Since I missed last year’s in-person return to the Toronto International Film Festival, it was my turn to enjoy this year’s fall festival homecoming: a robust slate of new films, hugging friends along the street, chatting up new acquaintances in line and in theaters, trying to stay awake at parties and pubs for one more conversation before getting up early again the next morning for the first screening of the day. Many filmmakers returned to TIFF as well, some in person, some just on the big screen, some for the first time, and others, well, they’re a hometown favorite.
Atom Egoyan is one of Canada’s proudest filmmakers. However, his latter-day work has not earned nearly the same international attention as his earlier hits like “Exotica’” and “The Sweet Hereafter.” Nevertheless, loyal fans were excited to see him team up again with Amanda Seyfried, the star of his 2009 film “Chloe.” Written and directed by Egoyan, “Seven Veils” is a metatextual commentary on the creative process and its effect on people. Loosely based on Egoyan’s staging of “Salome” in 1996, “Seven Veils” was filmed when he recently restaged the show for the Canadian Opera Company and made its world premiere at TIFF.
The movie’s version of events follows rising opera director Jeanine (Seyfried), who struggles with her memories of trauma when mounting a show that her mentor created. She’s at constant war with her past, both personal and professional. Meanwhile, other conflicts abound, like a widowed opera company director, Beatrice (Lanette Ware), who wants nothing to change from the original production, and Jeanine’s husband, who begins an affair with her mother’s caretaker.
“Seven Veils” allows Egoyan to respond to cultural changes since his original staging. There’s an intimacy coordinator that Jeanine detests, and the movie includes a bit on cancel culture after Clea (Rebecca Liddiard) reports the handsy opera lead Johann (Michael Kupfer-Radecky). She then tries to turn it into an opportunity for her girlfriend Rachel (Vinessa Antoine), an understudy at the company, to play the other lead. It’s at odds with how Egoyan attempts to address the trauma in Jeanine’s past, how men have exploited her all her life, and how she fights to create something of her own—something of herself—despite their efforts. Yet, she’s also capable of abusing the same power differential used on her when she begins to flirt with another understudy, played by Douglas Smith. Combined with the off-putting stilted dialogue, I can’t tell if Egoyan is aware of everything in his metatextual milieu, only that he is reveling in its chaotic frequency.
In a similar vein, Radu Jude’s work speaks volumes for itself. The Romanian filmmaker with a fondness for eye-catching titles like “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” and “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” is back with the marquee-breaking “Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World.” Mubi acquired the film for the U.S., and the happy news broke just as the first screenings were about to begin. It previously premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where it won a special jury prize.
The film is a day-in-the-life ride-along with an overworked production assistant struggling to make ends meet and hit her never-ending deadlines. Over almost three hours, we watch Angela (Ilinca Manolache) and her foul-mouthed social media persona, Bobita, endure nonstop traffic, awkward interviews trying to source people for a workplace safety video, and then occasional breaks where she turns on a face filter and makes offensive statements on social media as a kind of stress relief. There’s also a scene-stealing Uwe Boll appearing as himself and a glamorous Nina Hoss as a far-above-it-all boss from Western Europe who resents coming to Romania.
“Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World” is surprisingly funny, having a laugh at hate-spewing social media influencers and features perhaps one of the most cynical takedowns of corporate “care” for its employees as Angela’s clients hire the very people they hurt in on-site accidents and try to force them to change their stories to save face and promote a useless adage to wear one’s helmet for an internal safety video. It’s bleak, it’s bitterly hilarious, but also poignant that everyone on set is helpless to stop the notes coming in from a distant boss. Manolache’s performance is incredible, not only because she can carry the camera’s focus on her antics but also because her character has such a chaotic range. Jude’s black-and-white camera, with colorful interstitials filmed on Angela’s phone, simply must keep recording. Jude has a wicked sense of humor and enriches his movie with cultural references and discussions, creating even more thought-provoking tangents and conversations than expected.
On a much more straightforward level, New Zealand director Lee Tamahori’s “The Convert” is like a throwback to classic period pieces and an attempt to move forward. Tamahori (“Once Were Warriors,” “Die Another Day”) returns to a muted form of action filmmaking by following a man of peace who must take action to save his neighbors. Making its world premiere at TIFF, “The Convert” transports viewers to 19th-century New Zealand, vividly depicting the multilayered conflict between Māori groups and incoming English colonists.
Thomas Munro (Guy Pearce) is a newly arrived pastor in the colony of Epworth. He quickly learns that not only is there ugly inter-township politics in his new home but that he has arrived in the middle of warring Māori factions. After he saves Rangimai (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne) from an attack, Munro and another local woman named Charlotte (Jacqueline McKenzie) relocate to Rangimai’s camp with the blessing of her father Maianui (Antonio Te Maioha) as they prepare to defend themselves against the invading leader, Akatarewa (Lawrence Makoare), and his army.
It will be interesting to see if there’s still an appetite for a movie about a peace-loving preacher whose mission is to convert the local indigenous population to Christianity. Although he’s sympathetic to their culture, Munro patronizingly wants better for them from his experiences as a British soldier. He takes up their cause to defend them against enemies at home and those, like him, now invading from the North. However sympathetic the movie is to Rangimai, her tribe, and the painstaking efforts to get period details right, “The Convert” must contend with its “Lawrence of Arabia”-like white savior. Tamahori’s dark view of 19th century New Zealand ends defiantly. Still, knowing what happens to the Māori next, it’s hard to enjoy that victory with Munro and what his appearance on their island represents.