Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Limbo

Disciples, domestic drama, and a Lanthimos spawn travel from Venice to Toronto

The Toronto International Film Festival has just started, but across the world, one of its major counterparts is winding down. Venice, which has also scaled back this year to mitigate the health risks a full-capacity festival would currently pose, ends later today with the usual bestowing of statuettes. Which means, that within a few hours, we’ll know the winner of its top prize, the prestigious Golden Lion—and chances are solid that whatever it is, it’s playing Toronto, too. After all, while these annual, slightly overlapping cinema summits are sometimes thought of as competitors, vying for the same selections, the truth is that plenty of what shows up in Italy ends up playing in Canada a week or so later. The past six years, the Golden Lion winner has taken its victory lap at TIFF—a tradition that culminated, around this time last September, with the sudden emergence of unlikely awards darling Joker.

So what will Cate Blanchett and her Venice jury select? It could be Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to The Rider, which went over well at both festivals today. (Our review runs tomorrow.) What it definitely won’t be is Daniele Luchetti’s The Ties (Grade: C+), which served as the opening night selection at Venice but screened out of competition. Even if the film were eligible for awards, it would be hard to imagine anyone deeming this soapy but cynical domestic drama cream of the crop. The first Italian movie to kick off the festival in more than a decade, The Ties follows a philandering radio host, Aldo (Luigi Lo Cascio), who decides to leave his wife, Vanda (Alba Rohrwacher, sister of director Alice), and two children for his younger mistress (Linda Caridi). But though he’s fairly certain it’s genuinely love and not just lust driving his departure, the break is far from clean; even after Aldo relinquishes custody, the two ex-spouses find themselves drifting into each other’s lives again as the years elapse.

The Ties
The Ties
Photo: Venice International Film Festival

One’s mind might do some drifting of its own—namely, back to last year’s Venice selection about the complications of separation, Marriage Story. (By presumed coincidence, this film also features a scene involving shoelaces.) But Noah Baumbach’s take on the topic was highly specific, emotionally and legally; it turned divorce into a procedural of myriad head- and heartaches. The Ties, which Luchetti adapted from a Domenico Starnone novel, is so concerned with its big picture—the idea, implied by the title, that marriage and family create a sense of obligation more powerful even than the desire for happiness—that it largely neglects to explicate the feelings of its characters, even when they’re, say, melodramatically leaping out of windows. Meanwhile, the nonlinear structure allows for one fluid, bracing time jump and a poignant late perspective shift. But it also muddies the dramatic potential of the material, unproductively shuffling the order of breakups and reconciliations.

The Ties isn’t an official TIFF pick. It’s instead part of the festival’s “Industry Selects” program, a virtual film market designed to attract buyers to titles seeking distribution. Also on that list: first-time Greek director Christos Nikou’s Apples (Grade: B-), which similarly premiered on the first day of Venice but to much better reviews. At once outlandish and timely (yes, this is another movie that somehow seems to have anticipated our state of current crisis), the premise concerns a mysterious amnesia pandemic that’s sweeping across Athens, robbing people of their memories and identities. The latest victim: Aris (Aris Servetalis), a quiet, bearded fellow who forgets everything about himself on the bus and hence must be checked into the “Disturbed Memory Department,” where his doctors prescribe him a self-help regimen of daily tasks (like riding a bike and hooking up with someone at a club) designed to replace the life experiences he can no longer recall.

If all this sounds rather… Lanthimosian, there’s a good reason for that. Nikou got his start working as an assistant director on Dogtooth, and seems to have internalized much of his fellow Greek filmmaker’s signatures, from the blackly deadpan humor to the clinically detached remove of his compositions. Nikou offers a more sentimental variation on that increasingly influential stylistic playbook—he’s like Lanthimos with a soft side. Yet, so far anyway, the director lacks his mentor’s crucial way with metaphor and allegory. Is Apples, like Dogtooth before it, meant to be a satire of social conditioning, examining how all our lives are shaped by a plan made by someone else? Any deeper meaning to Aris’ therapeutic 12-step program is obscure, which would be less of an issue, perhaps, if the movie were remotely interested in what the literal experience of losing all your memories would really be like—or, for matter, if its protagonist were less of a husk, by design or not. Still, the droll Twilight Zone absurdism is not without its pleasures, many of them comic.

