TORONTO – It was seven years and many troubles in the making, but Deepa Mehta’s “Water” was cheered here Thursday on opening night at the Toronto Film Festival. The heart-rending story of an 8-year-old bride forced onto a lifetime of widowhood caused such controversy during its filming that Mehta, born in India, now a Canadian, had to move the production to Sri Lanka for the safety of her crew.
The film stars the luminous young actress Sarala in a remarkable performance as a girl wed to an older man in childhood. When the man dies, she is taken by her father to live in a home of other widows of all ages. According to religious law quoted at the top of the film, “A woman who remains chaste when her husband has died goes to heaven.” According to a follower of Gandhi in the film, locking widows away makes “one less mouth to feed, four less saris, and a free corner in the house. Disguised as religion, it’s just about money,”
In the widows’ residence, filled with a Dickensian gallery of characters, the girl is protected by the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who has been ordered into prostitution to help support the older widows. Kalyani attracts the son of a local Brahmin, the follower of Gandhi, who rejects beliefs about widowhood and intends to marry her. The film plays out in heartbreaking anger and passion, but is told with serenity and visual beauty; it reflects the way these characters in 1938 might have regarded the situation, not the way it would seem to modern eyes.
The premiere screening kicked off the largest film festival in the world, “with more corporate and government sponsors than any similar event,” the audience was assured – and believed it, after 45 minutes of speeches of thanks. Since the supporters have pledged some $132 million of the projected $192 million cost of the new Festival Centre, the gratitude was understandable, and after all will not be repeated every night.
Toronto is wall-to-wall with movies. Some 900 critics and other professionals march in and out of a dozen preview screens at the Varsity Cinemas, where at 10 a.m. Thursday I saw a remarkable documentary about an African–American woman basketball star in Seattle, at 2 p.m. the new Steve Martin – Claire Danes romantic tragicomedy “Shopgirl," and at 5 p.m. “L’Enfer,” with Emmanuelle Beart in a convoluted saga of family secrets. Then over to the vast Roy Thomson Hall for “Water.” It all starts again on Friday with Kevin Jordan’s “Brooklyn Lobster” (he made “Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish,” which I liked even if you’ve never heard of it), and then "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" and “Bubble,” Stephen Soderbergh’s new film. You see what I mean by variety.
That first film I saw was Ward Serrill’s “The Heart of the Game,” a documentary that could flower into a sleeper hit. The movie tells the stories of Darnellia Russell, a high school basketball star in Seattle, and Bill Resler, a professor of tax law who becomes the coach of the woman’s basketball time at Roosevelt High School.
His Roughriders are drawn from a mostly white student body, but Darnellia’s mother wants her to transfer because at Roosevelt she might get a better education and more of a shot at a college athletic scholarship. Darnellia starts slow, intimidated, she tells the coach that she’s never been around so many white people before. He’s convinced she is not only a great player but a bright student, and is proven right with a state championship in a year when she graduates with honors. Those triumphs do not become before a great many setbacks and hurdles, including two court challenges to a woman’s basketball governing body that wants to prevent Darnellia from playing in her final season.
The movie will inevitably be compared with “Hoop Dreams,” the great 1994 documentary about two black inner-city basketball players recruited by a suburban powerhouse. However, “Heart of the Game” is more concerned with basketball and personalities and less interested in larger social issues. The strength of the film comes not so much from Darnellia Russell’s undeniable skills on the court but by the way she overcomes a series of challenges that would have derailed a less determined young woman.
“Shopgirl,” directed by Anand Tucker, is based on Steve Martin’s novel about a serious young woman who clerks at Saks Fifth Avenue while aiming toward a career as an artist. Two men come into her life: The feckless Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) and the smooth, assured, millionaire Ray (Martin). Jeremy seems on track for 40-year- old geekhood. Ray gives Mirabelle (Claire Danes) gifts, attention, concern and care – everything but love and marriage, which he is quite clear are not part of the package. He’s too old for her, he tells his shrink; more likely, he’s phobic about any form of commitment.
She understands that about him, likes him anyway, thinks he’s a nice guy, and then the relationship develops in a way that leads, as it must, to heartbreak. The Steve Martin novel was uncommonly perceptive in showing how a limited man and an unlimited woman could only follow the same path up to a point. The film works with intelligence and sympathy, and is likely to inspire from its female viewers not sighs and tears but sad recognition and perception. Some men are not only undiscovered countries but undiscoverable ones.
I would like to tell you all about “L’Enfer,” but it has a fearsomely complicated plot, the time is now 2:46 a.m. and my coffee and bran muffin arrive at 8. The festival is so front-loaded that if you don’t run as fast as you can through the weekend, you never catch up.
My own private festival got off to an interesting start on Thursday morning, when I went to the press office to pick up my credentials. The friendly volunteers gave me a shoulder bag filled with discs, press releases, schedules, timetables and magazines. I swung it onto the air to drape it around my neck, and was struck sharply on the forehead by the corner of Guess Magazine. “You’re bleeding,” my wife told me. All day long, people have been asking me me, “What happened to your forehead?” Guess, I say.