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Cinematic Takeaways from TIFF 2021

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 26th, 2021

Toronto’s CN Tower at night ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed 2019

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival (or TIFF) continues ran September 9-18. I did not attend in person (though that was an option), preferring, instead, to watch movies on the fest’s excellent screening portal for press. Just before the festival began, I offered my recommendation of 6 films to see. I ended up reviewing 15 films total, 5 for this site and 10 for Hammer to Nail (where I also write). The 5 for this site, in alphabetical order (titles hyperlinked to their reviews), were: Jagged, Listening to Kenny G, The Mad Women’s Ball, Petite Maman and Violet. Though I liked all of those, by far my favorite of the entire festival was Petite Maman. What follows are capsule reviews, adapted from my full-length pieces at Hammer to Nail, of 5 other TIFF ’21 films I enjoyed. Their titles are hyperlinked to the original review, unless it has not yet run, in which case the title is linked to the movie’s TIFF page.


Still from AS IN HEAVEN ©LevelK

As in Heaven (Tea Lindeburg)

Young Lise (a magnificent Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl) greets the morning as a bundle of teenage energy, happy in her large farming family but also excited to soon be leaving for a better education than what she can get at home. It’s her mother’s idea, who wants her eldest child, bright as she is, to have opportunities she never could. The fact that said matriarch, Anna (Ida Cæcilie Rasmussen, fearless), is very pregnant (again) and due any minute is initially nothing but a net positive to the atmosphere. But then, as the day progresses into night, it becomes clear that this will not be an easy labor. Lindeburg, making her feature-film debut, shoots the movie on Super 16, lending it a rough grain (though the early images of farm life are beautiful) that suits the 19th-century rural life. Her actors look at home on location, all the children running over path, brook and grass in their bare feet. This is a life filled with genuine pleasures but also a lot of hard work and many rules. Gender roles, especially, are strictly proscribed. Which is probably why Lise’s father cannot stand the idea of a woman breaking free. We’ll see which way the winds of fate blow overnight.


Still from ATTICA ©Showtime Networks

Attica (Stanley Nelson)

On September 9, 1971, over 1000 inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York rioted over conditions they deemed inhumane, taking 39 prison guards hostage. After a four-day standoff with prison, local and state authorities, they were convinced that some of their complaints were heard and would lead to reform. Instead, on September 13, the very same law-enforcement officers with whom they had been negotiating took back the prison in a violent raid that left 29 prisoners and 10 guards dead, and close to a hundred injured. It was a bloodbath. All of the details of what happened are expertly presented by director Stanley Nelson (Tell Them We Are Rising. It’s quite profound to hear and see the voices and faces of the survivors today, some of whom become quite emotional in their interviews. Beyond that, however, the film serves as a call to embrace anti-racist, inclusive policies up and down all levels of government, to ensure that our common humanity is never forgotten.


Still from MEDUSA ©Bananeira Filmes

Medusa (Anita Rocha da Silveira)

As the movie opens, we pull back from an eye illuminated in red and green colors, revealing a female body contorted in what turns out to be an online video of a dance (or yoga pose). A young woman watches that dance on her smartphone as she heads home, only to suddenly find herself hunted by a group of other women wearing white face masks. They give chase, catching their prey and delivering a beating. For what? They call her “slut,” “pervert,” “homewrecker” and more, though she seems confused. It would appear that the mere act of having interests in such things as popular song and dance is enough to transgress. A biting satire of religious fundamentalism, Medusa (Anita Rocha da Silveira, Kill Me Please) is also a frightening portrait of extremist violence and righteous self-abnegation, with a little sex, drugs and rock & roll mixed in. As central protagonist Mari’s world expands thanks to those she meets at a new job, she begins to question her previous beliefs. Freedom is contagious, it turns out, but also dangerous.


Still from MOTHERING SUNDAY ©Sony Pictures Classics

Mothering Sunday (Eva Husson)

The central drama of Mothering Sunday, Eva Husson’s dreamy adaptation of Graham Swift’s eponymous 2016 novel, does not take shape right away, and as befits the director’s elliptical style there are many detours along the road to the satisfying finale. Initially set in Southeast England’s Berkshire County in the years following World War I, in and among various properties of the landed gentry, the movie weaves backwards and forwards through different eras as it goes, reminding us that memory is the great time machine of the human mind. Agony and joy intertwine on life’s journey, and we can either take strength from their duet or lose ourselves in the abyss of one extreme or the other. The protagonist is one Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young, Assassination Nation), orphaned at birth and raised to be a domestic servant. Vivacious and smart, she reads voraciously; in opposition to the upper-class despondency there is Jane’s constant energy and yearning. As much a narrative of personal growth as of upward mobility, Mothering Sunday is a tribute to perseverance and resilience.


Still from TO KILL THE BEAST ©Caudillo Cine

To Kill the Beast (Agustina San Martín)

Argentinian director Agustina San Martín delivers a lyrical dose of cinematic fabulism in her feature debut. The film ostensibly tells a tale about both an evil spirit wandering the border between Argentina and Brazil and the disappearance of a young man. But really, the movie is as much an exploration of sexual awakening as anything else. Filling her world with jungle mists and sounds, San Martín wraps the viewer in a dreamscape where soul-searching is a sweaty, sensuous exercise. Protagonist Emilia (newcomer Tamara Rocca) spends much of her time looking for her lost brother Mateo, a search which brings her from the city to the rural mountain area where her Aunt Inés (Ana Brun, The Heiresses) runs a hostel. But a funny thing happens on the way to solving that mystery: it ceases to be our main focus. Instead, the movie follows its protagonist’s gentle coming of age and coming out.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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