Sarah Polley Women Talking TIFF reviews

Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, El Agua, La Jaurìa, Brother: TIFF REVIEWS

Another Canadian tale of a brutal religious community, a Spanish aquatic drama, a teen rebellion film from Colombia and a movie about racism in Scarborough.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) runs from Sept. 8–18, 2022, and you can see our first and second batch of reviews, and our third dispatch below.

Women Talking

Women Talking Sarah Polley TIFF reviews

Desaturated and grey, Sarah Polley’s latest film, Women Talking, draws the audience into an unnamed religious community not dissimilar to the Mennonites. While it’s 2010, the community lives and works without electricity, and the women of the community aren’t allowed to read or write. For an undetermined period, they’ve also been terrorized. Women of all ages wake up bloodied and bruised, violently raped. The men brushed off their concerns as an overactive imagination or a supernatural act committed by ghosts or Satan, but one night, a younger girl spotted one of the offenders. As they grapple with the sustained violence, the community’s women face a tough decision: do they stay and forgive, stay and fight, or do they venture into the world at large?

As the title suggests, much of the film is an extended conversation. The women talk about rudimentary feminist ideas, faith, family, horses and more, searching to answer impossible questions about their future safety and well-being. Rather than advancing a developing argument or thesis, the characters seem to circle through the same ideas repeatedly, scarcely moving forward. 

While based on a book, it would be easy to mistake the film for being based on a play. The performance style is stilted and theatrical, though the featured all-star cast, including Frances McDormand, Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Ben Whishaw and Sheila McCarthy, do their best with the strange tonal choice. Eschewing naturalism for strained allegory and stripping the story of any context (the location is purposefully ambiguous, and so is their faith), one senses that the movie errs towards broad relatability (in the sense that white women can represent all women) but, in doing so, gives up all sense of reality. The clumsy handling of the film’s ideas, which feel simultaneously retrograde and an attempt at being Tumblr-progressive, is only bolstered by strange directing quirks. Beyond the chamber drama feel to the performances, the movie’s muddy grey look and cloying soundtrack lend the whole thing a cheap TV-movie feel. While Polley has always excelled as a controlled and intuitive filmmaker, she misjudges what makes the source material compelling and fails to match the film’s ideas with an appropriate aesthetic. A rare but pretty all-encompassing miss from the great Sarah Polley. (Justine Smith)

Women Talking is scheduled to open in Montreal theatres in Dec. 2022. 

El Agua

El Agua

Elena López Riera’s feature debut El Agua is a mystical coming-of-age film pulled by the unstoppable force of water. Ana (an excellent Luna Pamies) is a wilful 17-year-old determined to leave her small Spanish town just off the Segura river. “I am scared of seeing the same road every day,” she reveals to her first love José (Alberto Olmo). Ana lives with her mother (Bárbara Lennie) and her grandmother (Nieve De Medina) in a bar her mother runs. The three of them are cursed. But how exactly? We never seem to find out.

When summer comes, Ana spends less time at home and more time in and near the river with José. Water, in all its uses and metaphors, is inescapable. Speaking directly to the camera, local women weave together the legend of the river “choosing” a woman, only for her to disappear forever. When the river overflows every few decades, the river claims a woman who has recently fallen in love. The film is also interspersed with news footage of an impending flood that is already devastating towns in the region. Except for one scene with José’s dad, who owns a lemon orchard, there is not much sense that the people around Ana are afraid. Riera seems unsure of what film she wants to make. An ecological disaster film, a coming-of-age drama, or a feminist commentary on small-town myths? Riera wants the river to fill every nook and cranny of this 104-minute film. But in doing so, it loses its power. 

