their feelings are subtly reflected by their postures at prayer: standing tall, or hunched in a circle, or reclining at rest, or collapsing in despair… a silent visual commentary on the events in their lives.

They start out as an undifferentiated mass, unidentifiable one from the next, but gradually their identities, names and personalities are made clear. Well, sort of… I thought the director made them more into a real-life version of the seven dwarves: Doc, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy… They seemed more like allegorical figures than real people, with only Christian, the Abbot (Lambert Wilson), the leader among the brothers, and Luc (Michael Lonsdale), a doctor who spends much of his time in native dress, as fully-formed characters.

Of Gods and Men is a slow-moving, but not boring, beautifully constructed look at monks’ lives as religious martyrs, proto-saints, and nearly-flawless examples. Is there anyone who doesn’t like monks?

But it left me feeling slightly duped by the religiosity of it all, with its story and characters made less real, and more like a sunday school lesson, by their hagiographic portrayals. The whole movie felt like a parent or a priest wagging his finger at the collective movie goers, as a lesson in religious purity and peity.

And you had to wonder about the film’s point of view.

Remember, Algeria was a colony, annexed and ruled as an integral part of France up until the end of their bloody war of independence in 1962. So you have to wonder about a French movie portraying the Algerian soldiers as the bad guys, and the Islamist extremist as the other bad guys, with the only good guys being the French monks (and the local villagers) still in Algeria. Sketchy, n’est-ce pas? While I feel nothing but sympathy for the massacred trappist monks, this movie really seems to be shedding a tear for France’s whole lost empire.


Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra

Dr Martin Harris, a scientist, arrives in Berlin with his wife Elizabeth to give a presentation on agricultural biology. But at the doors of their luxury hotel he realizes he left his briefcase at the airport. So he hails a cab and rushes back. But there’s an accident on the way that plunges the car into a river, with the pretty cabby risking her life to save his. Four days later, he comes to in a hospital bed with a brain injury, his mind confused. He rushes back to the hotel to find his wife, but when he gets there, she denies knowing him, and, stranger still, she has checked in with another man, also claiming to be Dr Martin Harris! Whoa…!

So here he is, with a bandaged head, no ID, no money, in a strange city he’s never been to, and he knows nobody there. His identity has even been wiped clean on the Internet – he doesn’t exist. And he starts to have paranoid thoughts – is that guy in a parked car waiting for him. Is that other guy with round glasses following him? And how about the man on the subway? Is he losing his mind? But, as they say, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

So Martin teams up with some locals to try to solve the mystery – the nice illegal immigrant cabby, and a blandly sinister detective who used to be in the Stasi, the East German secret service. What’s going on? What happened to his wife? And is he in danger? Unknown is a not-bad mystery/thriller with a Catalan Director, and a really good , largely European cast – Liam Neeson as the confused yet violent Martin, the great Bruno Ganz as the Stasi agent, Sebastian Koch as the German scientist, and Diane Kruger as the cabby; as well as Americans like January Jones as his wife, Aiden Quinn as the man pretending to be him.

I thought the mysterious set-up of the first half was more satisfying than the car chases, shoot-outs and fights of the second half (when the secrets are revealed and the plot chugs along its way) but it’s not a bad, mystery/thriller.

In Toronto, festival season is starting up soon. Here are some of the lesser known festivals.

Look out for the Toronto Silent Film Festival starting on March 30th, with bog stars of the silent era like Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and Harold Lloyd, and great directors like FW Murnau, Hal Roach and King Vidor. Look online at

The Female Eye Film Festival features movies directed by women, including a Canadian psychological drama, The High Cost of Living directed by Deborah Chow. Check out listings at

And the Images Festival, North America’s largest collection of art and culture in the form of moving images on videos and in film, starts on March 31. Go to

Nora’s Will opens today in Toronto, and Unknown and Of Gods and Men are now playing. Check your local listings.

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