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TIFF 2023: Memory, The Promised Land, Origin

An incredibly strong Venice led to full days at TIFF, wherein ticket buyers could catch up on acclaimed films that had just premiered in the beautiful Italian city. I had a full day of Venice catch-up, and it only solidified how strong the film lover’s event was this year. It included these three excellent dramas.

One of the most buzzed films from Venice is the Volpi Cup winner for Best Actor in star Peter Sarsgaard, who does some of his career-best work in Memory as a man with severe early onset dementia. When Sarsgaard’s Saul sees Jessica Chastain’s Sylvia at a high school reunion, he literally follows her home like a lost puppy. She naturally seems startled, but she keeps walking, locks her door, and goes to bed, only to discover that Saul is still outside her door the next morning, shivering from the cold and uncertain of where he is or why he's there. It turns out that Saul has a severe mental health condition that impacts his memory and day-to-day behavior. Despite the unsettling nature of the encounter, she brings him in and cares for him, even though she’s initially convinced that he was a part of something horrible when she was young. You see, while Saul doesn’t remember much of anything, Sylvia remembers too much.

From this unusual starting point, Michel Franco (“Sundown”) weaves a tale of a unique relationship. Sylvia knows how to care for people as a worker at a public home, but she co-exists with her trauma in a way that has led to addiction in the past. She alternates work, AA meetings, and caring for her daughter, but when Saul’s family asks her if she’d care for him too, her carefully structured existence goes askew. Sylvia has the wounds of abuse, both by other kids at school and her father. She has stayed close to her sister (Merritt Wever) and her family but is estranged from her mother (Jessica Harper). In a fascinating way, she finds peace and comfort in Saul, someone who can be thoroughly in the moment with her, supportive and fun without caring about everything around Sylvia like everyone else in her life seems to do. It’s a challenging relationship that defies norms in a way that startles Saul’s family (including Josh Charles) but feels true because of what Chastain and Sarsgaard bring to it.

In films like “Chronic” and “Sundown” (which contain two of Tim Roth’s best performances), Michel Franco digs into the lives of characters who make unexpected decisions, relying on his actors to make them believable. Chastain and Sarsgaard rise to the challenge of these complex roles. In particular, Sarsgaard finds truth in a gentle man who is constantly forced to reassess his situation and relationship with the people around him. Like all Franco films, the ending here is a bit of a surprise, but I found it a warmer, more comforting destination than the ones at which he usually arrives.

There’s little comfort to be found in Nikolaj Arcel’s brutal “The Promised Land,” an epic period piece about how the worst impediment to progress doesn’t come from nature but from man. It’s a cliché for critics to say, but they don’t often make movies like this anymore, a film that Arcel introduced by noting its incredibly unique standing on the Danish film scene, not really known for big-budget period action films. He noted how he wanted to make a film like the David Lean ones he loved when he was younger. He’s mostly succeeded at that, telling a story that’s impressively broad in scope, rich in period detail, and vicious in its deconstruction of how wicked men will hold onto power at any cost. With another rich performance from the always-great Mads Mikkelsen, this kind of movie should work for anyone who misses the period epic drama.

Mikkelsen plays Ludvig Kahlen, a stoic man who defied his origin as the son of a maid raped by a nobleman to become a military leader in 18th-century Denmark. When his time in the service is over, he insists that he be granted a chance to settle a portion of the country known as the heath of Jutland—brutal, barren land on which no one has been able to grow anything. While King Frederik V doesn’t want a parcel of his kingdom to go to waste, no one thinks the heath can sustain life. Kahlen will prove them wrong, but he has to get around the vicious Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), who owns the land near the heath and wants to maintain his grip on the area.

“The Promised Land” becomes a tale of a makeshift family when one of De Schinkel’s escaped servants, Ann Barbara (the excellent Amanda Collin), joins Kahlen along with an abandoned child named Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg). Arcel finds interesting personalities to spin around the relatively sedate Kahlen—Mikkelsen does more with an icy stare than most actors do with a monologue. All in all, “The Promised Land” is a film for people who miss John Ford or own “Barry Lyndon,” a drama of human resistance against an unforgiving landscape. It’s consistently entertaining and gains even greater power with how it lands, on a gorgeous shot that reminds us that we’re not promised anything but today.

Finally, there’s Ava DuVernay’s incredibly ambitious “Origin,” a late addition to the TIFF line-up and a recent acquisition by Neon. They have one of the most fascinating conversation starters at any company right now, a film that attempts nothing less than to reshape the discussion around race in the modern era. The basic thrust of “Origin” comes early in a conversation about the relative inadequacy of the word “racism” to describe far too many different things. We often use that word to explain any situation with racial inequity, but is a convenience store security guard following a Black customer more than his white ones the same thing as the systemic issues that led to the death of Trayvon Martin? With this challenging adaptation of a bestselling novel, DuVernay explores the divisions of the world in a way we haven’t really seen before. There are times in which it feels like the non-fiction nature of the source pushes back against traditional film storytelling in ways that could frustrate some critics, but there’s so much to admire here, especially a stellar performance by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and a stunning score by Kris Bowers.

The Oscar nominee for “King Richard” plays Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who is asked to write about the murder of Trayvon Martin shortly after it happens. Supported by her husband Brett (Jon Bernthal), Wilkerson begins to question not the specifics of the case but the conditions that made it possible and how people have responded to it. When she loses the two people closest to her in her life, Wilkerson takes the initial ideas underpinning her work on the Martin death to a worldwide investigation, examining how the structures that led to the Holocaust, the subjugation of the Dalits in India, and the slavery of Africans brought to the United States have a lot in common. The result is a book called Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which would become a bestseller.

A drama about the writing of a non-fiction book is a tough sell, but it’s a fascinating way into this story in that it reflects the passion for both art and research. There's a commonality between what Wilkerson does and what DuVernay does, and "Origin" feels like the meeting point of the two. It helps that Ellis-Taylor creates vulnerable emotional beats with her husband and mother while also conveying the deep intellectual pursuits of Wilkerson on journeys to Germany and India. Her work and DuVernay’s film, by extension, detail the insidious nature of caste systems that work on dehumanizing and segregating people to maintain power.

The final scenes of “Origin” are some of the most powerful of the year as Wilkerson’s journey reaches a story that exemplifies everything vile about castes in this world. Any criticisms about the structure of a film that can sometimes feel a bit too much like an academic lesson fall away as DuVernay essentially reveals a completed puzzle. In her intro to the film in Toronto, she noted that "Origin" is primarily about love, a feeling that added to the emotion of the final act. Yes, there’s so much hate in the history lessons taught by “Origin,” but confronting that hate and having people by your side to do so also takes so much love. 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing 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 GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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