Part of the thrill of attending the Toronto International Film Festival, especially in this age of expanded access to film for audiences, is the chance to pull of the mainstream road where the awards season and box office hopefuls roam and meander in the fields with the seldom seen or heard titles that, at least in the US, tend wander the festival circuit before landing on a specialty streaming outlet.
These screenings are an opportunity to see the world, truly experience another place and culture as it lives and breathes in its own space. Of course, I come to these films with the sensibilities of a Black American man, which is a curiously complicated perspective, but at heart I am a seeker of the stories of others.
I caught Manele Labidi’s Arab Blues at the transitional point (Wednesday) when attendance at screenings begins to drop off because many critics, having feasted on the fatted calves of the awards season entries, have begun to return home, leaving those of us who remain able to relax and walk into theaters without long waits in tightly herded lines. And Arab Blues was the perfect film to kick off this second phase of the festival experience.
The story of Selma (Golshifteh Farahani), a trained psychotherapist who returns home to Tunis after a decade in Paris. She wants to ply her trade in a place where, on the surface, no one would be interested in paying for her services. The talking cure seemingly makes no sense and there’s the Catch-22 level of bureaucratic boundaries preventing Selma from legally practicing, but there’s just no stopping her.
She sets up shop on roof of her family’s building and patients show up. She valiantly makes pilgrimages to the government office to secure a license and she attracts the attention of a dedicated police officer (Majd Mastoura), ever-watchful over her actions. Every element in this set-up has the familiar ring of a traditional studio rom-com, but Labidi slows things down, so that we see the cultural specificity. And it challenges expectations with its female lead and director not drawing undue attention to themselves. You change the world, the film says, by going about the business of changing your corner of it.
I concluded the day with Two of Us from Italian director Filippo Meneghetti. His France/Luxembourg/Belgium production exposes the secret life of Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), a pair of older women who live across the hall from one another and have been romantically involved for decades, unbeknownst to Madeleine’s children.
The couple, on the verge of changing the dynamic of their relationship by selling their places in France and retiring to Italy, confronts a major plan-altering crisis, just as Madeleine wavers in her commitment to the dream. The narrative focuses on how the two women adjust to the new situation and find ways to let those in their lives know what matters most to them.
There are several dark moments in Two of Us, instances that, in lesser hands, would fall prey to plot-driven pandering that might feel out of place, but Meneghetti and his two lead actresses have created characters seeking to freely express their love and desires, therefore we appreciate their willingness to go to momentarily shocking lengths. Anger and frustration, if not released verbally, can come crashing through our pristinely constructed glass houses like a brick in the night.
It was heartening to read, after leaving the screening of Two of Us, that Magnolia Pictures picked up the North American distribution rights for the film. Sometimes you get lucky and a beloved title finds its way to the main road.