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The big historical picture painted in American Pastoral is compelling, but it's the small details of The Salesman and Graduation that will have audiences invested in the characters. (Richard Foreman;Jr)
The big historical picture painted in American Pastoral is compelling, but it's the small details of The Salesman and Graduation that will have audiences invested in the characters. (Richard Foreman;Jr)

The artistic advantages of adversity in film Add to ...

In Romania, a well-established doctor, his librarian wife and their teenage daughter live on the ground floor of a dingy housing complex in a crowded two-bedroom flat where he has been banished to the living-room couch.

In Iran, the high school teacher Emad and his wife, Rana, fare better, until they are forced to evacuate their bright and spacious apartment when excavations at a neighbouring construction site threaten their building with collapse.

And in America, the land of opportunity? The owner of a glove factory and his pampered wife live on an idyllic New Jersey estate in a large, clapboard house set amongst green hills dotted with contented cows.

This year’s Toronto International Film Festival is filled with dramas in which the family serves as the microcosm of society and that society is often sick or divided. But only in America is it also rich and free – which doesn’t necessarily make for a better movie.

In Graduation, the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu traps that good doctor in a torturous spiral of moral compromises as he begins to barter favours to ensure his traumatized daughter aces the exam that is her ticket out of a corrupt, dysfunctional country. In The Salesman, director Asghar Farhadi continues his dissection of domestic life and the status of women in Iran in another tightly wound plot triggered by an attack, this one on Rana in the unsatisfactory new apartment to which the couple relocates. American Pastoral, Ewan McGregor’s valiant attempt to adapt the Philip Roth novel for the screen, is also a story of a family under extreme stress and features another father determined to rescue his daughter: In the midst of the turbulent 1960s, Seymour (Swede) Levov struggles to save the rebellious Merry as she flirts with terrorism.

As violent political simplifications threaten both Swede’s family and his business, only McGregor’s film paints in the full social backdrop. During a race riot, Swede tries to protect his factory, and its multiracial work force, from roving black looters. Meanwhile, the teenage Merry, viciously angry over the Vietnam war, rejects her comfortable upbringing and bombs a post office. The shot of that small-town institution with its fluttering American flag is the film’s signature image.

But in Iran, you can’t make movies that suggest your society is in such disarray that its dreams are dying. Farhadi’s brilliance lies in the way he subtly insinuates social critique while focusing narrowly and dramatically on individuals. In what ill-regulated place can a construction project be permitted to undermine the foundation of a neighbour? That event is never explained; nor is the attack on Rana. It just stands throughout the film as both an unstated indictment of the treatment of women and the occasion for Emad and Rana to consider their own relationship.

Nor does Romania have a long history of free speech. In his 2007 film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mungiu set the action in his country’s recent Communist past, implying an exploitative and corrupt society through a story about a young woman’s attempt to get an abortion. In Graduation, the doctor is named Romeo and he does speak of the failures of the country with which he shares a similar name; he complains about the bribery and cronyism and longs for a more honest place as he tries to work the system to secure his daughter’s future. The focus is tight but the implication is dark: Corruption drags everyone down with it.

American Pastoral is narrated, like the novel on which it is based, by Roth’s recurring character Nathan Zuckerman, who attended high school with the mighty “Swede” and the beauty queen who became his wife. Nathan assumed that his football-playing hero could simply reach out and grasp anything he wanted, and is shocked to discover that this personification of the American dream could be visited by sorrow and tragedy. He ends by saying you can be quite wrong about people but his surprise seems oddly naive. Bad things happen to all of us.

Farhadi and Mungiu know that and, as artists, they exploit that wisdom ruthlessly. In the fine tradition of the sly cinema produced by censorship, they use bad luck as a repeated stand-in for society’s failures. Characters in their films are at the mercy of small events with big consequences or accidents that trigger a downward spiral: Both Graduation and The Salesman are launched by a brazen attack on a woman – one in broad daylight on her way to school; the other in her own apartment. What kind of society stands by while such things happen? One that is failing its people.

The big historical picture that McGregor paints in American Pastoral can be compelling but in the end it is the small, personal details of Graduation and The Separation that will make an audience feel for the characters. The privileges of wealth and freedom are wonderful but adversity and restriction can create great art.

Graduation screens at Sept. 15, 9 a.m., Lightbox; The Salesman on Sept. 13, 5:45 p.m., Lightbox; and Sept. 14, 1 p.m., Lightbox; American Pastoral on Sept. 10, 10 a.m., Elgin Theatre.

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