TIFF 2021: Shape-shifting

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Silent Land (Aga Woszczyńska, 2021)

After a downscaled, muted edition last year, the Toronto International Film Festival is back. Sort of. Half back. Weirdly, quietly back. Let’s say enough back: in the first days of TIFF 2021 I managed to see enough genuinely interesting films—in cinemas!—to evoke a hint of that old pre-pandemic sensorial ping-pong that comes with festival immersion. That all of these initial highlights are first features, and all but one helmed by women, makes for an encouraging prognosis for cinema’s future, even as the industry remains in bustling limbo.

Aga Woszczyńska’s Silent Land begins with the arrival of an affluent Polish couple at a holiday rental house in Sardinia. The house is expansive, modern, sea-facing, and comes complete with a pool. That pool, however, is in need of repairs, which are undertaken by a young Arab migrant worker with whom the couple shares no common language. A terrible accident occurs, prompting translation lazzi, some deadpan black comedy of small-time tourist-town corruption, and more somber inquiries into class, otherness, and basic moral responsibility. During the premiere screening’s Q&A, Woszczyńska characterized Silent Land as being primarily about remorse, but it’s also very much about gender roles and the varieties of shame unique to coupledom: the person who sees you the way you most want to be seen is also the one who sees you when you least want to be seen. In this regard, Silent Land shares a thematic link with Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure and Raymond Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close to Home,” which inspired both Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne and a shard of Robert Altman’s Carver anthology Short Cuts. Woszczyńska’s strengths lie in her sensitivity to subtleties of performance, details of décor, and telling bits of behavior, as well as an off-center approach to framing that emphasizes her characters’ never-quite-comfortable position in a given setting. The film is most compelling when things are left unsaid, with a devastatingly wordless final scene supplying us with all we need to know about how these characters will proceed in the wake of a tragedy that, while buried by local authorities, refuses to stay silent.

Another debut focused on the aftermath of a chilling incident is Ruth Paxton’s A Banquet, which, by contrast, is riddled with intrigue and builds to a climax so cryptic as to court sheer bafflement. Scenarist Justin Bull’s story begins with a sad, horrendous prelude—which Paxton uses to acclimate the audience to her painterly approach to body horror—before shifting focus to the film’s mother-daughter protagonists. The former is a widow grappling with grief and financial woes and the latter a hig schooler who, following an unseen encounter in the woods under a supernaturally crimson moon, declares herself privy to some vaguely defined cosmic prophecy and ceases to eat. Reminiscent of the stories of Algernon Blackwood and directly referencing the Japanese folklore of futakuchi-onna, A Banquet wades in the familial trauma that’s foundational to horror without ever showing its hand with regard to what the hell is going on. The question of an eating disorder is wisely raised—and dismissed—early in the film, leaving the characters to stumble in the domestic uncanny with scant sense of direction. Scenes don’t develop so much as accumulate, but Paxton’s perverse attention to beautiful food that will inevitably go to waste and her actors’ awe-inspiring embodiment of varying stages of profound distress keep things remarkably engaging.

Voluptuously eerie and cryptic, Agustina San Martín’s To Kill the Beast might just give A Banquet a run for its money when it comes to unresolved ambiguities. An exquisitely photographed tropical gothic, the film follows a teenage girl from Buenos Aires as she arrives at a remote village on the Argentina-Brazil border to try and make contact with her brother, who hasn’t been answering his phone. Did he fall prey to the shape-shifting beast that’s said to stalk the dense, foggy jungle surrounding the village? Will our heroine’s aunt (a local) or mom (on the way) shed any light on the matter? As San Martín pivots between the present and the recent past, repeatedly luxuriating in scenes of handsome young people dancing, imbibing, and making out, it’s hard to say whether the mystery is of any particular concern. The film plunges us into a drifting current of finely wrought atmospherics and slyly chosen genre signifiers. I can’t imagine a revelation that would have improved the experience.

More satisfying on the level of narrative—perhaps even novelistic—is Emre Kayiş’s Anatolian Leopard, an elegant, complex character study set against a backdrop of woeful cultural transition. After 22 years as the director of the Ankara zoo, Fikret (Uğur Polat, at once expressive and reserved) can do nothing but look on in quiet dismay on as the city sells off his place of work to Saudi investors seeking to construct a flamboyantly tacky franchise theme park. A divorcé with an adult daughter who takes no special interest in him, Fikret is melancholic and fastidious, always dressed conservatively, with polished shoes and a dignified moustache. He has the respect of everyone and the love of no one, though his endearing, equally lonely secretary Gamze (Ipek Türktan, a dead ringer for a young Diane Ladd) might be carrying a torch for him. On New Year’s Eve, an inebriated Fikret enters the zoo and confesses to the Anatolian leopard, an endangered indigenous species deemed a “precious symbol” of Ankara, that he feels disconnected from the world and that he’s wasted his life. That night the leopard goes missing, enraging the mayor and engaging the peculiar expertise of the city’s prosecutor, who is prone to enigmatic allegory and allusions to suspicions that keep his listeners on edge. Following Fikret as he struggles to cover up the true fate of the leopard, find a new home for the zoo’s unfairly punished security guard, and attend a high school reunion, Kayiş hews close to his protagonist while never entirely cracking his hardened outer shell. We are invited to empathize with Fikret’s acute sense of alienation—he, too, feels like an endangered species—yet his actions, even in moments of desperation, are troubling at best. In some regards Anatolian Leopard is an elegiac survey of ongoing cultural decay; in others, it is a bracing study of the perils of self-pity. Right up to its unshowy, brilliant resolution, the film manages to have it both ways without ever letting us feel we’ve been led down the garden path.


José Teodoro is a critic, essayist and playwright.



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