All about the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival 2019

TIFF 2019: The mother of all movies

Still from ‘The Long Walk’.  

The story of a boy in war-time Germany, his imaginary friend Hitler, and a Jewish girl hiding in the basement of his house, Taika Waititi’s wild and whimsical Jojo Rabbit, one of the best films at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year, is a riotously funny and razor-sharp take down of not just the Fuhrer but leaders of his ilk here and now. With its farcical tone, the film portrays totalitarianism, and the divisiveness, prejudices and hatred it breeds for the ‘other’ through propaganda, especially among the young.

Jojo Rabbit might be about Jojo but it’s his mother, played by a radiant and ruminative Scarlett Johansson, stealthily working towards keeping Jews safe, who embodies the spirit of resistance and subversion central to the film. She may be a relatively fleeting presence, but crucial in Jojo’s transformation, helping him embrace the essential humanity amid the pervasive hatred.

Still from ‘Jojo Rabbit’

Still from ‘Jojo Rabbit’  

Joaquin Phoenix’s astoundingly intense performance as Arthur Fleck might be the force propelling Todd Phillips’ Joker, but the cursory presence of Fleck’s whining mother is one of the triggers for the malevolence that lurks behind his comic mask. I have been a good boy, have taken good care of her, he says of his mother. “He had always been such a happy little boy,” she says, an unsettling pointer to how the menace unleashed by him on Gotham City could have its origins in his childhood.

“Motherhood is a mental illness,” declares Jennifer Lopez in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers. A lawyer in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story talks of the scrutiny a mother is subjected to, compared to a father, when it comes to custody battle during a divorce.

It is hard not to see that several films at TIFF this year are unwittingly turning out to be all about the mother.

Unbridled desires

Pablo Larrain’s Ema is a dizzying, heady exploration of the world of dance — reggaeton on the streets and classic and modern dance on stage — and of unbridled sexual desires and physical expression. But the film is equally an enquiry into ‘bad motherhood’: it’s the journey of a mother who betrays her adopted son, brings the family to the brink of collapse, tries to find fulfilment through several physical relationships, and eventually finds salvation in a journey back to her son and to her basic maternal instincts. Mariana di Girolamo as the hippie, bohemian lead could well be one of the edgiest and most unorthodox of screen mothers.

A beguiling, befuddling yet curiously fascinating Laotian ghost story, The Long Walk, brings together the world of the living, the dead, the trapped souls and the lost spirits all on one platform. But at the core of Mattie Do’s film is a young child’s bond with his mother and how things change for him once she is gone. It’s about how he is shaped by his unending grief for her.

Then there are films this year that are all about mothers and daughters. Yonfan’s No. 7 Cherry Lane is an unutterably vivid, hypnotic and moody animated film on forbidden, transgressive passion. About a young man falling in love with both a mother and her daughter, it is at once deeply romantic, seductive and bizarre, showcasing personal upheavals in the backdrop of the larger political and cultural revolution on the streets of Hong Kong.

Still from ‘The Truth’.

Still from ‘The Truth’.  

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first film set outside of Japan, the French language The Truth has two divas — Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche — teaming up as mother and daughter. Deneuve is electric as Fabienne, a screen legend with a sharp tongue and biting humour. Binoche is her relatively subdued screenwriter daughter Lumir, who has come visiting from America. Resentments, arguments and confrontations come to the fore, as Lumir questions the falsehoods in Fabienne’s memoirs and for not being there for her, while Fabienne defends her absence saying that neglect is better than being a helicopter parent. Both arrive at a reconciliation of sorts with the understanding that the only truth is that there is no singular truth.

Star trio

In Roger Michell’s Blackbird, you have three virtuoso actors playing mother and daughters. Things come to a boil between a terminally ill mother (Susan Sarandon) and her two daughters (Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska) when they visit to bid her a final farewell. “It is about eavesdropping on their reality... It is about how you see parents and children,” said Michell at the film’s press conference.

Still from ‘Blackbird’.

Still from ‘Blackbird’.  

The mother, played by Priyanka Chopra, is at the core of Shonali Bose’s The Sky Is Pink about a family trying to reconcile with the inevitable death of a young daughter. Bose calls it the third of her trilogy on mother-daughter relationships, the other two being Amu and Margarita With A Straw. “In the first (Amu) a mother takes her own life and her infant daughter is adopted and raised by a social worker and they have a strong relationship.

In the second, the mother is the carer; and then it flips and the daughter becomes the carer and finally accepts her mother’s death and her own disability and sexuality.

In the third, the daughter dies. All three have very strong women playing mothers and daughters and they have strong bonds that defy death,” Bose said over email.

The mother-daughter bond finds an interesting layer in Minhal Baig’s Hala, the coming-of-age tale of a U.S. teenager of Pakistani descent. In the clash of cultures, it’s Hala’s overprotective and seemingly conservative mother who eventually becomes the empowering figure for her.

Perhaps it’s the Canadian film The Rest of Us that offers the most unusual take on mothers and daughters. Aisling Chin-Yee’s debut feature is about a single mother battling her rebellious, teenage daughter. Things take a turn when her former husband passes away and the man’s current wife and daughter are forced to come and live with her.

Two sets of mothers and daughters living under a single roof leads to a strange situation that is full of tensions and troubles, but also warmth and humour. Forgiveness leads to a rare sorority, and in this family of, for and by women, the man doesn’t seem to matter.

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 10:04:10 PM |

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