Magic of cinema in focus as Mendes celebrates Toronto festival comeback

·4-min read

As crowds finally flocked back to the Toronto film festival after two years thwarted by Covid-19, Hollywood's top directors from Sam Mendes to Steven Spielberg put the escapism and collective experience of cinema in the spotlight with their latest films debuting at the event.

"American Beauty" and "1917" director Mendes on Monday premiered "Empire of Light," his new drama set at a 1980s cinema on the south coast of England, in which its employees battling mental health issues, extra-marital affairs and racism seek comfort in the silver screen.

It comes on the heels of the Toronto debut at the weekend of Spielberg's "The Fabelmans," a semi-autobiographical take on the great director's childhood, and the cathartic role filmmaking and art played at difficult moments in his early years.

"It was a way of telling a story about how movies and music and popular culture and art generally... can help heal you when you're broken," said Mendes on the Toronto red carpet for his film.

"We're here because we love movies, we want to support them from whatever side of the spectrum we are. And I think we all felt maybe that was gone forever" due to Covid-19, he told AFP.

The film stars Olivia Colman as the movie theater's duty manager, who is drawn to a charismatic -- and much younger -- employee (Michael Ward) even as she copes with previous grief in her own life.

Unlike Spielberg's movie, which featured a young budding director coping with his parent's marriage and anti-Semitic bullying, Mendes opted not to put himself in "Empire of Light."

"It wasn't just autobiographical. I thought the easy route would have been 'and here's this little boy and he's grown up.'

He added: "For whatever reason, I was drawn to a different way of telling that story.

"I think part of it was being in lockdown, and being in the pandemic, and feeling the vulnerability of the world, and the feeling that perhaps all this... would never happen again."

- 'A lot of fear' -

The Toronto International Film Festival, North America's largest movie gathering, is renowned for drawing large cinephile audiences as well as glamorous A-listers to its world premieres.

This meant it was especially vulnerable to the impact of Covid-mandated lockdowns on movie theaters, and crowds this year have returned in numbers not seen since 2019.

Spielberg earlier told attendees at "The Fabelmans" premiere that the pandemic's arrival had motivated him to make his deeply personal film because "we all had a lot of time, and we all had a lot of fear."

"I don't think anybody knew in March or April of 2020 what was going to be the state of the art, the state of life, even a year from then."

Toronto festival head Cameron Bailey told AFP that many of the movies submitted this year had contained "a kind of reflection on the significance of the film itself, of visual storytelling, of watching films together and that collective experience."

Also in Toronto on Monday, "La La Land" director Damien Chazelle gave festival attendees a brief first look at "Babylon," his eagerly awaited movie tracing the roots of Hollywood via drug-fueled 1920s Los Angeles.

The movie starring Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, out in December, delves into early Tinseltown's dark side, with a first-look trailer showing characters inspired by real silent-era stars attending wild parties complete with mounds of cocaine, topless dancers and even an elephant.

- 'Extreme living' -

"It was about capturing the spirit of that time, which is a lot more I'd say 'Wild West' than even our conceptions of the 'Roaring Twenties,'" Chazelle told an audience.

"There was more excess, more drugs, more extreme living on all ends of the spectrum than I think a lot of people realize."

The movie, which is still in production and has not been shown in full to audiences, is already being positioned by studio Paramount as another awards contender from Chazelle, who made the Oscar-winning "Whiplash" before his youngest-ever best director Academy Award for "La La Land."

TIFF, North America's largest movie gathering, runs until Sunday.

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