My first film isn’t until 6pm today. There are a few screenings in the afternoon but none that particularly appeal. Besides, I like to have at least part of a day to settle in here in Toronto. I can go pick up my tickets, make any exchanges I want, have a leisurely meal at the Green Mango (my restaurant of choice ever since I discovered it my very first day in Toronto). Today, my errands include tracking down publicists from Sony Classics to see if I can get a ticket to The Italian, which I need to cover. After a couple false starts, I get not only that ticket but a free one for tonight’s show of The Lives of Others.

One of the best things about Toronto is how often I bump into people I know. Today that list includes Charles Coleman, the programmer at Facets in Chicago; Andrea Gronvall, a fellow film freelancer for Time Out Chicago; and several folk from various email lists and blogs. I end up having lunch with Jason Morehead and his lovely wife Renee, which is a nice way to settle into festival mode.

But enough about my wanderings. On to the movies. Actually, the first thing I saw wasn’t a movie, but it was almost as important. Every year, there are several shorts that run before each movie: a brief clip announcing the Toronto Film Festival, a short encouraging us to clap for the volunteers, and an advertisement or two for some of the major sponsors. Last year there was also a hideous spot from Motorola reminding us to turn off our cell phones and pagers, but the clip, which featured a guy acting like a drill sergeant, was so incredibly annoying that even a cell phone ringing in the middle of a Bresson feature would’ve been preferable. That I had to see that same short 40 times almost drove me to distraction. So as I sat down in the theater for my first movie, I started to wonder what shorts I’d have to watch 40 times this year. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I felt a considerable amount of trepidation as the lights went down. Please, God, no more drill sergeants. As it turns out, all of the pre-fest shorts were extremely short. I wonder if the festival caught a lot of flack for last year’s fiasco. If so, I don’t mind the solution.

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Ok, now we can get to the movies. And what an impressive feature the first one is. Requiem is a German film that won the Silver Bear at Berlin earlier this year, and it’s another example of the resurgence of German cinema. It’s loosely based on the same real-life story that inspired Hollywood’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, though you won’t be surprised when I tell you this has a very different tone. Michaela is a young, devout woman heading off to university for the first time. Her parents, though, are nervous, more so than most. Michaela spent a year in the hospital during her high school years, and her mother has no confidence that Michaela can survive on her own.

What follows is a provocative exploration of a woman’s struggle with suffering, despair, and belief. Director Hans-Christian Schmid uses razor-sharp editing to move the story along, and even the brief pauses have a dramatic impact. Sandra Huller gives a bravura performance as Michaela, and the film’s tone and thematic approach are strikingly reminiscent of Werner Herzog. Everything ends with an awe-inspiring final shot and a fascinating postscript. But what’s stayed with me the most is one character’s remark: “I wonder whether God’s existence is proven by a good harvest or a sick person.”

Well, it’s either downhill from here or this is going to be one heckuva festival. That would be the former if Piers Handling, the fest’s director, was to be believed. In his introduction to The Lives of Others (my second German film of Day 1), he called it one of the most important directing debuts of the last decade. I need to find a way to have Piers introduce me whenever I go somewhere. Or maybe not, as all of this puffery raised my expectations to an unsustainable level.

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Don’t get me wrong–The Lives of Others is a perfectly decent movie about a Stasi interrogator in the former East German regime who’s assigned to eavesdrop on a playwright and his actress girlfriend. Solid acting, compelling story. As I told a friend as I walked out, it’s an old-fashioned political drama with the old-fashioned cliches. The music kicks in on cue whenever there’s even a hint of drama. The camera lingers over every detail, not because it’s beautifully photographed (it’s not) but so that the dim-witted audience doesn’t miss what’s going on. Still, the story moves along, and I never got bored, and Ulrich Muhe is fantastic as the agent. If I had been flipping channels at night and come across it, I would’ve thought that was a pretty great tv movie. But in the context of a festival, it struck me as generic.

It goes without saying that the audience loved it. Loved it. Ate it up. But then who wouldn’t be moved at the sight of a Stasi officer renouncing everything he’s lived for, just because he’s moved by the words of Brecht and the melody of Beethoven. If only Michaela had it that easy.

P.S. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to use stars in my blog reviews or leave them gradeless. I’ll probably blog about that sometime soon (feel free to comment if you have a strong preference). But because my fest capsules will be fairly short, I thought I’d include the grades at the end of each day’s piece. Feel free to ignore if you’d rather.

Requiem: 4.5 stars (out of five–I’ll figure out the star symbol later on)
Lives of Others: 3.5 stars