“Amazing love! How can it be / That thou, my God, shouldst die for me!”
(Charles Wesley, 1738)
If God’s ineffable love for us is at once the most sublime and profound expression of love, it is fitting that we should emulate that love – in all its unquestioning constancy – with those who cross our path in life. Several films from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival took the measure of love by juxtaposing it with its absence.
In The Secret Life of Bees (USA), an adolescent girl (Dakota Fanning) is burdened with guilt over the loss of her mother. Left to the not-so-tender mercies of her harsh and abusive father, she flees, embarking upon a journey of discovery into her mother’s past. It’s a leap of faith that leads her to what she has never known (and desperately craves) – a real home and the healing embrace of a surrogate family.
In Once Upon a Time in Rio (Brazil), love crosses an impenetrable socio-economic divide, as a rich girl from Rio de Janeiro’s ritzy Ipanema Beach district falls for a boy from the sprawling favella (or slums) that straddle the mountainside. Their love refuses to respect the conventions of class and family in this variation on Romeo and Juliet, and they need to muster the courage to defend it against prejudice.
Set worlds away, in a 1646 European countryside beset by war, pestilence, and famine, Krabat (Germany) tells the story of a boy taken on as an apprentice at an isolated mill. But he and his 11 peers are being taught more than how to grind wheat into flour. The malevolent master of the place is a sorcerer, and his lessons in dark magic entice his students with the thrill of power and the ability to do what ordinary people cannot. But those tastes of power are the lure, and there is an awful price to pay for this particular temptation. As dark fantasy, the film soars above such hollow fare as the Harry Potter films, eschewing over-indulgence in effects for gritty realism, strong characterization, and an authentically menacing atmosphere. When one of these young men finds the courage to take a stand, it is not sorcery but love that empowers him.
The best film at this year’s festival had to be Il y a longtemps que je t’aime from France. It is the story of a woman (hauntingly played by Kristin Scott Thomas) who emerges from prison after 15 years. She is met by a younger sister (Elsa Zylberstein) from whom she was separated all those years. But the younger woman has kept her sister in her heart and now takes her, unreservedly, into her home. Her trust, unconditional acceptance, and steadfast love gradually erode her sister’s numb despair, transforming desolation of the spirit into reawakening and redemption.
Kisses (Ireland) has two pre-teens escape the abuse, neglect, and squalor of their lives for a 24-hour odyssey into Dublin where they encounter moments that are magical, poignant, and frightening. The bond they forge gives them the courage and strength to face tough lives: Their connection brings them to life, a transformation mirrored by the film’s transition from bleak monotones to vibrant color.
In the end, each of these films echoes the words of the French novelist George Sand (1804-76): “There is only one happiness in life; to love and be loved.”
John Arkelian is a writer, film critic, and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.
Copyright © 2008 by John Arkelian.