'This could be a breakthrough!" You hear that phrase often at film festivals, usually spoken in a hopeful tone. It has a couple of meanings.
Sometimes it refers to a movie that's gaining momentum on the festival circuit, using this exposure to gather favorable reviews in preparation for an all-out assault on commercial theaters.
At other times it refers to a filmmaker who's been praised by festivalgoers and is now eager to test this enthusiasm in the wider world. Every new picture by such a director takes on added interest for box-office watchers. Will it be the long-awaited winner that breaks the "art film" barrier and carries its maker to success in multiplexes everywhere?
This year's edition of the Toronto International Film Festival had breakthrough bids of both kinds.
Pictures like "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Boogie Nights," already slated for United States openings, banked on festival screenings to spark favorable buzz and boost their visibility in a fall season expected to be the most competitive in years.
Meanwhile, a sizable queue of less-than-famous filmmakers unveiled brand-new features that could become gateways to major careers - or miscalculated detours from the mainstream.
Whatever the destiny of individual movies and moviemakers, the most noteworthy aspect of the Toronto lineup was how many pictures tackled important moral issues. These films varied greatly in depth and seriousness, but taken together they point to an autumn season more substantial than early reports have led observers to expect.
No movie was more involving - especially for audiences with strong family interests - than The Sweet Hereafter, starring Ian Holm as an attorney who visits an isolated town shaken by a school-bus accident, planning to organize a class-action lawsuit there. Troubled by his own shortcomings as a father, he grapples with complex emotions stirred within him by the villagers, who have widely varying responses to his way of dealing with their tragedy.
The drama was directed by Atom Egoyan, who has made several previous films without reaching mass-market visibility. Whether or not "The Sweet Hereafter" clicks on US screens, it has already sparked his breakthrough - a reported deal with Mel Gibson's film company, now producing the Canadian's first Hollywood picture.
Family relationships also drive The Myth of Fingerprints, a dramatic comedy powered by imaginative acting and quirky screenwriting. The main characters are a New England family spending Thanksgiving together for the first time in years - and using the occasion to relive past joys and sorrows, some of them very unsettling.
The story brings in more sex than some moviegoers will approve, and its ethical positions are sometimes as hard to figure out as its mysterious title. But it's genuinely concerned with home and family issues, and the excellent cast - Julianne Moore, Noah Wyle, Roy Scheider, Blythe Danner - takes great pleasure in the offbeat dialogue written by filmmaker Bart Freundlich.
Afterglow, starring Nick Nolte and Julie Christie, takes frequent side trips into frivolous sex comedy as it spins its tale of two couples straying toward adultery. But it regains its integrity with a deeply felt conclusion that confirms marriage as an irreplaceable anchor for moral and emotional values. Its director, Alan Rudolph, has been angling for a mass-audience breakthrough ever since his "Welcome to L.A." opened two decades ago. The moment may finally have arrived.
Moral values are explored in different ways by Telling Lies in America, directed by Guy Ferland from Joe Eszterhas's screenplay about a seedy Cleveland disc jockey (Kevin Bacon) who teaches a teenage immigrant that grown-ups aren't always as honest as they appear; and Gattaca, a surprisingly intelligent science-fiction yarn about a man who refuses to subordinate his future to the biological tests of a science-obsessed society.
Paul Thomas Anderson's sexually explicit Boogie Nights probes the nightmarish side of the pornography business, helped by Burt Reynolds's searing portrayal of an amoral filmmaker, while Lee Tamahori's action-filled The Edge suggests that even a billionaire (Anthony Hopkins) must question materialistic values to approach real fulfillment.
Seven Years in Tibet, the Jean-Jacques Annaud epic that closed the festival, features superstar Brad Pitt as a real-life Nazi sympathizer who acquires a sense of compassion and selflessness through his friendship with the young Dalai Lama during the war-torn 1940s.
All these pictures and their underlying interests suggest that moral issues are preoccupying many filmmakers. Whether they prove to be breakthroughs or bombs will depend partly on whether audiences care to explore those interests, or pass quickly to more superficial fare.
* Expected opening dates in US theaters: 'The Edge,' Sept. 26; 'Seven Years in Tibet,' Oct. 8; 'Boogie Nights,' Oct. 12; 'Telling Lies in America,' Oct. 15; 'Gattaca,' Oct. 24; 'The Sweet Hereafter,' Dec. 24; 'Afterglow,' Dec. 25. 'The Myth of Fingerprints' opened just after its Toronto premire.