Toronto Festival Runs Gamut From Mainstream to the Offbeat


IT didn't seem like a very good sign: Out of more than 300 movies at this year's Toronto filmfest, the first one on my screening list was an Italian opus called ``The Sleazy Uncle,'' an inauspicious title if ever there was one. Fortunately, the Franco Brusati comedy turned out to be more substantial than its title suggests. Its story, about an aging poet with an embarrassingly strong lust for life, is bolstered by two imposing performances - a hammy one by Vittorio Gassmann as the hero, and an amazingly restrained one by Giancarlo Giannini as his long-suffering nephew. It has a handsome visual style as well, in the tradition of Mr. Brusati's earlier films.

For better or worse, the festival kicked into high gear a few hours later with ``In Country,'' the gala opening-night attraction. Until its last 30 minutes, which slide into overcooked sentimentality, I was moved by Canadian director Norman Jewison's account of a southern American community slowly coming to grips with the legacy of the Vietnam war. I also appreciated the performances of Bruce Willis as a troubled war veteran and Emily Lloyd as his feisty teen-age niece.

At the opening-night party afterward, though, I found myself practically alone in having a good word for the picture; nearly everyone else thought it was a disaster; guilty of every shortcoming from emotional fakery to unconvincing Deep South accents! I hope the consensus is less one-sided when the film arrives in American theaters soon, but I don't have my hopes up.

It's too bad this influential filmfest, officially known as the Toronto Festival of Festivals, didn't commence with more of a bang, because it's unquestionably an exciting and important event. Assembled by several programmers, the schedule for its 14th-annual edition featured an impressively diverse list of movies ranging from mainstream pictures to offbeat and sometimes downright peculiar items guaranteed to stimulate any conceivable taste.

Like most good festivals, it's also solidly international. On my first full day here I interviewed a Brazilian director in the morning, an Italian in the afternoon, and had lunch with some Chinese cin'eastes in between. The films I saw were just as varied.

Still, the most outstanding movies on the bill often happened to be English-speaking productions. One of these was ``Roger and Me,'' by first-time director Michael Moore, who used to be editor of Mother Jones magazine. A documentary, it takes place largely in Flint, Mich., where the closing of automobile plants has led to widespread unemployment and related hardships. Alarmed by this crisis in his hometown, Mr. Moore decided to confront General Motors chairman Roger Smith and bring Flint's miseries to his attention.

Made with a rich sense of irony, the movie details the never-ending obstacles Moore encountered in trying to see such a high-ranking executive and etches a poignant portrait of an American city in tough economic straits. It's a touching, socially alert, and absolutely hilarious piece of work. Astonishingly, though, it hasn't yet found a commercial distributor, so deep is the movie establishment's distrust of nonfiction films.

ANOTHER high point of the festival's first week was a drama with the unlikely title of ``Strapless,'' written and directed by David Hare, the respected British playwright. Blair Brown plays an American physician living and working in England, where she marries a likable but rather mysterious man. The story focuses on her unsettled marriage, her relationship with an irresponsible sister, and her work as a doctor.

These seem like very different subjects, but Mr. Hare's superb screenplay uses all of them to challenge his main character in one crucial way: forcing her to ponder the delicate balance between her personal desires and the need for love, compassion, and commitment in human affairs. As if this weren't enough for a movie to deal with, ``Strapless'' also probes the weakening of Britain's public health system in recent years, exploring this for its own sake and as a metaphor for the heroine's shaky relationships.

Extraordinarily moving and richly intelligent, the film is a quantum leap beyond Hare's earlier ``Wetherby'' and stands firmly with the most rewarding productions of the past several years. It also establishes Ms. Brown as a first-rate movie star, capable of interpreting all the subtleties of Hare's literate dialogue and bringing to life one of the great rarities of today's feature-film world: a truly grown-up character who continues to grow and mature as her story unfolds.

It wasn't all drama and documentary at Toronto, by any means. Comedy fans could laugh it up at ``Penn & Geller Get Killed,'' a surrealistic farce wherein the title characters, famous for their real-life magic and comedy routines, do indeed get killed after a series of increasingly bizarre adventures.

Also for laughs is much of ``American Boyfriends,'' by Canadian director Sandy Wilson, a romp that continues where the memorable ``My American Cousin'' left off a couple of years ago - following the misadventures of four college girls, a shabby Volkswagen, and a bright red Cadillac, all on the loose in California during the 1960s. Humor played a strong part in ``Drug Store Cowboy,'' too. Directed by West Coast filmmaker Gus Van Sant, it uses ridicule as a key element in attacking the problems of drug dealing and substance abuse.

Such films notwithstanding, the festival's most eagerly anticipated offerings were generally dramatic pictures. Special mention goes to ``A City of Sadness,'' directed by the gifted young Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, who likes to film his stories in still, meditative shots of surprisingly long duration - the polar opposite of Hollywood's quick-cutting, hyperactive style. ``A City of Sadness'' takes place in Taiwan just after the island's repatriation with China in the late 1940s, after years of Japanese rule, and focuses on a single family. Single-minded, challenging, and rigorously beautiful, it's like nothing else on today's movie scene except Mr. Hou's other recent films.

The Festival of Festivals unveiled plenty of other attractions, as well - some 322 of them, according to Helga Stephenson, the executive director - and made a good case for the continuing vitality of theatrical film despite the onslaughts of video, multiplexing, and other recent challenges. Many of the festival's most appealing entries will now make their way to filmfest and theater screens in the United States and elsewhere.

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