Saint Omer (the best film of 2022 so far), Godland and EO: TIFF REVIEWS

Alice Diop’s outstanding fiction feature debut, the unforgiving Icelandic landscape as more than a backdrop and a donkey road-trip movie.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) ran from Sept. 8–18, 2022, and you can read our fifth dispatch below and see our previous reviews here.


Godland TIFF review reviews
Godland, directed by Hlynur Pálmason

Set in the otherworldly greenery of Iceland, Godland is inspired by a series of photographs taken during the 19th century, and filmmaker Hlynur Pálmason (whose previous film, A White, White Day, was a moderate festival success) draws a story of a man beset by moral failures. Lucas, a sallow and frail priest from Denmark, travels across the harsh landscape. Led by a brutish man with very little use for spiritual beliefs, their journey is difficult from the very start. From the luxury of the early scenes set in Denmark as an older priest feasting on a banquet for one explains his mission, we understand that the Church may be out of touch with the harsh realities of everyday life. Rather than seek to understand this new landscape and its inhabitants, Lucas attempts to project his sense of order on this wild landscape.

Lucas’s great failure is pride. He cannot acknowledge his moral weakness and how easily he falls into temptation. He’s threatened by the strength and knowledge of the men hired to guide him. He fails to be humble enough to learn and to grow; those around him take advantage of his ego by flattering him, only to later tear him down. Easily one of the year’s most beautiful films, the cinematography captures the sublime nature of Iceland’s landscape, the danger concealed within the awe-inspiring beauty. The presence of children and animals enlivens the naturalism and aliveness of the film, which feels etched with biblical prose, teeming with foreshadowing and destiny. While the almost mythical nature of the film, which feels a bit too clean and a little too pre-destined, may be a little much — there’s little denying the film’s power and beauty.

Godland does not currently have a North American release date. 

Saint Omer

Saint Omer 2022 Alice Diop TIFF review reviews
Saint Omer, directed by Alice Diop

In an early scene in Alice Diop’s fiction feature debut, Saint Omer, Rama (Kayije Kagame) presents a university lecture on Marguerite Duras. We begin with images of women in the aftermath of French liberation. The women have been accused of maintaining relationships with German men, their hair is cut and they are publicly humiliated. Duras’s prose and ideas infuse the text; how words fail to capture the totality of meaning, the madness of maternity and the clipped details that match the short-form prose. From a classroom teaching Duras, Rama finds herself in a courtroom listening to the details of an infanticide case. The woman on the stand, a franco-Senegalese woman named Laurence (Guslagie Malanga), agrees to the facts of the case, including placing her infant child on the beach to be carried away by the waves, but pleads not guilty.

Most of what follows are long monologues as characters answer complex questions about their past and state of mind. The weight of colonialism and “passive” racism pervades the scene. One professor testifies that she was surprised that Laurence chose to study an Austrian philosopher and not one closer to her “roots.” The press remarks on her articulate language and beauty. Even Laurence’s mother has a sense of pride that the press admires her daughter; proof that she did a good job raising her as a French rather than an African child. The trial is interrupted by Rama’s life; flashes of her past, particularly her tense relationship with her mother and her lonely stays in a hotel room nearby. 

Before the screening of Saint Omer at TIFF, Diop paid homage to Jean-Luc Godard, whose death was announced earlier that day. The innovative passion and formal rigour of the French New Wave weigh heavily on this film. Aside from Duras, the film interjects Pasolini’s Medea and Nina Simone, reflecting on the experiences of motherhood and the radical presence of Black bodies onscreen. The best movie of the year so far can hardly be summed up by a single viewing or a small capsule. 

Saint Omer does not currently have a release date. 


EO review reviews
EO, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

Inspired partly by Au Hasard Balthazar, a film by the late, great Robert Bresson, EO centres on a donkey’s life. The film opens with red lights flashing, and EO (the donkey’s name) is in a trance with a young woman. Almost rave-like in its intensity, we soon discover EO lives as part of a travelling circus. Alongside the young female performer, he is a star, but off stage works hard labour as part of his unpaid duties. The abuse he suffers piles up early on.

In contrast to the gentle love of his stage companion, the other circus workers are brutal. The owners of the travelling show haven’t paid the bills, and EO, along with the other animals, is repossessed. From here, we head on the road where our donkey friend will find himself in various circumstances, some good, most bad. 

By subverting formal expectations, the film attempts to simulate what the world may look like to an animal. It does this with extreme close-ups not cushioned with Kuleshovian cuts, which may infer specific emotions or moods, but through sound. The fiery shadows of those early sequences seem to simulate the dreams and perspective of EO as well, even as the camera takes us on impossible overhead journeys through the Polish landscape. At its heart, the film defends the ethical treatment of animals. Though experimental and elliptical, there’s no question the film’s message comes across. Its compassion for the lives of animals and understanding of their experience of the world’s cruelties hit hard. Like any vignette film, though, not all chapters are equal, particularly a later vignette featuring a movie star, which unfortunately feels out of place in the film as a whole. Though certainly a film aligned with the values of animal lovers, it doesn’t shy away from the violence people inflict on animals, so consider this your warning. 

EO does not currently have a North American release date.

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