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Screen gems brighten Toronto film fest

TORONTO--Through the cloud of sadness which has enveloped the Toronto Film Festival since Tuesday, a few films have shone like beacons.

"Atanarjuat" ("The Fast Runner") is an astonishing epic film made by and about the Inuit peoples of the Canadian arctic, telling a story of a crime that ruptures the trust within a closely knit group, and how justice is achieved and healing begins. Director Zacharias Kunuk and his writer, Paul Apak Angilin, collected oral versions of an Inuit legend from several elders, collated them into a story, submitted the story to the elders for suggestions and then filmed it as a collaborative expression of the group's memory. The "fast runner" of a title is a man who must run naked through the snow and is presumed to be dead, but survives; the three-hour film was entirely shot on location, and shows the tenacity and creativity of a people making a home of a frigid wilderness.

Tim Blake Nelson's "The Grey Zone" is about the Sonderkommando--work parties of Jewish prisoners in Nazi camps, given special privileges in return for helping in the extermination process. Their own deaths are postponed four months, and with rumors of the Russian troops moving closer, there is the hope that they might be rescued in that time. Of course they are condemned by their fellow Jews, and most are filled with self-loathing, but it is possible to understand why they would clutch at a thread of survival.

Two story lines intersect: One of the groups attempts a rebellion, at the same time that a girl somehow survives the gas chamber and is hidden by her presumed executioners. The movie is less sentimental, more brutal than many Holocaust films, and pushes questions of situational ethics to the breaking point. There are strong performances by Harvey Keitel, David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Natasha Lyonne, Mira Sorvino, none of them looking at all like themselves.

Paul Cox's "The Diaries Of Vaslav Nijinsky" is a haunting tone poem about the famous Polish-Russian dancer, told in his own words, in a narration read by Derek Jacobi. His diaries were written after a breakdown--when he felt he was mad, not in his mind but in his heart. The soul of the film is in its extraordinary editing; Cox has assembled images realistic and abstract, symbolic and mundane, and Paul Grabowsky's soundtrack combines classical music and other sources to underline the thoughts of a man who trusted art as his defense against the void.

Tim McCann's "Revolution #9" is a brave film starring Adrienne Shelley as the fiancee of a young man (Michael Risley) who begins to exhibit symptoms of mental illness, probably schizophrenia. The film is neither a horror show nor a docudrama, but a touching look at the way the woman's love makes her loyal, even as she seems helpless to change the course of events. It's more realistic, tender and unsensational than most films about mental illness.

Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" is particularly poignant after the events of this week. It's about a young college graduate who wanders through Austin, Texas, as a seeker of truth, listening to advice, philosophy, wisdom and foolishness--a torrent of words from vividly drawn and widely assorted characters. The film was shot as live action and then digitally animated into a riotously creative feature. At a time when we seek answers, here is a film about--seeking answers.

Jill Sprecher's "13 Conversations About One Thing" is a film about happiness. The lives of its characters intersect in New York, in stories of careers, adultery, unemployment, the quest for love, the fear of death. One of the men in the film is singularly unlucky, and singularly sanguine about it; he sees the sunny side, and so he finds it, while those who plan and scheme find that life will not bend to their wills.

Mira Nair's "Monsoon Wedding" shows the gathering of an extended Bombay family for an arranged marriage. It is a comedy and makes no deep discoveries about human nature, but it finds a way to be about love without being about sex. There is a subplot involving the maid and the wedding planner, whose own surprise romance is amazingly touching. No matter where they're set, movies like this are universal because all happy marriages, like all happy families, are the same.

Fred Schepisi's "Last Orders" is as touching as any film in the festival, an elegiac story about a butcher who dies, and how his son and three of his friends make a journey to scatter his ashes, intercut with a conversation between one of his friends and the widow. Truths and secrets are revealed, alliances shift, the meaning of a life is revealed. The wonderful ensemble cast represents a generation of British actors: Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, David Hemmings and the younger Ray Winstone.

Sturla Gunnarsson's "Rare Birds" is a sweetheart of a film, whimsical and touching, about a lonely restaurant owner (William Hurt) on a barren coast of Newfoundland. When sightings of a rare duck are reported, his business suddenly picks up, and so does his personal life, as Molly Parker wanders into it. He meets her through her brother-in-law (Andy Jones), a scuba-diving codger who dreams of marketing a "recreational submarine." By playing the character tenderly instead of going for obvious laughs, Hurt stays within the delicate fabric of the story.

Nanni Moretti's "The Son's Room," from Italy, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, tells a story of personal loss in a bright, perceptive way; we're reminded of "Ordinary People" and "Terms of Endearment." The movie stars Moretti as a therapist, happily married, with two teenage children, whose life is shaken by an unexpected tragedy. The key to the film is in the way it sees and hears the specific responses of the survivors to their loss. Many of Moretti's earlier films, such as "Caro Diario" and "April," have placed him in the autobiographical foreground; here he steps back into a family unit and tells a story of surprising power.

There are other films I liked, and others still to see. A festival like this seems like an antidote to hate, because it brings together people and movies from all over the world, and we seek to understand others, instead of demonizing them.

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