Editor’s Notes: The following capsule reviews are part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. For more information visit tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Director: Yermek Tursunov
Cast: Roza Hairullina, Mihail Karpov, Erzhan Nurymbet
Yermek Tursunov’s Stranger has been chosen by Kazakhstan as its official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, and rightly so. This gorgeous epic is replete with beautiful pastoral visuals on the steppes of 1930s Kazakhstan. It is the story of Ilyas (Yerzhan Nurymbet), a young boy who lives with his father among devastation of poverty and hunger. Orphaned by the Soviet purge, he runs away from his village to live among the wolves and wilds of the surrounding mountains. Up there he observes society change politically and ideologically, but distances himself in the name of his freedom. What keeps on pulling him back is his need for connection, especially his love for a childhood sweetheart.
The camera paints a strange ethereal palette of browns and reds reminiscent of old Hollywood Bible epics. In the first half of the film, before things get bad for young Illyas, faces of the villagers are lit as if from within, symbolizing an innocence that will soon be lost with the politics of war. Ilyas becomes an ancient spirit-like creature living apart from society, until his brutal re-admittance into the fold. He’s like the unwanted messiah because of his wild independence, but an evil reminder of how much the townsfolk have given up to follow the tide, much like the sheep that surround them. As the village conforms to the world around them, Ilyas tragically breaks.
Nurymbet portrays Ilyas with a sensitivity and a purity that is instinctive of his character. The confusion and tension Ilyas must endure while rejoining the world is played so well that one cannot help but admire this classical example of a Nietzschean overman.
Set in such a viscerally moving landscape, Tursunov has brought an incredible and poetically minded film to the festival.
The Rainbow Kid
Director: Kire Paputts
Cast: Dylan Harman, Julian Richlings, Nicholas Campbell, Tony Nappo
This is Kire Paputts’s debut feature about Eugene, a young man who sets off in search of the fortune at the end of the rainbow to help get his mom out of debt. Riding his bicycle with training wheels away from the bustle of Toronto, Eugene encounters many dangers along the way. He also happens to have Down’s syndrome which leaves him susceptible to those who might take advantage of his condition.
With a quirky score and pretty scenery of the country life that surrounds the big city, the film takes on a journey where twists lurk in every corner.
Full-disclosure: one of my children is a special needs child. Thus, I’m highly critical of any film or movie that features a person with those needs. Keeping this in mind, it was refreshing to see Paputts willing to show viewers how a young man like Eugene can navigate the brutal circumstances he finds himself in.
Some viewers might be taken aback by the situations presented here, but place someone without this “disability” in the same role and think about how the story essentially stays the same, but seems less horrific. It’s interesting to note this and analyze our reactions as viewers to this. This is to say that there are many times where I’ve seen films hold back on scenes of brutality just because of a character’s “disability.” The truth is, whether a person has Down syndrome or autism or the like, they are essentially the same as everyone else with defense systems to help them persevere. While the triumphs might seem endearing, the essential victory out bad luck is a relatable and realistic theme.
Dylan Harman does an amazing job as Eugene and as such is a highlight. The emotional depth he showcases as his character is admirable. Paputts’s direction takes Harman’s maturity as an actor and utilizes that to display an eccentric little story with a big heart. Considering this is Paputt’s sophomore effort, I’m looking forward to more from him.
Director: Elisabeth Scharang
Cast: Johannes Krisch
I had totally forgotten about the case of Jack Unterweger, Austria’s most famous serial murder cum aristocratic poet. This Elisabeth Scharang film is a pseudo fiction of that story and a good one at that. If you don’t know anything about Unterweger, the first half of the film will seem more than a little surreal.
After serving his time for the murder of a woman and writing critically acclaimed poetry and novels, Jack (Johannes Krisch) is given his freedom. He gets a publishing deal, given advances for his work, lives in a giant apartment, wears expensive suits, and drives expensive cars. Despite his past, Jack lives the high-society life. In spite of his past, he is continually hounded by the very society that raves about him for the murders of prostitutes that follow him.
The second half of the film lets a see the hugely egocentric side of Jack (he was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder shortly after his suicide). While everything is catered to him, he wouldn’t have it any other way. His delusion goes so far that he continually denies the discrepancies within his own story.
Scharang fashions a stark picture of Jack, but infuses it with an artful architecture framed by the flora of a Viennese forest. The interiors consist of sharp lines and big spaces, but the pauses of nature (a lizard winds itself out of its burrow among the lush greenery), bring out an unforgiving tension in the film. Krishch’s performance as Jack is brilliant. He inhabits the character with the necessary charm and terrifying horribleness that Unterweger represented.
It’s scary to think that this character is a symptom of something bigger in society. The way the media presented Unterweger was one thing. The fact that he had fans and still does, is quite another. Narcissism is society’s polished schema. If you look too close, don’t be surprised by the reality and the resulting revulsion.