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Toronto: Correspondences #2 — Patchy Politics

TIFF's patchy pursuit of political values is shown by Paolo Sorrentino's Silvio Berlusconi film and "MOUTHPIECE," about two women in one.
Kelley Dong
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Kelley Dong and Daniel Kasman.
Dear Danny,
It is a pleasure to be here; though I share your sadness. I miss Fernando very much!
You write of the demands that this festival is expected to fulfill, and its striving to maintain a possible harmony between private industry players and members of the public. But I am most intrigued—and a bit perplexed—by how these pressures interact within the context of TIFF's steadily increasing public profile as a film festival aligned with tenets of social justice. A survey of this year's lineup solidifies what appears to be an overarching spider diagram of hot topics and urgent matters, scattered across nearly three-hundred titles: police brutality (The Hate U Give, Monsters and Men), homophobia (Boy Erased, Rafiki, Girl), white supremacy (Stupid Young Heart, American Dharma, Where Hands Touch), refugees and migrants (The Sweet Requiem, The Vice of Hope, Complicity), indigenous sovereignty (Falls Around Her, Emu Runner), et cetera.
Indeed, unlike its international counterparts, at TIFF, parity and diversity are established as institutional norms. This year, for instance, the festival boasts 122 films directed or co-directed by women. On Saturday, there will be a rally led by Share Her Journey, a five-year-long, $3 million pledge to support women in film; the group is also responsible for setting up a hotline and no-tolerance policy against abuse and harassment. Earlier in the summer, TIFF also announced plans to allocate twenty-percent of press passes to "underrepresented writers" in an unprecedented initiative. But beyond the numbers game, what are the ideas chosen and presented by the festival that will outlive the selections themselves? For instance, is it enough to program a lot of movies directed by women, or is what is at stake the discovery of truly feminist films from filmmakers of all identities? I enter these next two weeks with hopeful anticipation and a touch of ambivalence, though fortunately, TIFF's evident standards—anti-misogyny, anti-racism, so on—offer the tools to both critique and demand reforms for the future.
Which is to say that the festival's inclusion of Paolo Sorrentino's acidic and ostentatiously crass Loro is rather mortifying. A retelling of the hedonist hijinks of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (Toni Servillo of The Great Beauty slathered in stiff prosthetics), Loro joins the duplicity of contemporary politics with the dirtiness of celebrity gossip in two acts, originally released separately in Italy as Loro 1 and Loro 2. Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a scrappy gangster and human trafficker, becomes set on winning Berlusconi's affections. Aware of the Prime Minister's liking of bodacious beauties, Sergio recruits a large group of escorts—lured into his arms by the promise of cocaine—for a summer romp in a rented mansion by Berlusconi's estate. The plan, if all goes well, is to party hard until Berlusconi eventually notices. This takes a while—about an hour-and-a-half of runtime—since the man is preoccupied by never-ending corruption scandals and the grudges of his wife Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci). Berlusconi's inattention provides Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi with justification to treat Sergio's expensive endeavour as an excuse for gratuitous sequences cut to throbbing EDM music. These orgiastic frenzies do not probe into perversion so much as eagerly plunge headfirst into a pool filled with naked girls and computer-animated MDMA tablets. Elsewhere, the camera tracks closer and closer to a row of topless, smiling women, until their faces are cut, and only their breasts remain.
Because Servillo's Berlusconi is inseparable from his unsettling, inanimate physicality—a nod to the politician's frequent, drastic cosmetic procedures—Loro relies on women's supple and flexible bodies as the representative objects of carnal corruption. This hyper-fixation on stylized female pleasure—getting high, having sex, taking selfies—detracts from the displeasure of men perpetually in competition with one another, whose insatiable greed for infinite power motivates their exploitation of women. (A tattoo of Silvio Berlusconi's face on an escort's bare bottom is what first inspires his seedy scheme.) The controlling hands of the Prime Minister and his cronies are instead softened and hidden beneath sentimental flourishes, like booming folk songs accompanied by a personal guitarist. And when the comedown of the high finally arrives by Loro's end, it is Berlusconi who Sorrentino deems deserving of pity, as he watches a fake volcano trickle down with nary a nude model or desperate underling in sight.
