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Five years later, grab the tissues

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Five years after the attacks of 9/11, a gaping hole remains in the guts of Manhattan. Sept. 11 falls in the middle of the Toronto International Film Festival, and over the years, that hole has made its way, both literally and metaphorically, into many of its selections: the collection of nine-minute shorts from 11 international directors that made up 11'09"01, for example; or the psychological drama Sorry, Haters, in which the attacks became the emotional epicentre of a New York woman's (Robin Wright Penn) life.

As the fifth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, not only have the wounds not healed, the ripples around that hole have intensified as they've spread around the world, generating uncertainty, unease, malaise and despair in the work of serious filmmakers from all countries in a way that feels unprecedented to me. I suppose there will be comedies at this year's TIFF, but the majority of films that I've seen are infected by sadness. Whether or not they depict the hole physically, they depict a sensibility that seems distinctively post-9/11.

Take Babel, for example. It was the film to see in Cannes, and its star, Brad Pitt, will be the get of TIFF. But sitting through it was one of the more gut-wrenching experiences of my movie-going life. It weaves together the stories of a Moroccan goat herd, a deaf Japanese schoolgirl, a Mexican domestic living illegally in California and a travelling American couple (Pitt and Cate Blanchett) who suffer an accident that affects the others. It's impressively well imagined and acted.

I, however, writhed in agony the entire time, because from frame one it's clear that almost nothing good is going to happen to these people, that miscommunication, willful disregard and just plain bad luck will march everyone inexorably toward doom. There are about three tender scenes in its 120 minutes, but even they are only tender in that they show people behaving kindly in hideous circumstances.

The most hopeful scene -- the one everyone will be talking about, I guarantee -- centres around Pitt getting Blanchett a pan to urinate in. That's the kind of film it is: The sweetest scene is about pee.

That's the kind of film I've been seeing. Even in movies that have nothing specific to do with terrorism or world events, the mood, and the blood, are black-red. Native Canadian alcoholic women are murdered, one after the other, in real-time close-ups, in the Vancouver-set feature Unnatural and Accidental. A high-school student commits suicide in the Australian drama 2:37, but for the length of the film you don't know which teen it is, since every kid in the school is so abused, lonely and self-loathing it could be any of them. When the suicide is eventually revealed, it is unbearably protracted, with many close-ups of the pulsing wound, and long shots of the student coughing in a lake of sticky blood.

In the British film London to Brighton, a 12-year-old runaway is raped at knifepoint. In the Quebec film A Sunday in Kigali, a Rwandan woman is tortured horribly for days. Even the glossy big-studio dramas are bleak: Hollywoodland is about suicide, The Black Dahlia about violent murder, Little Children about child abuse, The Last King of Scotland about genocide. TIFF pictures tend to be unflinching, but what I've seen this year sets a new standard for the specificity and duration of the atrocities that filmmakers are making us gaze upon.

Even the comedies are sad. "It sucks to care about something. Every time you do, it has a bad ending," says a character in The Dog Problem -- the closest thing I've seen to a date movie, even though its protagonist (Giovanni Ribisi) is a pathologically lonely novelist suffering writer's block. In Stranger Than Fiction, a twisty dramedy that promises to be this year's brainiac favourite, Emma Thompson also plays a novelist with writer's block (theme alert!) who achieved her fame by killing all her characters in clever ways. In it, Dustin Hoffman says kindly to Will Ferrell, "You will absolutely die. If you avoid this death, another will find you."

The few films that qualify as hopeful are permeated by death too. Their philosophy can be summed up thusly: "We're all doomed, so we should love while we can."

The lovely, melancholy Away from Her, Sarah Polley's feature debut as a writer/director, centres around a heartbreakingly generous thing that a husband (Gordon Pinsent) does for his Alzheimer's-afflicted wife (Julie Christie). In The Fountain, a fascinating drama from Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), Hugh Jackman struggles in vain to save his wife, Rachel Weisz, over three time periods; eventually he transcends death, but only by accepting it. The mostly female characters in Pedro Almodovar's beautiful, brilliant Volver also learn to temper death with love, but only after they face incest, adultery, murder and cancer.

In other words, expect to either be sobbing at the dramas or smiling through tears at the comedies. Either way, bring tissues.

Perhaps the best example of the post-9/11 movie is the one most specifically set in post-9/11 Manhattan, Shortbus, by writer/director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch). It begins with an animated sequence in which the camera literally dives into the hole where the twin towers were, and then shows, in brace-yourself graphic detail, how a subset of New Yorkers are dealing with their pain: through sex. Sex with spouses, sex with strangers. Gay, lesbian and straight sex. S&M sex, anal sex, oral sex. Sex by oneself, in twos, threes, or dozens. Sex with real penetration, followed by real ejaculation.

Yet in the middle of this raucous lust, something surprising happens. The movie lifts off into a celebration of connection -- both naked and clothed -- made all the more life-affirming by its keen awareness of death.

"We all get it in the end," cabaret singer Justin Bond croons in the film's final party. This year's TIFF films are certain of that. A few are certain of this as well: If we're very lucky, we also get it in the middle.

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