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Fathers & sons a potent theme among films from Toronto

The complex, competitive and ultimately loving relationship between fathers and their sons has been the potent theme of a number of films at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Perhaps it is only my own personal taste (after all, in a sea of over 350 films, one chooses to take the journeys that most resonate with one's own sensibilities), but the theme came up again and again in a group of very different films.

The struggle for reconciliation between a demanding father and his reactive son is front and center in the excellent UK drama WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER?, which screened in the Special Presentation section of the Festival earlier this week. The film, directed with great delicacy by Anand Tucker (HILARY AND JACKIE), is an affecting story about the challenges of coming to terms with the past lives and old sins of our parents. The blustery, self-centered and remote father is played by Jim Broadbent in another fully realized performance that has him aging from his 30s into his frail senior years. Giving a wonderfully restrained performance as the son who can never quite measure up is Colin Firth, an awkward young man who grows up to be a successful writer, and who must finally make peace with his ogre of a father. When his father falls terminally ill, the son must, in effect, take on the role of the parent, and thus learn how to mend the wounds of the past. Forgiveness is the key and the lessons that life brings to these two men makes a powerful statement and a beautifully rendered film.

Reconciliation after a lifetime of conflict is also one of the central themes of Italian director Daniele Luchetti's moving MY BROTHER IS AN ONLY CHILD (Mio fratello è figlio unico). The contrasting lives of two brothers from the same working class family provide the narrative fuel for this sprawling portrait of the social and political upheavals of Italy in the 1960s and 1970s (in a siimilar vein to the director's previous film THE BEST OF YOUTH). One brother is attracted to the Fascist right, the other to the proletarian Left, and both try to distance themselves from the family's humble origins and limited future in the small village in the country's south. For Accio (played with great depth as an adult by Elio Germano), he moves between the political spectrums through emotional and sexual torments, until the film's ending......when he returns to his native village to live with his aged parents in a true coming full circle. In the end, despite the rhetoric of ideology or the lure of sexual satisfaction, it is family that provides the most depth and the stabilizing force for a man, and by extension, for a society.

The need for a man to accept his troubled lineage is one of the themes in JAR CITY, the remarkable and often disturbing thriller by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur. In many ways a "police procedural" story investigating the grisly death of a middle-aged man, the film explores the emotional depths and long-hidden secrets that link a number of its characters to the violent crime. In the end, clues point to a young scientist who has uncovered a snakepit of sexual violence, police corruption, community apathy and a rare inherited disease as some of the threads that may lead to the murderer's motivations for the crime. The genetic link between a pathological father and his upstanding son makes clear the point that we are prisoners of our pasts and the outcome of our fates. A parallel story of a cynical police inspector investigating the case who must come to grips with his daughter's drug addiction demonstrates that the relationship between fathers and daughters are as complex, in their own way, as between fathers and sons.

Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters also make up the the narrative threads of THE EDGE OF HEAVEN, Turkish/German director Fateh Akin's sprawling story of fate, folly and the intersection of lives in a world that has become more connected by the advancement of technology and the porousness of national borders. The film, which won the Best Screenplay prize at the Cannes Film Festival, moves us back and forth from Turkey to Germany to tell a complex story involving many characters of different ethnic origins and generations. The key protagonists are two men and two women – father and son, mother and daughter – who separately comprise two incomplete families. Among the many relationships explored in this beautifully realized film is the central one between Ali, an elderly Turkish day worker who has lived in Germany for most of his adult life (but never became a citizen) and his totally assimilated son, a respected university professor, who thinks of himself as more German than Turkish. When the father is imprisoned after killing a prostitute, the son returns to Turkey and eventually becomes involved with the daughter of the killed prostitute and a German mother and daughter who become part of this existential extended family. While the story is quite complex, it offers remarkable parallel journeyss between all the varied characters. The film ends on a poetic note, with the son sitting on the beach of his father's seaside village, looking into the setting sun, waiting for the father to return. In their own ways, all these filmmakers see reconciliation and acceptance as the only roads towards enlightenment and self-acceptance.

Sandy Mandelberger, Toronto FF Dailies Editor

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