On the same date as the premiere of Loro, Patricia Rozema's MOUTHPIECE opened the Special Presentations section of the festival to an audience of mostly mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends. "Written, directed, shot, designed, edited, produced, costumed, and performed" entirely by women, MOUTHPIECE is an adaptation of the titular play by Amy Nostbakken—who also performs part of the film's soundtrack—and Norah Sadava. The film begins with the existence of an already-split self: Tall Cassandra (Amy Nostbakken) and Short Cassandra (Norah Sadava) inhabit the same spaces—bathtubs, beds, bikes—and move at the same pace with identical gestures, only sometimes deviating from one another. Together, they live a life of duality, singing off-rhythm and standing by windows that give way to even more separations in their reflections. But further division occurs when Elaine (Maev Beaty), Cassandra's mother, suddenly dies. She leaves behind a legacy of unfulfilled potential thwarted by marriage and child-rearing, and devoted adherence to archaic principles of womanhood. Tall Cassandra, the more erratic of the two, immediately responds with violence, throwing chairs and screaming. Being the gentle and sensitive one, Short Cassandra leans against the wall and weeps softly. As the two daily confront their upsetting inheritance of internalized misogyny, they embark on a journey doing errands across Toronto in preparation for Elaine's funeral.
The central device of MOUTHPIECE—two women in one, with little clarity on where one ends and another begins—initially promises much, as it externalizes the warring thoughts that women are conditioned to repress. (In one scene, Short Cassandra and Tall Cassandra—while in bed with her ex-boyfriend—loudly argue about whether or not Cassandra is merely performing sexual enjoyment for men.) But MOUTHPIECE is belied by its generous interest in milquetoast interpersonal conflict over the internal turmoil of a woman constantly arguing with herself. Each task, from choosing the coffin to writing the eulogy, conjures up a vivid flashback—filmed in marigold light with heavenly, heavy-handed haze—of Elaine's sad life, leading up to a breaking point between mother and daughter: A far-too-honest argument during a Christmas party that becomes the sole thing to blame for Cassandra's quotidian crisis, substituting decades of pent-up bitterness. The origin of Elaine's and Cassandra's sexist self-policing is never addressed, despite Cassandra's increasingly self-destructive anger towards her impulse to moan like a porn star or crack sexist jokes for male attention. The backdrop of patriarchy that lies behind choices in clothes and food is entirely brushed aside—the men in this film are generally warm and well-intentioned—for exclamations of broad, amorphous feelings: When Tall Cassandra demands that she be allowed to say what she wants, Short Cassandra yells, "You're a [white, educated, middle-class, cis hetero woman]," therefore, she already gets to say whatever she wants. This quip should not be mistaken for self-criticism, for the line is delivered in MOUTHPIECE's penultimate scene as a joke right before the Cassandras continue on to praise Elaine for speaking her mind. The unintended irony here is that the mother-daughter pair have the same social privileges and disadvantages, yet both have perceived one another and themselves as their foe.
That Loro, an artifact by someone so staunchly reliant on women as props, can share space with MOUTHPIECE, a film with heavy-handed third-wave feminist undertones that are glib and not galvanizing, speaks to the festival's patchy pursuit of its political values as it still tries to hold onto its position as the "festival of festivals." There is a quantity versus quality debate frequently levelled towards TIFF's programming; and it is usually the former that receives greater vitriol than the latter. But to return to numbers once more, the addition of relevant titles with compelling visions of the world can do little without the simultaneous subtraction of that which came before. Of course, the opportunity to even reckon with such a paradox is one of the many fruits of the festival, and this is nonetheless a time of substantial possibility. However, I do find myself to be even more fatigued than last year as I wrap my head around all of this. Do you feel the same?


Festival CoverageTIFFTIFF 2018Paolo SorrentinoPatricia RozemaCorrespondences
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