Thankfully, my first film isn’t until almost three-o-clock this afternoon, and then I only have three films. I’ve realized this fest that five-film days are perfectly doable, as long as I have a relatively light day afterwards. Today is more of a work day, as the first two movies are debut features I’m covering for Time Out Chicago, and the third is also from a debut director. All that to say, expectations are lower than they would be for an established director or Cannes favorite.

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The first, Thicker than Water, is one of those TIFF films I live for–a little movie that surprises me with its quality and power. It’s the story of Petur and Asta, a happily married couple, that is until Petur finds out that he’s not the father of the nine-year-old boy he thought was his. What follows is a supremely acted, absolutely compelling story of a man trying to come to grips with how he should respond. The story reminds me a bit of a Susanne Bier film (Open Hearts, Brothers), in that it’s about people who are genuinely good and yet still have emotional conflicts. Here, though, the direction (Arni Olafur Asgeirsson in his debut) is a bit more understated, eschewing Bier’s swift-moving Steadicam shots for quiet, static closeups. The way in which characters look at each other says much more than words ever could, and the relationships–especially between Petur and his “son”–ring true.

Asgeirsson uses a pale light palette, which both captures the Icelandic atmosphere and matches the understated tone. The acting is strong across the board, and I loved how the minor characters both deepen the story and add welcome touches of humor. My friend Garth found it a bit too middlebrow, but I liked the simplicity of the film, and the final shot is just devastating. A lot of TIFF films have struggled with their conclusions, but Thicker than Water ends at the perfect moment, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

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The Violin is also a wonderful surprise. Three generations of men make a living by playing music and begging in the town square. Plutarco, the grandfather, plays the titular instrument, while his son Genaro plays the guitar. In addition, Genaro is a rebel leader, battling government troops in some unnamed war. When the two men and Genaro’s little boy return to their village, they find soldiers have occupied it, sending away many of the women and children but questioning and torturing the men. Yes, this Mexican film is yet another movie that concerns itself with the violence governments impose on their people. The politics are a bit confusing (the rebels seem to be battling for land rights, but the grandfather has his own crops), but that aspect is secondary to the family relationships and how the old man tries his best to protect his son. It’s also a tale of the power and limits of music. Unlike The Lives of Others, which posited art over all, The Violin understands that music can only take a person so far when confronted by brutality.

The movie is shot in black-and-white, which adds to the elemental nature of the story, and the taut editing creates moments of drama and stirring action (a chase scene through the forest is particularly fine). Director Francisco Quevedo has a touching way of filming the characters, especially Plutarco’s weather-hewn, line-marked face, and the family dynamics are rich. And again, here’s a debut feature that knows exactly how to end. I’ll be looking for both Quevedo and Asgeirsson’s next features.

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Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’ll take a chance on Andrea Arnold’s second film, as her first is a disappointment. Red Road is about a surveillance-camera operator named Jackie who takes an unusual interest in a recent parolee named Clyde. Yes, it turns out that Clyde was somehow responsible for the death of her husband (and more, as we later find out), and Jackie can’t believe he’s out on the streets. Soon, Jackie (Kate Dickie) is following Clyde all over Glasgow, first via the surveillance network which encompasses the city and then on foot to his local cafe, pub, and apartment. This story might remind you of The Son (by the Dardenne brothers), but all similarities end there.

The problem with this kind of tale, is that there are only three options: the protagonist takes revenge on her tormentor, the protagonist confronts her tormentor and comes to some sort of resolution, the protagonist falls in love with her tormentor. That’s it. If you have no other characters (and Red Road really doesn’t), the movie only has those three options, and all the audience can do is wait to see which one the director chooses. Amazingly, Arnold chooses all three, and none of them makes a lick of sense. Jackie’s choices seem arbitrary and increasingly out of character, and a long, explicit sex scene is baffling (and offensive). Her motivations are intentionally withheld from the viewer to create a big switcheroo towards the end, but even that plot twist is undermined by another plot development. And the final act is woefully schematic, with each plot strand finding its obvious denouement. The penultimate scene is so slow and pointless I started daydreaming, and then I suddenly realized there was one last minor strand to resolve. Sure enough, the “dog man” appears and with a helpful metaphor to boot. Dickie is fantastic in a difficult role, and Arnold shows some promise in her directorial style. Hopefully the two can come up with better material next time.

Well, we’re in the home stretch now with just two days left. But with nine tickets still in hand, there’s plenty of good possibilities, including Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding and Dong, the companion piece to Still Life.

As I post this, I’ve arrived back in Chicago (I wrote this at the airport earlier today) and have 40 papers to grade before Wednesday. I promised my friend Dahlia that I’d get to every day of the festival (in past years, I’ve stopped after Days 7, 6 and even 5), and I’ll do that. But it might be a few days before I get to TIFF 9 and 10. Thanks to those of you who have emailed over the last week. It’s been nice to know that people have been reading.

Thicker than Water: four stars (out of five)
The Violin: four stars
Red Road: two stars