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#TIFF17 Reviews: The Square, Novitiate, mother! and Breathe

September 11, 2017

By John Corrado

The Toronto International Film Festival is on until September 17th, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

The Square – ★★★ (out of 4) Christian (Claes Bang) is the curator of a modern art museum in Sweden, and when we first meet him in The Square, he is being interviewed by an American journalist (Elizabeth Moss) and struggling to make sense of his own words which are being read back to him.  Christian is in the process of putting on a new exhibition called the Square, meant to symbolize a space where we can all be safe, while also navigating the fallout of having his wallet and iPhone stolen, and dealing with a viral marketing campaign gone horribly wrong.

The latest from Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, and the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, The Square is an entertaining satire of the post-modern art world, that holds nothing back in its sendup of the pretentious and often ridiculous things that are celebrated within the contemporary art scene.  The film does feel a bit long at 143 minutes, and without much of a formal plot to back it up, it can sometimes feel more like a series of set-pieces.  Because of this, the film also lacks some of the precision and sheer force that made Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure such a knockout.  But The Square is never less than entertaining and filled with plenty of pleasures of its own.  The various elements that make up the film are often brilliantly pulled off, including a standout sequence involving an unnerving and awkwardly hilarious dinner theatre performance that we can’t take our eyes off of, and The Square is bolstered by stunning cinematography and perfectly pitched performances.  I’m looking forward to watching it again.

Novitiate – ★★★ (out of 4) Taking place in the 1960s, when the Catholic Church was facing the changes of Vatican II, Novitiate offers a compelling look at life in the convent.  Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) is a young woman who wasn’t raised overly religious, but surprises her mother (Julianne Nicholson) when she decides to become a nun, spurred on by her experience in Catholic school and seeking a personal relationship with God and Jesus Christ.  She enters the convent alongside a group of other young women who seek the same spiritual fulfilment, but they are put through the ringer by their strict Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who is reluctant to the changes happening within the church and is determined to enforce order within the nunnery.

Written and directed by Maggie Betts, crafting an impressive first narrative feature, Novitiate is an engaging and well acted film that touches on a lot of interesting themes regarding religious devotion and the Catholic Church.  The film explores the traditional teachings of Catholicism and how they were given a relative modernization in the 1960s, pulling off a careful balancing act in its gripping exploration of Vatican II.  While many of the changes that came with it had positive repercussions for women as a whole in society, it also served to greatly diminish the role that nuns play in the church, causing many of them to leave the sisterhood.  Despite being a male-dominated system, the nuns held a fair amount of power within it up until that point, and fought for their rights as women to be consulted on the changes, something that the Vatican never allowed to happen before the overarching changes were made.  It’s this nuanced approach that makes Novitiate such a compelling work, moving at a deliberate pace and contemplatively exploring the effects that solitude and choosing to live a cloistered life can have on people.  Melissa Leo injects the film with a compelling performance, acting reassuring one moment and menacing the next, brilliantly portraying this deeply conflicted and sometimes terrifying figure who is determined to enforce the old rules by any means necessary.

mother! – ★★★★ (out of 4) A slow burn psychological thriller turned full on horror movie freakout in the shocking and unforgettable last act, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is the sort of film that should be seen knowing as little as possible, and with ample time to think about it afterwards.  The film follows a husband (Javier Bardem) and wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who live in a decaying old house that she is fixing up to start a family while he struggles to find inspiration to write new material, but their lives are upended when a pair of mysterious visitors (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) arrive at their house asking for a place to stay, and that’s all you need to know before going in.

There are multiple ways you can read the film, playing as both a richly layered religious allegory, and as a metaphorical environmental fable about how we are destroying Mother Earth.  Once we start to realize what mother! is trying to say, it becomes an absolutely mind blowing experience, allowing us to think back on all the little elements along the way that add to its grand biblical narrative.  The film is carried by a gripping performance from Jennifer Lawrence, who fearlessly throws herself into even the most demanding elements of the role, with the camera always trained either on her face, over her shoulder or from her perspective to ensure that she remains the guiding point for the audience.  She’s mesmerizing to watch.  The last act becomes relentless in its pace and is almost disorienting to watch, becoming a gripping symphony of shocking images and all-encompassing sound design.  Some of the images that are conjured up are so twisted that the film will surely become an endurance test for less prepared audience members, evidenced by the various walkouts during it, but those who can handle it should absolutely stick with it.  This is sure to be one of the most divisive movies of the year, but it’s also one of the boldest and most ambitious studio pictures to come along in quite some time.  It’s an intense, disturbing and fascinating work that gives us plenty of symbolism to mull over and dissect.

Breathe – ★★★ (out of 4) Based on a true story, Breathe dramatizes the life of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), a British tea broker in the 1950s who is struck with polio while on honeymoon with his wife Diana (Claire Foy) in Kenya, and left paralyzed from the neck down, only able to breathe with the help of a respirator.  Although initially confined to a hospital bed and losing his will to live, Robin is able to survive thanks to the dedication of his wife, who brings him home and takes over the job of caregiver, also allowing him to spend time with his young son.  Robin becomes a disability rights advocate, working to help invent invaluable accessibility devices like the respirator wheelchair and hydraulic lifts, allowing him and countless others who were institutionalized at the time to gain unprecedented independence.

The directorial debut of Andy Serkis, a celebrated actor who has delivered memorable motion-capture performances in both the Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes series, Breathe is a handsomely mounted production that has the feel of a classic biopic and period piece.  This well-worn approach can make the film feel a bit slow moving and melodramatic at times, but it’s heightened by some lovely cinematography and good performances by its strong cast.  Andrew Garfield does a fine job of carrying the film, delivering a moving performance that relies almost completely on his expressive face.  Claire Foy also does quietly affecting work, nicely showing the resilient spirit of her character.  With Robin and Diana’s real life son Jonathan Cavendish serving as producer on the film, Breathe is reassuringly respectful of its subjects, making this is a decent biopic that appropriately tugs at the heartstrings.

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