Personal favorites in a cinema wonderland

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Over the past several months I’ve reviewed a wide spectrum of movies that appeared at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival. This is my final installment, and it features my personal favorites.

“Primo Levi’s Journey” is a documentary that follows the same eight-month route Primo Levi took upon his release from the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945 before returning home to Turin, Italy. He wrote about it in his book “The Truce,” which was later made into a movie of the same title.

The journey takes the audience through Eastern Europe and several former Soviet republics, and allows us to compare what life was like immediately after World War II with the current post-Soviet experience.

With a narrative voice-over of excerpts from Levi’s writings, including his classic memoir “If This Is Man,” the viewer is drawn to the ironies of the region and the changes that have taken place over the decades. It’s a fascinating study of a bygone era and remarkable man — an Italian Communist and a learned survivor of the Holocaust.

“A Few Days In September” is a French thriller featuring John Turturro, Juliette Binoche and Nick Nolte. Nolte plays a former CIA agent. The plot takes us on a wild romp through Europe, chasing insider-trading deals, political intrigue and cold-blooded murders by a psychotic Turturro.

It all fits into the pre-9/11 timeframe, focusing on the days before the attack on the World Trade Center. Nolte plays a mysterious agent with secret information who urges major Arab investors to pull out of the market as soon as possible. The strong performances and political implications in the plot make this film a cut above your average thriller.

Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, “After The Wedding,” tells the story of a disenchanted Dane who leaves for India to run an orphanage. In his attempt to gain funding for the orphanage, he is drawn back to Denmark to seek financial support from a flamboyant industrialist. He discovers the industrialist’s wife is the woman who scorned him years ago and led to his flight from home.

It sounds like a soap opera, but the role of the industrialist, rendered in an extraordinary performance by Rolf Lassgard, is so well developed and so loaded with political innuendo that the movie turns into a powerful study of the corruption of wealth and the abuse of power, especially in the area of funding for vital social agencies. And actor Mads Mikkelsen, better known as the new James Bond, puts in a stunningly controlled performance as the headmaster of the orphanage.

“The Caiman” is by progressive Italian director Nanni Moretti, who has been absent from the screen for too long. Here he offers a political satire of the Silvio Berlusconi regime, which, for a change, does not feature Moretti as an actor.

Loaded with hilarious scenes featuring Silvio Orlando, the film offers a scathing indictment of the right-wing media magnate Berlusconi. Incorporating some of Moretti’s signature quotes from previous films, and utilizing his “film within a film” technique, this production might go over the heads of those with little knowledge of Italian politics. But it can still be rewarding on a purely entertainment level.

“The Italian” is a bleak but heartrending film from present-day Russia, featuring the amazing 6-year-old actor Kolya Spiridonov.

Vanya, played by Spiridonov, has known nothing in life except the dismal existence of life in an orphanage that time has forgotten. Vague memories of his mother form the background of his decision to either accept a future with an adoptive Italian family or pursue the possibility of finding his real family. In the process of his escape from the gang-ridden orphanage, which sustains itself on questionable adoptive procedures and the exploitation of children, Vanya’s journey allows us to see the dreadful collapse of a system that once held such promise. Powerfully acted and directed, this movie is reminiscent of the best Soviet social realist dramas.

“Mon Colonel” attempts to bring the lost history of the Algerian War of Independence to light. France, the colonial occupier, is guilty of torture in the Algerian war. With a screenplay by noted filmmaker Costa-Gavras, this feature is yet another examination of war crimes perpetrated by soldiers who are only “following orders.”

This political thriller is an indictment of the abuses and war crimes created by the French “war on terrorism” in Algeria, and the parallel with our current situation is unmistakable. It’s not to be missed.

As the many reviews that I’ve written over these months make clear, there is a wonderland of world cinema for progressive viewers out there. They only need to be sought out.

Film festivals are often the only venue to experience works of art that may never be seen at mainstream U.S. theaters. So check out your nearest festival and, if you ever have the chance, take a trip to Toronto to experience the Western Hemisphere’s greatest presentation of films.