Gems at #TIFF22. Films reviewed: The Hummingbird, Will-o’-the-Wisp, Unruly

Posted in 1930s, 1970s, 1980s, Dance, Denmark, Disabilities, Family, History, Italy, LGBT, Mental Illness, Portugal, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 24, 2022

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

TIFF is finished and after viewing 45+ movies I feel pretty good about it. You’ll be hearing a lot more about TIFF movies like The Fablemans, The Whale, The Glass Onion, Women Talking, The Wonder and The Banshees of Inisherin  by the end of the year, but there are also a lot of movies, gems and sleepers, that get left by the wayside, without all the studios promoting them. So this week I’m talking about some of the other movies I saw there — from Italy, Denmark and Portugal — that deserve to be noticed. There’s a rebellious girl trapped on a remote island; a little prince seeking the facts of life in a firehouse; and a man called hummingbird whose fate is guided by a series of unusual events.

The Hummingbird

Dir: Francesca Archibugi

Marco Carerra is a man who places great importance on seemingly random occurrences. Take a fatal plane ride, for example.  When he’s a student in Florence in the early 1980s he starts winning big at poker.  But when he boards a plane heading for Yugoslavia with his gaming partner, Duccio, that man begins to freak, shouting hysterically at other passengers that they all are “dead” and the seats on the plane are ruined and decrepit. Marco is eventually forced to pull Duccio off the plane, thus missing the flight and their big card game. But it crashes, killing everyone on board. And Marco, with his deep belief in the significance of ordinary events, ends up marrying the flight attendant who also missed that flight. It’s just fate.

Another important date happened at their summer home on the beautiful Tyrhennian shoreline. The Carrera’s summer home is right next door to the Lattes’ house. And Marco has a huge crush on the beautiful Luisa, their daughter. But the night he thought he would lose his virginity to Luisa (for whom he would hold a torch forever) was also the night when his quarrelling parents went out for the evening, his brooding brother Giancarlo got so drunk he passed out, and their sorely neglected sister Adele committed suicide, turning all their worlds upside down. 

The Hummingbird — Marco’s nickname as an unusually small child until a sudden growth spurt in his teens after his father enrols him in hormone treatment — is a wonderful, novelistic  movie that traces the intricately woven story of Marco’s life, his love, his family, his wife, his daughter and eventually his granddaughter. But not in any obvious order. The story jumps back and forth between his childhood, his adolescence, and his middle and old age, keeping you guessing as to why he did what he did. When I say novelistic, I mean literally, with multiple characters coming in and out of his life making shocking revelations along the way, and calling into question his fundamental beliefs. It’s based on the novel Il colibrì by Sandro Veronesi which won the Strega Prize, Italy’s greatest fiction award, and it does feel like a classic story. What’s really surprising is it was published in 2020, during the pandemic, and the film must have been made since then. The movie stars Pierfrancesco Favino  as the adult Marco, Berenice Bejo as Luisa Lattes, Nanni Moretti as Marco’s friend, a psychiatrist (no spoilers here), and Kasia Smutniak as his tempestuous wife.

Keep an eye out for this sleeper and be sure watch it when it comes out.

Will o’the Wisp

Dir: João Pedro Rodrigues

It’s present-day Portugal. Prince Alfredo (Mauro Costa) is a pale young prince with curly blond hair.  heir to the crown. He lives in a palace full of statues and paintings recalling his family’s colonial history. (Though the country gave up its monarchy in 1910, his mother still considers Republican and Castilian the two worst insults in their language.) But with Alfredo coming of age his father, the king, decides to tell him what’s what. He takes him for a walk through the royal forest to admire the tall pine trees there. But his father’s description of tumescent tree trunks throbbing with sap so excites the lad, that he is forced to rethink his future. He doesn’t want to be king anymore, now he wants to be a fireman — specifically one who will protect those trees, about which he has an erotic attachment. 

At the fire station, Afonso (André Cabral) a handsome black student is tasked with introducing the prince to the firehouse and the forest. He introduces him to the other fireman, they practice exercises, search and rescues, recussitation, fireman carries, and sliding down poles, but for Alfredo, everything has a sexual subtext. Soon the subtext turns to out-and-out sex, with the two young fireman rolling around on the forest floor while shouting pornographic and racist epithets in the throws of ecstasy. But can the the little prince find happiness in the arms of a fireman? Or are his regal responsibilities too heavy a burden to bear?

Will o’the Wisp is one of the strangest, least classifiable films you’ve ever seen. It’s an historical  romantic science fiction comedy, and an arthouse-modern dance- musical satire. It’s only 67 minutes long, but in that short time you’ll see The-Sound-of-Music kids in school uniforms singing weird songs as they pop their heads out from behind trees; homoerotic exercise montages, and elaborate dance routines on the firehouse floor. I can’t say I understood all the cultural references that had the Portuguese viewers in the audience howling with laughter, but I could experience the beauty, ridiculousness and shock running throughout the picture. 

Unruly 

Co-Wri/Dir: Malou Reymann

It’s the 1930s in a working-class Copenhagen neighbourhood. Maren (Emilie Kroyer Koppel) is a free-thinking teenaged girl who knows what she likes and what she hates. She likes getting drunk, dancing to jazz and hooking up with guys. And she hates authority figures — including her mom —  telling her what to do. But when her family cuts her off and she becomes a ward of the state, she doesn’t realize her past actions will have grave consequences. She refuses to cooperate with a doctor (Anders Heinrichsen) trying to diagnose her “ailment”. He declares her unruly and out of control, and sends her off to a remote island known for its hospital for mentally handicapped women. Sprogø island is festooned with pretty flowers and picturesque homes where the patients are taught to be submissive, cooperative, quiet girls, under the watchful eye of Nurse Nielsen (Lene Maria Christensen). They are schooled in sewing, cooking and cleaning on the all-female island (though Marin is able to secretly meet with a young repairman). It’s a hospital, not a prison, she is told, but there’s no way to escape. And if you disobey, or even spread bad attitudes, you are strapped to a table and kept in solitary confinement.

Her roommate, Sørine (Jessica Dinnage) acts as the rat, reporting on any woman who disobeys the rules. But as Maren gets to know her better she soon discovers the real reason for Sørine’s behaviour: she just wants to be reunited with the child they took away from her. Will Maren learn to accept her fate? Will she find a way to escape the island? Or is she stuck there forever?

Unruly is a deeply moving drama based on an actual hospital that operated in Denmark until the 1960s. Its many crimes included involuntary sterilization, mis-diagnoses, torture and authoritarian rule. Instead of having a series of stock characters, with easy to categorize heroes and villains, all the women develop over the course of the film, giving it an unexpected profundity. This film is a lovely and tragic look at a terribly flawed institution and the people it affected.

Will-o’-the-Wisp, The Hummingbird, and Unruly all premiered at TIFF.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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