El Agua’s best moments are ones of silent observations. Riera’s camera slowly travels down the river, embodying the pull of its current. In one tender scene, Ana bathes her grandmother in the tub as she listens to the story of her marriage. She rubs her back with soap while her grandmother recounts her husband’s decline from passionate lover to abuser. Riera has so much to say about this small town and the women that fill it. One woman confesses that she wishes she had the water “insider of her.” What precisely this means, however, remains too fluid to pin down. (Sarah Foulkes)

El Agua does not currently have a Montreal release date. 

La Jaurìa

La Jaurìa TIFF reviews review
La Jaurìa

Motorbikes always seem to be the vehicle of choice for young rebels. They’re fast, easier to steal than cars, and look fucking cool. As it turns out, they are also a good way to transport a corpse. Andrés Ramírez Pulido’s brooding film La Jaurìa centres on a group of troubled teenage boys in a jungle prison camp. Their days are filled with back-breaking manual labour (emptying a swampy swimming pool, hacking down small trees) and unconventional group therapy. Their leaders are the purportedly reformed rebel Álvaro (Miguel Viera) and Godoy (Diego Rincón), who is never far from his rifle. It’s unclear whether this is part of a state-sanctioned program or if it’s an arrangement made by the property owners looking for a cheap makeover. Eliú (Jhojan Stiven Jiménez) is the first of the motorbike murderers to arrive. He isn’t there long before he’s joined by El Mono (Maicol Andrés Jiménez). Eliú seems intent on abandoning his life of crime. He keeps his head down and his machete only aimed at wood. But El Mono’s arrival pulls him toward their shared past. And El Mono isn’t one for reformation. As he says late in the film, “If there’s vice, I’m in.” No amount of confessions and chants will rehabilitate these men. Their real issue, Pulido seems to suggest, is their fathers. Is patricide, then, the answer?

Pulido’s debut is an unsettling portrayal of alienation in the jungle. Álvaro never communicates to his pack of boys what possibilities may be on the other side of crime. Drugs and vice are too fun to give up without a clear path forward. In one scene, the inmates share their best drug concoctions. One boy shares his preference for “Clonazepam dissolved in brandy.” Pulido directs confidently, mixing social realism aesthetics with the unabating drone of dystopian lawlessness. Pulido doesn’t give up hope for these boys, however. Although their ghosts may never retreat, perhaps they can. (SF)

La Jaurìa does not currently have a Montreal release date. 


Brother TIFF reviews review

In an early scene in Clement Virgo’s Brother, a character looks at a framed picture of Francis (Aaron Pierre) and says, “I still think of him.” If subtlety in drama is viewed by many as the highest form of praise, then Brother is often disappointing. But when telling the story of the racism experienced by two brothers growing up in Scarborough in the 1990s, is subtlety something we can afford? Brother is told over flashbacks depicting the young lives of Francis and his younger brother Michael (Lamar Johnson), as their single mother (Marsha Stephanie Blake) tries to protect them from the violence of the world. Before long, it becomes clear that Francis has been killed. The rest of the film jumps back and forth between three timelines, piecing together the how and the why. Although done thoughtfully, the success of this formal strategy hinges on his death subsuming almost every scene.

On the one hand, this alerts the audience to the threats that lurk around every corner for a young Black man like Francis. But there’s a perverse kind of tension behind the guessing game of “Where will Francis die?” In a parking lot, in the barbershop, in school? Despite Francis’s cool demeanour, he never gets to relax. 

Virgo does not forget joy, however. The bonds of community carry Michael as he is hardened by grief. His neighbour and love interest Aisha encourages him to gather with their friends to grieve together. Togetherness is a respite and perhaps the only way to heal. The music selections are excellent, too, with Nina Simone, Sister Nancy and Curtis Mayfield making appearances on the soundtrack. Brother is not an explicitly political film. There are no mentions of political movements or any attempts to find justice for Francis. And why not? Brother is not The Hate U Give, nor should it be. Still, its devotion to depicting personal traumas blinds it from a more capacious view of Scarborough’s Black community and its political resistance. (SF)

Brother does not currently have a Montreal release date. 

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