Monday, February 1, 2016

Love Stories at the Toledo International Film Festival

Love stories on film come in many different styles, genres and contexts, and that certainly is the case with the two films, one from Mexico, the other from Canada, featured on the second night of the Toledo International Film Festival (TIFF) at the historic Ohio Theatre. These enjoyable films took an enthusiastic audience from "magic realism" to a sensuous authenticity rare in contemporary movies and Hollywood blockbusters.

Instructions Not Included (2013), co-written, directed by, and starring Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez, is the love story of Valentin Bravo, a Don Juan from Acapulco turned unlikely father, and the lovely baby girl thrust into his arms by a former lover, Julie, who claimed the child was his.  Accidental events and serendipitous encounters, with an overlay of magic realism and pathos, continue throughout the movie to the surprising and heavenly end. Life does not come with instructions.

When I think of magic realism I think of Latin American writers and artists.  I think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his richly woven "One Hundred Years of Solitude," and Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate," one of my favorite movies of all time.  My friend Teddy thinks the tradition goes back to Cervantes' "Don Quixote," which makes sense and also brings to mind all kinds of fabulous images.

In Instructions not Included, the magic realism arises from the character of Valentin, who creates a fantastical world for his daughter. Instead of a normal residence, their home is a colorful, over-the-top playground, with a tall red door for Valentin and a shorter red door for Maggie. Enter the Magic Kingdom, Maggie's world.

Colorful riffs splice through Maggie's daily life like oversized Diego Rivera murals or outlandish but loveable cartoons. Father and daughter romp in identical flannel pjs, climb mountains, slide down chutes, race in toy cars, play all kinds of fun games. Valentin's fathering style seems extravagant, over indulgent. The staid principal of Maggie's school, concerned about her attendance and unusual interests, voices the sentiment.

It helps that Valentin is not only an accidental father, but also an accidental stuntman. He is discovered by casting director Frank, who pushes him to become one of Hollywood's top stuntmen. This turn of the screw makes it possible for Valentin to support his daughter in LA style. It also creates opportunities for Maggie to develop her own fantasies and her own world of supermen heroes. Her father's stunts are terrifying, death-defying, like those his father forced on him in his brutal efforts to rid his son of fear and instill courage. Frank the casting director is Valentin's father, the famed Johnny Bravo, writ large!

Valentin not only creates a playworld for Maggie, he also creates a mother in the absence of the real thing. Intended to mute his daughter's fears of abandonment, he keeps the wolves of fear at bay, an image from his own childhood, by creating a magical mom: Julie the world traveler, adventurer, hero of the downtrodden, working with famous people, engaged in such noble work it's hard for her to visit Maggie even though she wants to, and will one day.

After six years, the poignantly anticipated encounter between mother and daughter happens, but without any magic. It bogs down instead in ugly realism: a nasty divorce trial, a DNA test, hurt feelings, white lies exposed, and Valentin's loss of custody. The reality runs counter to everything Valentin has created for his daughter's world.

So Valentin decides to sneak away with Maggie. They hitchhike back to Acapulco in the same way they had come to Los Angeles six years before.  A similar huge truck, smuggling immigrants from the border, picks them up. But Valentin returns to his hometown as a loving father with a new perspective on life, and a secret we learn only at the end of the story in a lovely Acapulco beach scene at golden sunset.

It's a secret that led us to believe Valentin was dying of an illness for which there was no cure. "The treatments are not working," we hear a doctor tell him. "There's not much time left."  We don't learn until the very end--because Valentin cannot bear to speak of it, because it is his greatest fear of all--that it is Maggie, not Valentin, who is dying of a genetic heart condition.  No instructions came with this tragic twist of fate, but we are glad for Maggie, who dies peacefully in her father's arms, her mother present, that this was so.

Where the love story in Instructions Not Included romps in magic realism, in Gabrielle (2013), written and directed by French-Canadian filmmaker Louise Archambault, it is steeped in the complex lives of adults with developmental disabilities and ends with a love scene pure and erotic. Authenticity without artifice, without elaborate glamour, costumes and sets, without the overhyped drama and computer-generated graphics of Hollywood movies.

Gabrielle explores the sexual awakening of a young women with Williams Syndrome, played by a women (Gabrielle Martin-Rivard) who actually has the genetic developmental disorder. The movie is sensuous, from the opening image of Gabrielle floating in blue undulating water, slowly, peacefully, to her longing to be with Martin, to the tender closing love scene.

Gaby, as she is called, lives in a group home with other developmentally disabled adults and is a member of a choir, the Muse, to which they all belong and where she meets and falls in love with Martin.  Martin is played convincingly by award-winning professional actor Alexandre Landry. The choir is preparing for a concert singing back-up vocals for the widely popular French-Canadian singer Robert Charlebois, a huge name in the Quebec music scene since the 1960s. Charlebois plays himself in a low-key charming way that highlights his talent and compassion.

Archambault's use of  nonprofessional and professional actors must have been challenging, but it created a unique chemistry between and among the characters that lends authenticity and depth to the story. The members of the choir are real and wonderful.  All the professional supporting actors are brilliant: Remi, the patient choir director; the gentle and empathetic manager of the home where Gaby lives; Gaby's loving sister Sophie and their mom; Sophie's boyfriend in India who works with poor children; Martin's overprotective mother.

Gabrielle is a love story beautifully told. Archambault perfectly captures the heart of the story in the image of a glowing Gabrielle and a joyful Martin at the movie's end.  Love conquers all.  The authenticity warms your heart.    

I had to look up Williams Syndrome.  I thought it was like Asperger's Syndrome, and there is some overlap that reminds me of my beloved brother Loren. Williams Syndrome is a little different but it too is a genetic or chromosomal disorder. It's characterized by mild to moderate learning disabilities and difficulty with abstract reasoning, spacial relations, and processing social cues, along with strong verbal abilities, "overly-friendly," even theatrical, personalities without boundaries and, interestingly, an afffinity for music. People with Williams Syndrome also share similar facial features,as well as a host of physical problems such as cardiovascular disease.  In retrospect I think this is what Gabrielle suffered when she got lost looking for Martin. Williams Syndrome seems to be rarer than Asperger's, which is on the autism spectrum, or perhaps it is under-diagnosed.  Living independent lives, as Gaby and Martin longed to do, is difficult, a constant struggle between wanting to be self-sufficient and a self-awareness of  your own limitations. It's frustrating, and can be depressing. With sensitive and loving intervention, however, there is help and hope. Archambault captures the struggle and the intervention in a beautiful way. See  and

Take a listen to Robert Charlebois' Ordinaire with the Muse Choir in Gabrielle.

Thanks to all partners, on this night ABLE, Toledo Public Library and Adelante, with great entertainment at intermission and great food from Mi Hacienda.

Final night of TIFF: Saturday, February 6
4:30  I Wish (Japan)
7:00 White God (Hungarian)
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