SPECIAL REPORT

JOURNEYS INTO DARKNESS

OUTCASTS DOMINATE CANADIAN MOVIES

Brian D. Johnson September 16 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

JOURNEYS INTO DARKNESS

OUTCASTS DOMINATE CANADIAN MOVIES

Brian D. Johnson September 16 1991

JOURNEYS INTO DARKNESS

SPECIAL REPORT

OUTCASTS DOMINATE CANADIAN MOVIES

Vengeful natives, disenfranchised immigrants, disillusioned diplomats and lost suburbanites—those are some of the characters who emerge from the latest wave of Canadian movies showing at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals. There are 27 new Canadian feature films showing at the event—more than ever before. And most will be released in theatres this fall. They range from Black Robe, a $ 14-million epic about a Jesuit missionary who is tortured by the Iroquois, to Highway 61, a $ 1.5-million black comedy about a small-town barber who drives a female outlaw and a rotting corpse from Thunder Bay to New Orleans.

Major Hollywood movies tend to treat the

big screen as an avenue of escape—a freeway of hope where villains are vanquished, romance flourishes and dreams come true. Canadian films are, on the whole, less optimistic. The most powerful of the new features—Black Robe, Clearcut, The Adjuster, Highway 61, Sam and Me, Diplomatic Immunity and La Demoiselle sauvage (literally, “the wild young woman”)—are all stories of outcasts, characters at odds with their environment, whether it is a hostile wilderness, a foreign culture or a suburban home. Most are adrift or doomed, on idiosyncratic missions. And their dreams do not come true, at least not according to plan. Reality, meanwhile, keeps interfering with romance. Together, the new Canadian movies

form a composite portrait of an alien and fractured society—a culture quietly at war with itself. And unlike the traditionally gentle mould of domestic cinema, the current crop has an unusual capacity to shock and disturb.

Two of the new movies are about Indians who take white men on torturous canoe trips into the heart of darkness. There are striking parallels between Black Robe, Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford’s 17th-century saga about a Jesuit missionary, and Clearcut, Polish director Richard Bugajski’s contemporary drama about a native who kidnaps a local papermill manager. Both are adaptations of Canadian novels, with foreign-bom directors shooting their first Canadian features. And both are violent dramas that, curiously enough, include scenes of fingers being severed. But the two movies are radically different. Black Robe is a spectacle of haunting beauty; Clearcut is a grisly psychological drama.

Profane: A co-production between Canada and Australia, Black Robe is about characters who struggle to retain their faith—and dignity—amid terrifying cruelty and hardship. Quebec actor Lothaire Bluteau, who launched his screen career as the star of Jesus of Montreal (1989), portrays Father Laforgue, a Jesuit seeking to convert the Indians. The Algonquins guide him on a gruelling 1,500-mile canoe expedition to a Jesuit mission among the Hurons. Belfast-born Brian Moore, a Canadian

citizen now living in the United States, adapted the screenplay from his own 1985 best-seller. It dramatizes the clash between two world views—the white man’s faith in a celestial afterlife and the Indians’ belief in a night world of prophetic dreams.

Although the film includes some graphic brutality, Moore has softened the book’s profane edges, stripping foul language and cannibalism from the natives’ behavioral repertoire. He told Maclean’s last week that he was worried that the scatology and violence, which he based on the Jesuits’ own chronicles, could seem too excessive on screen. He also made Laforgue’s character more sympathetic. But the priest’s psychological torment seems to have been lost in the transition to the screen: Bluteau’s performance seems strangely opaque.

Beauty: Still, Beresford, who directed the Oscarwinning Driving Miss Daisy (1989), has created a magnificent excursion for the senses. Like last year’s Dances with Wolves, Black Robe re-creates native culture with scrupulous authenticity. The natives speak in subtitled dialect; the Iroquois longhouses are made of real cedar bark. Exquisitely photographed on Quebec’s Saguenay River, the movie starts in summer and ends in winter. It is a film of severe beauty, in which the human drama is matched by violent changes in landscape and weather.

Clearcut, meanwhile, is one of the most potentially controversial Canadian movies ever made. Based on M. T. Kelly’s novel A Dream like Mine (1987), it is a visceral melodrama about liberal guilt and native rage. Canadian Oneida actor Graham Greene portrays an Indian who kidnaps and tortures a paper-mill manager (Michael Hogan). Caught in the middle is a white lawyer (Ron Lea) who has been defending the natives in a losing battle to preserve forest land.

