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TIFF 2021: A Hero, Drive My Car, Sundown

The Toronto International Film Festival is well-known for being a layover location for major films that premiered at European fests earlier in the year. For those of us who don’t get to go to Cannes, Berlin, or Venice, it’s wonderful to use TIFF to catch up with some of the most acclaimed films of the year before they release in theaters. Such was the case this year with several high-profile dramas, including a 3-hour award winner from Cannes and the latest from one of the best living filmmakers.

Let’s start there as the incredible Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) proves why he’s such a beloved artist with “A Hero,” one of his best films, which is really saying something. Farhadi delivers yet another deeply empathetic and heartbreaking drama that focuses on character while also embedding some interesting commentary about the complexity of heroism. Farhadi is one of the most talented auteurs when it comes to unpacking situations in which there are no easy answers and black & white are more likely to blend to gray. His films defy easy moral judgments of their characters, keeping viewers engaged in nothing less than the complexity of the human condition. In what is easily one of the best screenplays of the year, Farhadi unfolds a saga that feels increasingly like it’s trying to defy its title: there are no heroes in the real world, only people trying to do what they think is best.

Rahim (the riveting Amir Jadidi) is a calligrapher who has been in debtor’s prison over a loan gone very wrong. He is forced to live in this medium-security facility while he tries to figure out how to repay his debt. On one two-day leave from the penitentiary, Rahim’s girlfriend (Sarah Goldoust) finds a purse at a bus stop. After learning that the contents of the purse won’t cover his financial liability, Rahim decides to track down the owner of the purse and return it. Is this act heroic? Or does he realize that the public outpouring of goodwill could prove more valuable than the coins? And what of the man whose life has been ruined by the debt incurred by Rahim? As he watches someone that he loathes become lionized and turned into a hero, his skin crawls. The systems around Rahim, including his jailer and the charity that supported him, start to collapse with some of the craftiest writing of the year.

Every choice that Farhadi makes resonates, and yet his films also feel incredibly genuine at the same time. They’re not overly precious, feeling as if they emerge from the characters and their lives. It’s really only when the emotional journey is over that one looks back and admires its construction and craft. Is Farhadi commenting on the impossibility of perfect heroism? Or how systems are designed to destroy them? There are also clear cultural undercurrents here about the broken dynamic of debtor’s prisons in the first place. It’s a blazingly smart movie, one of the best of the year.

There’s also a sharp intellectual quality in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s highly acclaimed “Drive My Car,” already a bit buzzed for cinephiles as the 180-minute movie that doesn’t feel nearly that long. It’s really a conversation between three artists—Hamaguchi, writer Haruki Murakami, and Anton Chekhov—in a story about the art of collaboration and how relationships aren’t really about deciphering what’s in someone else’s heart as much as they are about figuring out your own. It’s a bit self-indulgent at times (and the reports of not feeling the length are a little overblown), but there’s also a great degree of confidence here as Hamaguchi lets his characters bounce off each other, connecting and the pulling apart again, until he lands in an incredible ending that drive homes (sorry) so many of the themes at play here with unexpected emotional weight.

In a 40-minute prologue before the credits even roll, we’re introduced to an actor/director named Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a playwright who has some of her most creative moments after sex. She often details her writing ideas to Kafuku, using him as a sounding board and creative partner. They have a supportive relationship, even though Kafuku catches her with another man. Perhaps he knows it’s just part of her process. And then Oto dies, leaving Kafuku with only the questions he still has about the love of his life, and recordings of her reading Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which he listens to as he drives.

The problem is that he won’t be able to do that for a few months. Two years later, Kafuku is hired to direct a version of Vanya at a theatre festival in Hiroshima. The rules of the theater company, along with Kafuku’s glaucoma, means that Misaki (Toko Miura) will have to be his chauffeur. The two form a friendship as Hamaguchi really turns the film into an ensemble piece, one that includes a confident young actor in Kafuku’s lead role and the producer of the play.

In one of many fascinating choices that amplifies the overall theme, Kafuku’s production of Vanya is multi-lingual with subtitles up on a screen behind the actors. One of the performers even speaks Korean sign language. It’s a startling idea that a text can be so powerful that a cast can find its themes across multiple languages, including one that’s not even verbal. And it’s really at the core of what Hamaguchi is doing here, weaving the source material, his vision, his performers, and even many of the themes of Vanya. The result is a captivating commentary on collaboration and connection that somehow allows all of its many voices to be heard, both individually and together.

You could watch Michel Franco’s “Sundown” twice during the runtime of “Drive My Car.” The writer/director reunites with the star of his “Chronic” for another drama about an unusual man, one who barely speaks and seems to have lost his moral compass, only for some twists in the final act to cast everything in a different light. It’s a smart, engaging drama that will first frustrate some viewers looking for something more traditional and then anger the folks who feel the final scenes reduce some of the film’s intriguing ambiguity. I found it a bit minor, especially compared to the Farhadi and Hamaguchi films, but also immensely watchable. And I think there could be some very interesting writing that unpacks the gender and class issues at play in Franco’s script once it’s eventually released.

Tim Roth plays Neil Bennett, a man on vacation with his sister Allison (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two children in Acapulco. She gets a call their mother has died, and everyone packs their stuff and heads to the airport in a hurry. When they arrive, Neil reveals that he left his passport at the hotel and that he will have to catch the next plane. He doesn’t. And he didn’t. He goes to another hotel, spending his days on the beach, lying to Allison about consulates and getting a new passport. What has happened to Neil? Has he just given up on a normal life? Is he grieving? Is he kind of a sociopath? Franco’s film is at its best when it seems stubbornly uninteresting in answering any of these questions, just allowing Neil to be.

Which makes it a little surprising that “Sundown” does start to get a little more traditional instead embracing its uncertainty. However, this is where it feels like Franco is trying to inject commentary on class and mortality. Maybe I just wanted to hang out on the beach a little longer. After TIFF, who can blame me?

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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