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What the movies of this pandemic reveal

The strange grace of movies made in trying times.

A woman peeks from behind a window in a black and white still image.
Caitríona Balfe in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast.
Focus Features
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

When the world shut down in spring 2020, film production did, too — at least for a little while. It’s hard to do much of anything in the middle of a pandemic, but it’s especially hard to crowd behind monitors or onto film sets or around lighting rigs. And when the world is on fire, do we really need to be making movies?

Technically, we don’t. Yet art — and commerce — won’t be suppressed. Within months, movies cautiously returned to production, and alongside big studio films like Mission: Impossible 7, Jurassic World: Dominion, and The Batman (all of which are now slated for release in 2022) came smaller, quicker-and-dirtier productions like Malcolm & Marie and Host. The latter were experimental and strangely exhilarating, even though most were not particularly good. The imposition of external limits can make for interesting art.

But they were merely the crest of a wave of pandemic-shot movies that’s about to come crashing down. We’re still in the thick of this mess, and given how long it takes to shoot and finish a film, we’ll be seeing its effects on screen for years. That was vibrantly apparent during the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where movies usually come to be launched toward the Oscars. This year, the festival’s lineup also provided a glimpse into the future, through an unexpectedly moving theme.

Filmgoers at the Toronto International Film Festival wear masks on their way into one of the main venues.
Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty Images

After a fully digital 2020 festival, TIFF 2021 took place in a hybrid format, with some films available digitally but all films screening in person, in highly vaccinated Ontario. The fest was a toned-down version of its usual hectic, red-carpeted self. Travel restrictions and Covid-19 production bubbles made it tricky for many of the usual stars to attend. Uncertainty around border crossings convinced much of the swarm of international press who descend on the city in a typical year to stay home. (Vaccinated Americans could cross, with a negative Covid-19 test, beginning on August 9; the border only opened to vaccinated citizens of other countries on September 7, two days before the festival launched.)

That meant muted buzz, fewer screenings, and lots of extra safety protocols. Nobody was standing in lines for press screenings, hoping to get in, because — like other major festivals this year, including Cannes and Venice — journalists instead logged onto a portal to nab tickets with assigned seating, the better to conduct contact tracing. To get into the theater you had to show your ID, proof of vaccination, and movie ticket. Seats on either side of ticketed attendees were intentionally left empty. Masks were both required and rigidly enforced (not too big of a challenge in generally rule-friendly Canada). Few parties were held, and those that were remained uncrowded and took place mostly on rooftops.

A lot of these protocols felt natural to me, having spent the summer returning to a hectic screening schedule in New York City. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, was the extent to which TIFF felt more like CEFF, the Covid-Era Film Festival — and how much I needed the stories its films would tell.

Reflecting how long (how very, very long) it has been since the pandemic began, most of the films on offer were completed under Covid-19 restrictions. Jane Campion’s masterful The Power of the Dog had begun shooting in New Zealand right before strict lockdowns, and had to pause; stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons stayed in the country until production resumed in June 2020. The Forgiven, from John Michael McDonagh, also had to pause for six months during its Moroccan shoot.

Both of those movies, though not conceived of initially as ways to make art under strict protocols, have all the hallmarks of a Covid-era production. The Forgiven bears striking resemblance to the recent pandemic-shot HBO show The White Lotus — it’s also about terrible wealthy white people exploiting and objectifying local workers while living lavishly (and it has some of the same problems). Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes play an unhappily married couple en route to their friends’ palatial Moroccan estate when they hit a young boy with their car. The fallout plays like an old-fashioned fable, albeit one laced with curled-lip cruelty on the partiers’ part. Most of the movie takes place in isolated locations, focused on a handful of brilliant actors.

A director behind a camera with an assistant nearby against a mountainous landscape.
Jane Campion on the set of her new movie The Power of the Dog.
Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Similarly, The Power of the Dog — set, despite its New Zealand shooting location, in the American West — is for most of its runtime confined to the big ranch that Phil and George (Cumberbatch and Plemons) own and operate. George marries Rose (Dunst) and brings her there, along with her waifish teenaged son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil despises both of the ranch’s new residents. But people’s exteriors rarely match what they’re capable of inside. It’s a tale that keeps you guessing, morphing from a Western to a romance to something deliciously dark, a melodrama with a bite.

In both of these movies, the ways we wound one another, and the ways we strike back, take center stage. That focus on human interaction feels natural in an intimate film with few characters. There are no allegories for grand geopolitical concerns or timely events ripped from the headlines here; the modest scope instead prompts directors and actors to dig into characters’ psyches, illuminating and probing the twisted, tricky dynamics that power human relationships. These are movies about hate, and fear, and connection. Which means they are really about love — even when it’s bent out of shape.

Movies that were both conceived and completed beneath the pandemic’s shadow followed this same pattern — and no wonder. Living a relatively privileged pandemic life, with no serious illness or effects on my livelihood, my world narrowed to a slice of what it had been, family and friends relegated to screens and tenuous outdoor meet-ups. As someone who’s always delighted in canceling plans, it was a shock to realize how much I missed people, and the messiness that comes along with relationships. Now, as those relationships are returning, slowly and selectively, it was pleasantly jarring to watch movie after movie that focused on small, deep personal connections. On what we look for and ask for in one another.

Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s unabashedly sentimental dip into his youthful memories of strife during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is really a family drama told from a small boy’s perspective. His parents (Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe), Protestant Belfast natives who watch their Catholic neighbors become the target of violence, struggle to keep their family together and decide whether their future lies in Belfast with his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) or elsewhere.

The young son, Buddy (Jude Hill), Branagh’s avatar, catches glimpses of the big world outside the family’s corner of Belfast at the movies and on stage. The film is in black and white, but Branagh often renders what they’re watching, from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to a staged production of A Christmas Carol, in color. The stories we watch, Branagh reminds us, are a vibrant window onto life, even during dark times.

The Guilty, directed by Antoine Fuqua from a script that Nic Pizzolatto based on the 2018 Danish film of the same name, is a breakneck thriller set in one room. Jake Gyllenhaal is Joe, a Los Angeles cop who’s been reassigned to answering 911 calls — the reason doesn’t become clear till the end of the movie — and who becomes enmeshed in one caller’s situation. This setup is a natural logistical fit for pandemic conditions; most of the movie involves Gyllenhaal, alone, yelling into a phone, while a bevy of stars (among them Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, and Riley Keough) voice the callers on the other end of the line. But it’s also a thematic fit. The problem here is that Joe, perpetually angry and abrasive, is torn between actually caring about people and giving in to his rage. He is trapped, both in his job and in his own head.

A character with similar issues is at the center of Montana Story, though he spends the entire movie nearly comatose on his deathbed. It’s his adult children, Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) and Cal (Owen Teague), who have to return home to the ranch and deal with the fallout. Modest and moving, Montana Story lets the siblings slowly unspool their relationship against the backdrop of an open sky. Erin notes that she was never quite sure, before their dad’s struggles drove his family away and she made her escape from Montana, whether the state’s “big sky” rhetoric wasn’t just propaganda. Were they just as trapped, their future relationships just as stilted, by their angry father and his messed-up life as they would have been in more visibly constrained circumstances?

Two men in tuxedos smoke.
Terence Davies’s Benediction was shot under pandemic conditions and premiered at TIFF.
Courtesy of TIFF

That sense of constraint appears in Benediction, a heartbreaking biographical movie from Terence Davies. His last film, A Quiet Passion, told Emily Dickinson’s story, painting her as a saint for uncertainty and depicting a bitter life. In Benediction, Davies turns to another poet, Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden), who often wrote against and vehemently protested the first World War. Benediction — which means “blessing” — spends most of its time on Sassoon’s passionate but thwarted relationships with several different men, after which he eventually married a woman.

The whole story is framed by Sassoon’s late-in-life conversion to Catholicism, amid his soured marriage and his son’s derision. There is no happy-go-lucky ending here, only the sense that an ineffable longing we have, to know and be known, is so precious and rare that most of us never find its fulfillment here on earth. But the film’s title lays bare its aims: To offer words of blessing over a man who never quite found the love he craved and, yet, kept looking.

Which is all we each are after, I think. My favorite of the entirely pandemic-shot movies to play at TIFF was Petite Maman, from Portrait of a Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma. Young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), whose beloved grandmother has just passed away, is helping her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) — who, it seems, are separated — clean out the now-empty home where her mother grew up.

Nelly is close to both of her parents, but especially concerned about her mother. She longs to have one more day to spend with her grandmother. One day, in the woods, she meets a girl named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), and the two forge a friendship that might be the fulfillment of her fears and wishes. Petite Maman is a gemlike film, clocking in at only 72 minutes, and as pristine and poignant a reflection on the bonds that tie us to one another across time and generations as one can imagine.

Two girls, looking at a fort built in the woods, stand with their arms across one another’s shoulders.
Petite Maman is one of the gentle gems of the pandemic film festival.
Courtesy of TIFF

In fact, I started to wonder if love’s capacity to cross time and space was the unofficial theme of this less social, more quiet TIFF. Even films with pre-pandemic origins — such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s odd, haunting drama Memoria and Mia Hansen-Løve’s layered and brilliant meditation on desire and art-making, Bergman Island — deal in the elusive quantum strands of emotion, longing, fear of loss, and care for one another that are woven into the universe and tie us all together.

There are still so many movies to come that were shot in a time of loss; this festival was only the tip of the iceberg. And while I am always skeptical about art having some inherent ability to heal us or transform us into better people, I felt something flip over in my chest watching them. I missed film festivals, the joy and life they inject into a medium that’s increasingly ruled by the solitary screen instead of the collective experience.

More than that, I missed feeling woven into the world’s big tapestry. If these movies are any indication, I’m not alone. That feels like grace.

The Power of the Dog will open in limited theaters on November 17 and premiere on Netflix on December 1. The Forgiven is awaiting distribution. Belfast will open in theaters on November 12. The Guilty will open in limited theaters on September 24 and premiere on Netflix on October 1. Montana Story is awaiting distribution. Benediction is slated to premiere in early 2022. Bergman Island will open in limited theaters and on streaming services on October 15. Petite Maman and Memoria are awaiting release dates.

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