The movie grimly echoes the bitter tone of recent conflicts involving Indians near Oka, Que., and Temagami, Ont. Greene gives a brilliant, scary performance that makes his Oscar-nominated role as a mild-mannered medicine man in Dances with Wolves look like a cameo. Clearcut presents the flip side of the unconquered native dignity portrayed in Dances. It is about the bitter aftermath of rage. The torture scenes are the most gruesome ever to appear in a Canadian movie. And

Greene’s venomous renegade remains eerily charming throughout it all.

The Adjuster is disturbing on a more cerebral level. Directed by 31-year-old Toronto luminary Atom Egoyan, it is a hypnotic tale of disconnected lives, a movie full of emotional dissonance, sexual menace and unsettling comedy. It stars Montreal actor Elias Koteas as Noah, a fire-insurance adjuster with a warm bedside manner. Noah serves as both accountant and therapist to clients whose houses have gone up in smoke. He tallies up their lost possessions, mends their shattered souls and sometimes offers solace between the sheets. His wife (Arsinée Khanjian) works as a film censor and secretly tapes pornography for her sister. They all inhabit a darkness on the edge of town, in a model home that sits alone on a barren plain of dirt. Meanwhile, a shy psychotic played by Maury Chaykin slowly insinuates himself into their lives.

The Adjuster creates its own world, an original fusion of the banal and the bizarre. Egoyan’s fourth—and most accessible—feature, it confirms his status as Canada’s most provocative young film-maker. The movie has won generous acclaim at film festivals from Cannes to Moscow. And it is one of just 27 features selected for the exclusive New York Film Festival later this month. Egoyan is already a rising star in Europe. With The Adjuster, he could make a North American breakthrough: his darkly comic vision of suburban angst has obvious appeal to a continent that turned David Lynch, the creator of TV’s Twin Peaks, into a cult figure.

Corpse: The theme of dislocation also dominates Highway 61, although its tone is much lighter. Directed by Toronto’s Bruce McDonald, it is a rock ’n’ roll odyssey in the spirit of his first feature, Roadkill, which was a cheeky comedy about characters who become unhinged while travelling into Northern Ontario. But Highway 61, whose characters head south, has higher production values, better acting—and a real story.

It begins with the discovery of a frozen body by a meek, trumpet-playing Ontario barber named Pokey (Don McKeUar). A refugee from the road crew of a

_ heavy-metal band, Jackie

(Valerie Buhagiar), claims that the corpse is her brother. And she persuades Pokey to strap the coffin onto the roof of his father’s Galaxy 500 and drive her to New Orleans. Jazz, bingo, sex and Satan collide head-on in the Deep South. And although the bottom drops out of the ending, Highway 61 provides a sublimely twisted ride.

In Canada, salvation often lies to the south. In South of Wawa, Torontonian Robert Boyd’s first feature, Rebecca Jenkins portrays a doughnutshop waitress in a small town who dreams of travelling to Toronto for a concert by honey-dipped balladeer Dan Hill. The melancholy comedy has a sound track by Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies. Another Canadian singer, Mary Margaret O’Hara, both contributes a sound track and acts in The Events Leading

Up to My Death. Directed by Toronto novice Bill Robertson, it is an off-kilter comedy about a dysfunctional suburban family that finds relief in lawn furniture and golf.

Not all Toronto directors, however, are intent on dissecting the quiet despair of a suburb or small town. Several new movies explore the race and class prejudices that underlie the polite veneer of Canadian society. Director Deepa Mehta makes her feature-film debut with Sam and Me, a heartfelt story of an East Indian immigrant who struggles to find a place for himself in Toronto. Indian-born actor Ranjit Chowdhry, who wrote the script, gives a compelling performance as 23-year-old Nikhil, who arrives in Canada under the sponsorship of his uncle.

The uncle’s boss hires Nikhil to serve as a caretaker to his father, a cantankerous 75-year-old Jew named Sam (Peter Boretski), who is a prisoner in his own house.

As a bicultural buddy movie, Sam and Me is too cute by half. And the story is disjointed. But its portrayal of discrimination is well-observed. And as a slice of life—looking at Canada as a multiracial rooming house—it has undeniable appeal. The movie received a standing ovation at Cannes last fall, where it was awarded the runner-up prize for best first feature.

Rebel: Masala, another movie about Canada’s East Indian community, is a more whimsical concoction.

Indian-born Srinivas Krishna, 26, served as Masalds writer, director, co-producer and star. Krishna plays a leather-jacketed rebel who has lost his family in a plane crash. Indian star Saeed Jaffrey portrays three separate characters—an entrepreneur vying for control of the sari trade, an eccentric who acquires a valuable Canadian stamp, and a blue-skinned deity who keeps popping up on TV. Masala, named after a spice mixture, attempts an ambitious blend of drama and farce, fantasy and myth. Unfortunately, the ingredients curdle.

