Toronto '06: Shut Up and Shoot

'Death of a President' and other film fest trigger-pullers blow away dissent

In the face of such fury, a viewer at Toronto '06 was left to seek escape in unlikely places—like Nazi Germany. Audiences devoured the blockbuster panache of Paul Verhoeven's Blackbook, a crackling World War II spy yarn shot through with the director's kinky eroticism, hothouse sangfroid, and corrosive skepticism about human nature. No tradition-of-quality Oscar bait, this Dutch thriller about a Jewish cabaret singer (Carice van Houten in a star-making performance) who avenges her family's betrayal and murder by literally sleeping with the enemy is a breathless old-school melodrama—the most entertaining film at the festival. Yet even it whisks away its short-lived promise of peace in a brilliant last shot.

Somehow, though, flickers of beauty and hope surfaced in the strangest places—in the Grimm visuals of Guillermo del Toro's dazzling Pan's Labyrinth, a dark fairytale anchored in Franco's Spain; in the past-erasing rubblescape of Jia Zhangke's last-minute addition Still Life; and in the Lisbon tenements of Pedro Costa's gorgeous Colossal Youth, where lighting worthy of Rembrandt is the director's gift to the tenacious tenants. No film proved more restorative to the senses than Syndromes and a Century, a reverie from the uniquely gifted Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. For its first half, the film is awash in the natural sounds and tree-filtered light shading a rural clinic: It's a summer picnic of a movie that beckons outside.

But the most optimistic film in the Toronto lineup, especially for Americans, may have been Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell's hardcore extravaganza juggling the (unfaked) sex lives of straight and gay New Yorkers without privileging any orientation, quirk, or fetish over another. Under the benign gaze of a stylized Statue of Liberty, there's room for all in Mitchell's soapy, silly, big-hearted spectacle, the kind of ambitious adult film that people vainly hoped Deep Throat would make possible. In the key scene, three male lovers enact a triple-X daisy chain while singing the national anthem: It comes off not as a sneering provocation, but a celebration of genuine personal freedom—one nation, under covers, indivisible, with liberty and felching for all. Is this a great country or what? Let Cohen's wild-eyed cross-country explorer Borat have the last word: "Is nice!"

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