Scott Brown on the Toronto Film Festival -- Politics may have been the theme of Toronto, but it was the love of story that triumphed

By Scott Brown
Updated September 22, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

A pair of high-concept, high-profile assassination pictures was all it took to brand this year’s Toronto film fest ”political.” Yet both looked strikingly docile and slight next to the fearless gaze of two documentaries: Ghosts of Cité Soleil plunges the viewer into the hot snarl of a Haitian slum in the waning days of Aristide, where sun-blind chaos fills the void of abdicated governance, boys lord over other boys, and bullets fly; Manufactured Landscapes turns a transfixing lens on the ruinous, strangely glorious depredations of unchecked global capitalism. Better your heart bleed for these true-told spectacles than for tripe like Emilio Estevez’s RFK assassinationathon Bobby, a toweringly simpleminded passion play for depressed Hollywood Democrats, with a cast like an after-party guest list and insipid sub-yippie dialogue to match.

Rescue Dawn — same era, different worldview — finds Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) returning to the Fitzcarraldian jungle of his considerable id with an ostensibly rah-rah Vietnam survival saga veined by dark Nietzschean insinuations and ferocious performances from Christian Bale and Steve Zahn. Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing gets inside the instant mythos of a more recent conflict: the surprisingly vicious battle between Natalie Maines and her right-leaning fan base after the Chicks frontwoman proclaimed her band ashamed of President Bush. In an age of scripted scandals and carefully managed crises, Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA) and co-director Cecilia Peck capture rare candor in subjects who find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly spun, as they try desperately to regain control of their own story.

Which brings us to The Fall, a splashy yet intimate art opera from the much-maligned filmmaker Tarsem (The Cell), with mythic set pieces that sleepwalked out of National Geographic and gothic wit reminiscent of Neil Gaiman. The story is a battle of narrative wills between doomed romantic melodrama (the teller, a jilted, suicidal narcissist) and absolute, uninflected innocence (the listener, a young girl — played by the remarkable newcomer Catinca Untaru): Not the most politically relevant of cinematic struggles but, to me, perhaps the most absorbing of the festival.