While Masala and Sam and Me explore racism at home, Sturla Gunnarsson’s Diplomatic Immunity dramatizes the unpleasant side of Canada’s official role in strife-tom developing countries. In his first dramatic feature, Gunnarsson examines civil war in El Salvador with documentary-style realism. Wendel Meldrum portrays a visiting Canadian diplomat who gets caught between the two sides of the conflict. The movie draws a scathing portrait of Canadian goodwill. “When was the last time Canadians made a difference anywhere,” asks an American official played by Michael Riley, “except in their own minds?”

Meldrum may have accurately conveyed the

emotional reserve of a career diplomat, but her acting is almost perversely restrained. Mexican star Ofelia Medina, however, compensates with an inspired performance as a church worker in a shantytown. And with Mexican locations doubling for El Salvador, Gunnarsson displays the spontaneity and flair that marked his award-winning documentaries—notably After the Axe (1981), his Oscar-nominated feature about unemployment, and Final Offer (1986), his anatomy of a union feud.

Director Gail Singer—whose documentary Wisecracks, about female stand-up comics, is also in the festival—tries her hand at drama for the first time with True Confections. It is a

coming-of-age story set in Winnipeg, Singer’s home town. Loosely based on the autobiography of Sondra Gotlieb, it is a soft-centred nugget of 1950s nostalgia. Leslie Hope is warm and credible as Verna, an 18-year-old Jewish girl looking for love. True Confections contains some comic treats, but—true to its titleremains sweetly inconsequential.

Romance: The Quarrel, a period drama about Jews in 1940s Montreal, wrestles with a more ponderous subject: God. A Yiddish writer (R. H. Thompson) and a pious rabbi (Saul Rubinek) meet at Mount Royal Park on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, 15 years after philosophical differences tore them apart. They resume the argument. Directed by Israeli-born Eli Cohen, it is a movie of words that unfolds like a stage play in the park, stately but stolid.

At the more experimental end of the filmmaking spectrum, a variety of directors are taking bold risks on low budgets. Halifax’s William MacGillivray shot his fifth feature, Understanding Bliss, a romance of fluid images, on video in six days. Prolific Toronto filmmaker Bruce Elder has created another chal-

lenging work in Flesh Angels. And British Columbia has produced three innovative first features. The Grocer’s Wife, directed by John Pozer, tells a strange tale about a stripper and an emission-checker at a smelter smokestack in Trail, B.C. In New Shoes, director Ann Marie Fleming turns the camera on herself in a multilayered narrative about reflection and rage. And in Connecting Lines, Mary Daniel frames conversation and landscape with the windows of bar cars on four trains.

Landscape remains an overwhelming obsession in Canadian moviemaking. The forbidding cliffs of the Saguenay in Black Robe and the suburban wasteland of The Adjuster are much more than scenery. Beresford and Egoyan portray landscape as character. But perhaps no Canadian movie uses landscape as eloquently as La Demoiselle sauvage, by Montreal director Léa Pool. In a year when Quebec’s most popular filmmakers, notably Denys Arcand and Yves Simoneau, have not completed new movies, Pool’s fifth feature stands out as a quietly brilliant masterpiece.

Erotic: All of Pool’s previous features—ranging from La Femme de l’hôtel to Hotel Chronicles—were explorations of Montreal’s urban fabric. But to film La Demoiselle, she went to Switzerland, where she was bom. The movie is about a fugitive (Patricia Tulasne) who runs from a mysterious crime and flees to the mountains, where she collapses at the foot of a dam. Bruised and exhausted, she is discovered by an engineer (Matthias Habich). He hides her from the police; she becomes his mistress in the wild. But something has to give.

La Demoiselle sauvage, which won the prize for most popular Canadian feature film at the recent Montreal World Film Festival, is a seamless work of breathtaking imagery. The dam—an immense curve of concrete spanning a mountain valley—serves as a stunning symbol of repression. In the rare Alpine light, Pool’s camera turns the angles and shadows into vibrant, abstract compositions. And as the two lovers, her actors create a romance of mesmerizing erotic tension.

Although it was shot in Switzerland, La Demoiselle is quintessential^ Canadian. Its doomed lovers—like the priest in Black Robe, the immigrant in Sam and Me and the vagabonds in Highway 61—are desperately trying to go elsewhere. But, unendowed with Hollywood magic, the further they go, the clearer it becomes that there is no easy way out.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON