In comparison to previous years, this edition of the Toronto International Film Festival felt as if it had something to prove. Generally considered to be one of the major film festivals to kick off the awards season, it would be the first since the Harvey Weinstein scandal last fall and a year after the controversial debut of Louis C.K.’s “I Love You, Daddy” at the festival.
In moving away from Hollywood’s shady past and forward towards a brighter future, the festival invested in women filmmakers, sponsored underrepresented journalists and dedicated panels and events on the topic of diversity.
That diversity also made its way on-screen, where movies from Latin America, Africa and Asia screened alongside the latest titles from Hollywood. And even in North American-made movies, many casts featured diverse actors and filmmakers in numbers not usually seen in theaters. Hollywood’s problems may not be fixed with just one event, but festivals like TIFF are trying to chip away at the the status quo more fervently than most entities in other parts of the film industry.
Perhaps this was the right time for a movie like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” to shine. Already heralded as one of this year’s frontrunners in the awards race, the deeply personal film tells the story of an indigenous domestic worker caring for a middle class family in the 1970s. The striking black-and-white film in Spanish and Mixtec languages has already been chosen by Mexico as its Oscar pick for the foreign language category.
At once, Cuarón’s “Roma” is a loving tribute to the woman who helped raised the director when he lived in the Mexico City neighborhood of the same name. His story shows her side of the story when so many other movies would have sidelined her and followed the family’s drama instead. The movie’s phenomenal star and first-time actress, Yalitza Aparicio, takes on her character’s many feelings as she cares for the family’s children, experiences her own personal setbacks and finds solace in her co-worker and friend (played by Nancy García García, who is Aparicio’s friend in real life).
“Roma” was far from the only film representing Mexico at the international event. In “Museo,” Alonso Ruizpalacios’s follow-up to his irreverent feature debut “Güeros,” Gael García Bernal plays one-half of a failed criminal team who steal precious anthropological treasures from a Mexico City museum only to find the items impossible to sell. Through García Bernal’s restless performance and the film’s sleek visual style, “Museo” becomes a thought-provoking dark comedy that raises issues about who gets to profit off of art and culture.
In a vein similar to that of “Roma,” Lila Avilés’s “La Camarista” follows a hard-working hotel worker through the daily indignities of her job: the strange demands by guests, a pushy manager, the uncaring system in place that keeps her from advancing and seeing her child. The slow-paced drama sticks close to its subject’s story, showing a side of the tourism industry many viewers may have never given a thought to before. The audience feels Eve’s (Gabriela Cartol) growing frustration in every exasperated sighs as the constraints of her job keep her from speaking out for herself.
On the other side of the class divide, is Alejandra Márquez Abella’s follow-up to her brilliant debut “Semana Santa,” “Las Niñas Bien.” In this story, a woman’s comfortably wealthy world is shattered after a banking crisis in Mexico. The experience is a humbling one that threatens her family and disrupts her status among her friends. The movie is a fascinating cross-section of mean girls with money who get a kick out of showing off their riches and keeping out others from their exclusive clubs. The film luxuriates in the ‘80s fashions of its setting and takes great care to show the absurdity of its’ character’s wealth-obsessed outlook on life.
Among the trove of Mexican movies to choose from at TIFF, an Argentine entry took audiences to an almost forgotten chapter in its country’s history. Luis Ortega’s splashy crime thriller “El Ángel” adapts the story of an infamous teenage serial killer, tracing his journey from petty burglary to a remorseless murderer. With stylish cinematography and a rollinking soundtrack, “El Ángel” resembles “American Psycho” in execution but the killer at the center of “El Ángel” doesn’t often share his thoughts, leaving only an eerie silence that’s even more disturbing.
On a much sweeter note, Arturo Infante’s comedic “The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia” follows a Cuban teacher who’s given the second chance of a lifetime. Aliens have come to the island nation, inviting delegates from across the nation to learn about their ways and teach the aliens about humans. While training at a ramshackle space camp, Garcia remembers her difficult marriage and a career interrupted – her reasons for wanting so badly to leave the island. As a journey in and of itself, the movie takes a few surprising turns that hits several emotional notes at once. The characters’ experience reflect on a Cuba still in flux, and Garcia’s decision to stay in her hometown or leave for an exciting promise land becomes a loose sci-fi allegory for the journey that so many other Cuban exiles have had to make before.
Another exciting development in the films at TIFF is watching the number of Hollywood productions including Latino talent. Another one of the glitzy premieres at TIFF this year was Bradley Cooper’s remake of the showbiz fable “A Star is Born.” Joining Cooper and his co-star Lady Gaga onscreen is Anthony Ramos, one of the original cast members of “Hamilton” and Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” series, who plays her best friend by her side as she rockets to fame. Likewise, Michelle Rodriguez has a sizable role in Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” where she stars opposite Viola Davis as part of a group of women left widowed after their husbands died during a botched heist. As they’re forced to band together to finish their husbands’ business, the action thriller becomes an ode to female empowerment and resourcefulness.
While some international festivals don’t program with inclusion in mind, TIFF offered so many titles it was nearly impossible to fit them all into one moviegoers’ schedule. Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s follow-up to “Embrace of the Serpent,” “Birds of Passage,” brought up the story of an indigenous man who’s swept up in the Colombia’s drug war. “Coco” star Anthony Gonzalez starred in a moving drama about the plight of migrant children held by U.S. immigration officials along the border. Sundance imports “The Kindergarten Teacher” and “Monsters and Men” also offered fans of García Bernal and Ramos another chance to see the stars in action. If the span of talent and the scope at TIFF is any indication, it’s that if the efforts towards diversity continues, we’ll see many more Latino and Latin American stars at the movies and perhaps, we’ll maybe even see some permanent industry-wide changes.