Limbo
Limbo
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Apples, incidentally, could serve as the alternate title of Limbo (Grade: B-), given how often someone unexpectedly chomping into the fruit serves as a punchline. The title refers to a remote, windswept Scottish island, where Syrian refugees are indefinitely stationed, waiting out a verdict on their plea for asylum. Much of this film, too, is in a deadpan register, though it’s slightly more keyed to the cadences and behavior of real human beings. And like Nikou, UK writer-director Ben Sharrock is plainly operating in the shadow of a major auteur; he’s cited Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman as an influence, and that tracks, given the tragicomic qualities he finds in symmetry and distance, as well as Limbo’s hunt for laughs and pathos in grim circumstance.

That said, what Suleiman does once every decade or so isn’t so easily replicated, even when your heart is clearly in the right place. While there’s little disputing Sharrock’s empathy for his dislocated, stranded characters—including the poker-faced Omar (Amir El-Masry), wrestling with survivor’s guilt alongside his loneliness and alienation—there’s something rather limited about his alteration of dry fish-out-of-water gags and scenes of people staring forlornly into the barren middle distance. The periodic heart-to-hearts are closer to the sitcoms the film’s restless immigrants binge to kill time (there’s a running gag about Friends on DVD) than, say, The Time That Remains. What I really thought of was an irreverent-maudlin switch being flipped back and forth.

The Disciple
The Disciple
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Limbo is an orphan of the cancelled Cannes, arriving at its new home adorned with the laurels of the fest that wasn’t. Thankfully, it wasn’t all mixed bags among the double-dippers I’ve caught at the start of TIFF. With few reservations, I can recommend Venice export The Disciple (Grade: B+). Its writer-director, Chaitanya Tamhane, made a splash with his first feature, Court, which managed to dig into the injustices of the Indian legal system while exploring the lives of several basically decent people working within it. Here, he turns his withering but empathetic gaze on a single character: 24-year-old Sharad (Aditya Modak), who pines for a career as a vocalist in Indian classical music. We understand the heartbeat of this wry and perceptive drama from the very first scene, as Tamhane opens on a performance by the protagonist’s wizened mentor, and then finds Sharad seated at his side, accompanying him on sitar, admiration and envy scrawled subtly across his features.

Anyone who’s ever devoted themselves fully to a craft, only to suspect that the rest of the world barely gives a shit, will relate to The Disciple. The film unfolds over years, as Sharad continuously bumps up against the public’s waning interest in an increasingly endangered genre but also, possibly, the limits of his own talent. Tamhane respects the character’s passion, even as he acknowledges that the obscurity and harsh learning curve of the music he cherishes is part of what draws him to it; to not just master but even get this music is like a badge of honor, a initiation into a secret society. Though the tone, style, and especially intensity level aren’t remotely comparable, I thought of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, another film about the destructive, perhaps futile pursuit of perfection in a style of music often considered passé. Sharad’s mentor isn’t an abusive tyrant, but his disappointment hurts as much as a hurled chair, and The Disciple pushes further out, to what life might look life for someone who keeps grinding away, possibly long after he should have redirected his energies.

Anyway, even those who don’t see themselves in this portrait of single-minded commitment to a calling (they could have named it Discipline instead) might be struck by the intelligence of Tamhane’s filmmaking. He’s not one to waste a scene or even a shot, often building his movies in single takes that convey volumes of cultural, emotional, or psychological information. Observant somehow sounds like a backhanded compliment or at least faint praise, but it’s the best way to describe the focus and curiosity of this prodigiously talented director. I haven’t seen enough of the Venice lineup to say with any confidence what should win the Golden Lion. But having now seen The Disciple, I wouldn’t be displeased to hear Blanchett call out Tamhane’s name today.

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