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Off to a sublime start

TORONTO--If the 27th Toronto Film Festival closes after two days, it will have shown six wonderful films and one magnificently bloody-minded one--and I do not exclude the possible greatness of entries I have not yet seen.

The wonderful films are "Nowhere in Africa," "Personal Velocity," "Respiro," "Russian Ark," "Secretary" and "Talk to Her." The defiantly screwy one is "Gerry," which after it played at Sundance had people standing face to face in the snow trading praise and denunciation.

"Nowhere in Africa" is the sleeper, a German film about a Jewish family that flees Hitler and escapes to Kenya, where the father supervises a farm far from anything they know. Although Africa was his idea, he grows disenchanted with the farm at the same time that his wife, reluctant at first, begins to care for it. Their daughter, on the edge of adolescence, absorbs Africa through every pore, and becomes the friend and confidante of Owuor, the family's cook.

There is irony in the film, as when Jews are briefly interred by the British as enemy nationals. And beauty, and moments of surprising emotional intensity. Director Caroline Link paints Africa with calm realism; there are hazards of man and nature, but the movie doesn't descend to adventure melodrama, focusing instead on the human experiences of these refugees so far from home. The tensions of the marriage and the growth of the daughter are evoked with insight and tenderness. My hunch is that "Nowhere in Africa" could become a North American box office success.

"Personal Velocity" directed by Rebecca Miller, won the grand jury prize at Sundance, where I was deeply touched by its insights into the lives of three women. Kyra Sedgwick is Delia, who marries a wife-beater, escapes the marriage with her children, and tries to survive as a waitress. Parker Posey is Greta, a cookbook editor whose safe but boring marriage is threatened by an unexpected newcomer. And Fairuza Balk is Paula, whose life is saved by fate, who finds herself pregnant, who befriends a battered hitchhiker. The depth of the film is hardly hinted at by such descriptions; Miller sees into these women and understands them with a deep sympathy. It is a wonderful film.

"Respiro," directed by Emanuele Crialese, won the Critics' Week at Cannes. It is a film with its feet in the sand and its fancies flying free; the story sounds like neorealism, but the treatment is more like magic realism. Valeria Golino stars, as a woman whose passions and sadnesses have led others in a small fishing village to believe she should be sent to Milan for treatment. The popular diagnosis is manic-depression, but then everybody in the village seems a little manic-depressive, including her son, who stage-manages her escape and brings her food, while her husband has himself lowered dangerously over cliffs in a search for her. The movie played last weekend at Telluride, where it scored a triumph.

Aleksandr Sokurov's "Russian Ark," also shown at Telluride, is one of the most astonishing films ever made. Shot with a Sony HD digital camera, it consists of one unbroken 95-minute shot as the camera and an invisible narrator follow a "time traveler" through the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The film is not in any sense merely a guided tour of the museum, but a journey through 300 years of Russian history, sometimes illuminated by the museum's treasures, sometimes enacted by actors (including Soviet bureaucrats during a period when the museum was closed). The final breathtaking scene has the Steadicam gliding through 2,000 costumed extras at a ball.

After the screening I spoke with the cinematographer John Bailey, who was awestruck by the control and stamina of the cameraman, Tilman Buttner. Bailey photographed "The Anniversary Party," a feature shot on digital (but not HD), and admired the look of "Russian Ark" immensely, although as an old celluloid hand he felt a 95-minute shot would have been possible on Super 16, and might have looked even better.

Steven Shainberg's "Secretary" is another one of those pictures where the casting is crucial, and it is difficult to imagine without James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. She plays a painfully shy young woman who practices self-mutilation. He is a perfectionist martinet, a desperately miserable lawyer who loses all of his secretaries because he berates them mercilessly. She likes being berated, and before long they are locked in a sadomasochistic relationship. It's fun at first, then less fun for the lawyer, who has to do all the work. The movie is essentially a human comedy, although it takes some time to realize that.

Most of the critics in London, where I recently saw it, believe Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her" is his best film. They may be right, although it's more serious and sorrowful than his usual work. It tells the story of two men who, through quite different circumstances, find themselves keeping vigil at the bedsides of two women in comas. Onto these sleeping beauties they project needs and desires, and curiously grow to enjoy their silent companionship. They also get to know one another.

The movie is in one sense another of Almodovar's lurid soap operas, and in another sense a meditation on relationships, fantasy and loyalty. It is compelling to the viewer, who gets so hooked on the situation that the day-to-day conditions of the patients becomes curiously important. More I will not say, because the movie has surprises and an ironic ending. But I will mention a little silent film that appears halfway through the longer one, in which a little man pleasures his woman in what one can only describe as the best means at his disposal.

And now to "Gerry." You may hate it, but you may want to see it because your fellow moviegoers will be talking of nothing else. Directed by Gus Van Sant, it was written by and stars Casey Affleck and Matt Damon as two young men who go on a hike in the desert and get lost. And there you have it. They remain lost for a very long time (I would not dream of telling you if they ever get found), and they talk about a good many things, at first in good cheer, later in desperation.

There are moments of humor worthy of silent comedy, as when one gets atop a big rock and is not sure how to get down, and monologues of droll wit. But to describe the film in those terms is to miss its heart, which is silent and empty and lost and thirsty and despairing. Gus Van Sant is one of the few directors with the nerve to point his camera into the desert and just keep walking, and Affleck and Damon achieve something in their performances that is existential grandeur, if you like the film, and transcendent stupidity, if you don't.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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