Unnatural Attractions

What would draw sultry Latin films to chilly Canada? One huge festival

Toronto would seem an odd place to take the pulse of Latin cinema. Sure, you can buy Cuban cigars, fresh from Havana, at any of the corner newsstands that dot the city's downtown -- there's no embargo here, compañero. However, actual flesh-and-blood Cubans, or indeed Latinos of any national stripe, are in very short supply.

On the cultural tip there's an even greater disconnect: It's the public utterance of French -- not Spanish -- that sets many Anglo and black ears burning. And while gay marriage remains as much a hot-button electoral wedge in Toronto as it does in Miami, it's Canada's ruling Liberal Party (yes, they unabashedly embrace that label) that is hoping to force the issue, the better to embarrass the puritans among the opposition Conservatives and drive them even further into the political wilderness.

Into this most un-Latin terrain, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) annually unfolds, and for its ten days of September screenings, turns this city into the hemisphere's key industry gathering for Ibero-American movies. This year's edition was no exception, with 700 film buyers, another 750 members of the press, and tens of thousands of plain old movie buffs, all swarming in and out of the festival's 328 offerings. Despite that unwieldy viewing load, Latin film still grabbed its share of attention. Two of TIFF's hottest tickets were Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar's latest psycho-sexual melodrama, Bad Education, and Brazilian director Walter Salles's biopic of a young Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries, which portrays the famed guerilla's 1952 road trip, long before he discovered the joys of firing squads and forced labor camps. Both open in Miami next month.

Gael Garcia Bernal, the talk of the Toronto International Film Festival, and the star of Bad Education (above) and The Motorcycle Diaries
Gael Garcia Bernal, the talk of the Toronto International Film Festival, and the star of Bad Education (above) and The Motorcycle Diaries

"Latin film doesn't want to be ghettoized," explains Diana Sanchez, a TIFF programmer. "Here it plays on a par with cinema from all over the world." And, she adds, it's precisely that one-stop-shopping aspect which has helped make Toronto such a draw for product-hungry distributors doing the international festival circuit. Another advantage: working in a city where not only the trains but the screenings run on time. "I hate going to some festivals and having to travel for an hour to get to a screening that ends up showing in a different place -- or not at all," Sanchez says. By contrast, she laughs, "Canada is a nation that prides itself on being nice. How wrong can you go?"

Sanchez plans to carry that spirit to this February's Miami International Film Festival, where she does double duty as the director of Encuentros -- a festival adjunct that seeks to match a clutch of promising new Latin pictures with distributors and financiers. Miami festival director Nicole Guillemet -- who jetted from Toronto directly to Spain's San Sebastian Film Festival -- has long pointed to Miami's Latin music industry, citing a desire to mirror that primacy in celluloid. Sanchez agrees, but stresses that it isn't going to happen overnight: "It's a long-term project."

In the meantime, expect to see several of TIFF's nineteen Latin features in Miami. Sanchez is particularly bullish on Argentinean director Carlos Sorin's Bombón-El Perro and Patrice Guzmán's Salvador Allende, a bio of the overthrown Chilean president. Just don't ask her to formally commit to any names yet: "I love all my children equally," she quips.

So what does the current state of Latin cinema look like? Well, it looks a lot like 25-year-old heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal, the star of both Bad Education and The Motorcycle Diaries, and a figure who managed to charm grizzled journalists, swooning teenage girls, and more than a few equally enraptured boys as well (a hat trick his Y Tu Mamá También co-star Diego Luna is having a much harder time achieving).

All four of Toronto's daily newspapers gave the festival continuous front-page coverage, making Miami's media treatment of the MTV Video Music Awards look positively restrained in comparison. And Bernal was a constant presence amid it all, whether being featured in gushing profiles or jauntily captured in late-night party snapshots. The local headlines said it best: "Sexy and Idealistic, Too"; "The Soul of Che, The Eyes of an Idol"; and Kulchur's personal fave, from a lone dissenter nauseated by the nonstop Bernal lovefest: "Hey, It's Just Acting."

Best not to turn on the television then: Toronto's answer to C-SPAN broadcast a Bernal press conference with the gravitas better suited to a Defense Department briefing, while the city's homegrown version of Deco Drive invaded the sold-out opening of The Motorcycle Diaries with a giddiness that would've made even Joan Rivers blush.

It wasn't as if Bernal didn't have competition. "This is the starting gate for the Oscars," festival co-director Noah Cowen boasted to Variety. "Either you're here or you have a reason for not being here." With the paparazzi chasing what seemed like half of Hollywood through Toronto's nightclubs and restaurants, it was hard to argue with that statement.

But you didn't even have to leave your hotel to catch a taste of the industry buzz. Entering the swanky Hotel Le Germain's breakfast dining room one morning was like stepping into a Fellini film: A photographer loudly argued over her cell phone with her editor back in New York over which up-and-coming directors were truly "hot," an Israeli distributor sailed through a PowerPoint presentation on his laptop computer, somehow managing to work his mousepad and stuff a croissant into his face with the same hand, and two gamine French actresses looked glamorously dishabille from the night before while pondering their crepes.

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