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Of men and children and war...

September 12, 2009 |  1:39 pm

CityofLifeDeath  If there is nothing else to know about war, after so many that have marched along for generations on end, it is that the weapons may change, but the brutality and inhumanity do not. I've been reminded of that by two exceptional filmmakers at the Toronto Film Festival, each with powerful stories that couldn't be more different in their texture, tone, story-telling and cinematic style... and yet the human machinations, where no action is insignificant, echo each other again and again. 

I'll start with Chinese writer/director Lu Chuan's "City of Life and Death" about the Nanking massacre by the Japanese army in the second World War. By the time the story begins, the city has been taken but for a few skirmishes here and there. The remaining fights are some of the most affectingly choreographed battle scenes to be found, with Chuan a master at moving from the micro of a face to the macro of a city in ruins.

Chuan follows both the occupiers and the captives with equal sensitivity, for there are victims and villains on both sides, as the Japanese soldiers, some barely men, soon find that there is little justice in power. The film unfolds like a novel with chapters that are each book-ended by the acceptance of death, the price of living. The sadness of that structure is only that at each stage there is the loss of characters you've come to love. Truly a masterpiece in black and white and pain and bound to be among the foreign films that will be headed to the Academy Awards.

The other, which is likely to face off against Chuan, is Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon," which moved the prickly Cannes crowd earlier this year, winning the coveted Palme d'Or (I think 'coveted' is officially part of the title now, so why break with tradition). I expect it will be no less a sensation here.

WhiteRibbon3 If you're a Haneke fan, and I count myself one, you know the filmmaker will give you much to consider, leave much unanswered. That is certainly the case with "The White Ribbon," set in a small German village on the eve of the Nazi's rise. School children, it turns out, are the ones to be feared here, minds that have been saturated by absolutism can turn self-righteously deadly so fast.

Beautifully shot, as always, absolutely bone chilling in its execution -- he has given us a bucolic village of the damned if there ever was one. Haneke, it seems to me, is drawn to the examine a sort of "teach your children well" notion, or rather what happens when you don't. As different as this film is from his "Cache" of a few years ago, I couldn't help but be reminded of the destructive potential of an angry, unstable child.

--Film critic Betsy Sharkey

Photos: "City of Life and Death" (top) and "The White Ribbon."
Credit: Toronto International Film Festival

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