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Toronto Film Festival Dailies

The  44th  Toronto  International  Film  Festival  runs  September  5–15,  2019 in Canada's most vibrant and exciting metropolis, it has become one of the most important film events on the festival calendar.

Showcasing more than 300 films and hosting industryites from around the world, Toronto can "make or break" films looking for international distribution and a chance at Oscar gold. From glitzy red carpet premieres to challenging art films to cutting edge new media, the Festival offers something for every taste.

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Friday, September 7--------FUGITIVE PIECES, the latest film from Toronto-based filmmaker Jeremy Podeswa, had its world premiere last evening at two back-to-back gala screenings as the Opening Night attraction of the Toronto International Film Festival. Clearly a labor of love, the film is based on the award-winning international bestseller by Canadian author Anne Michaels (with the script adapted by Podeswa). The film is one of the high profile films of newly formed Maximum Films, the new distribution shingle of prolific producer Robert Lantos. When introduced on the stage of the Elgin Theater last evening by Festival co-director Noah Cowan, Lantos remarked that this is the tenth film of his that has graced the Opening Night slot in Toronto over the past 20 years......not bad.

The film tells the heart-tugging story of a 40-something writer in Toronto who still lives with the ghosts of his past. The scribe, wonderfully played by actor Stephen Dillane (most memorable as Virginia Woolf's husband in THE HOURS), cannot quite get over his traumatic chidhood, and who can blame him. He was born into a Jewish family in a small village outside of Krakow, Poland and was the sole survivor of the Holocaust. He was literally saved from certain death by a Greek laborer who, taking great risk to his own personal safety, shielded the boy while in Poland and eventually brought him back to his native island of Hydra in Greece. The theme of the Christians who risked their own lives to save Jews is one of the few positive stories of the Holocaust, and the Holocaust Museum in Israel Yad Vashem honors them by declaring them to be "the righteous".

This righteous Greek is played with great gusto by Croatian actor Rade Serbedjiza, best known for his Venice Film Festival Best Actor performance in BEFORE THE RAIN (1994). He gives a marvelously soulful performance as a man who instinctively does what is right, without hesitation or much thought, but out of a sense of innate goodness and charity. After the two escape to the idyllic island of Hydra in the Aegean Sea, the traumatized young boy begins to come out of his shell and a ray of hope for his future becomes possible. However, even that is dashed when the Nazis make their odious presence known by occupying the island and rooting out the Jewish population for transport to Auschwitz. Both the older man and his young charge are shielded by various locals, including one woman who is eventually shot to death before she is forced to give them up to the Nazi authorities. At the war's end, the grizzled older man and the young boy make their way to Toronto, where they live in the midst of a community of Holocaust survivors, all emotionally scarred by their loss and painful experiences.

Jeremy PodeswaJeremy PodeswaAside from the drama of the War years, the film is also an intimate story of the psychological scars that such a childhood leaves on even a rational adult. When the boy grows up to be a successful writer, he remains emotionally stunted and unable to connect with his peers. His experiences have marked him as "different".....he feels unable to enjoy the simplest human pleasures and the easygoing camaraderie of friends and colleagues. More seriously, he is also unable to accept the gifts of love or to know how to reciprocate it. This becomes clear in the emotionally intense relationship he develops with his first wife, a beautiful blonde "shiksah" (non-Jew), whose good humor and zest for life do not work their charms on the troubled writer. In his personal diaries, which are read by Dillane as voice-overs, it is explained that he has shut out the pleasures of the present as a way of preserving the past. He is frightened that the more that the present crowds his consciousness, the more the sweet memories of the pre-War past with hs parents and sister will fade away. Only by obsessively conjuring up those ghosts through his writing, his dreams and even his waking moments, can he keep those memories alive. It is a very telling and truthful observation by both writer Michaels and scenarist Podeswa (and understood quite well by this son of Holocaust survivors).

While the film certainly deals with deep psychological scars, it is far from depressing. There is much good humor and a good ear for dialogue. In fact, the writer discovers in the film's final act, that his obsessive attempt to somehow keep the ghosts of his past alive (at the expense of living in the present moment) may in fact be a continuation of their own torture. When he is introduced to and eventually falls in love with an immigrant museum curator, who also has some troubled memories in her past, he begins to understand that the love he felt from his family in the past means nothing if shrouded in only has relevance and endurance if he can offer it to someone else in the present moment. The film, as I assume the novel does, ends with the author writing in his diary: "I finally understood that I needed to give the thing that I most desperately needed from someone else". That is a major revelation that rings so true.

Despite the strong acting, sensitive script and emotional truth, the film does sag at times and has a number of repetitive scenes. Voiceovers of diary entries arenot exactly the most stimulating visuals. If anything, the film made me curious to go back and read the original novel, which has the advantage of communicating inner thoughts without the burden of visual dexterity. However, as an addition to the canon of Holocaust dramas with a focus less on the SCHINDLER'S LIST horrors and more on the post-trauma wounds, the film has its own unique contribution to make. In many ways, despite the specificity of its time an place, the film mines universal themes in its depiction of the struggle to return to a sense of normalcy after transcending the trauma of war, loss and emotional upheaval. FUGITIVE PIECES will be distributed in Canada in the coming months and is actively being sold to buyers here in Toronto. A US deal may be announced shortly. It is certainly a film that audiences "willing to go there" will embrace and take into their hearts.

Sandy Mandelberger, Toronto FF Dailies Editor

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Contributing editors: Bruno Chatelin 

Laurie Gordon Animaze International Film Festival Le Miaff!
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