Maybe the Mayan calendar's dire warnings are hanging over us as we approach 2012, or maybe it's the weirdo weather we've been having, but so far the air at this year's Toronto International Film Festival smells like ozone, and the mood could be labelled "apocalypses now." I know, the festival hasn't officially begun, but I've been going to screenings for two weeks, and already I've seen more wayward lightning bolts, birds dropping from clear skies, hyperventilating actors and uneasy dreams than I can shake a rain stick at. And remember, all we prophets of doom are dismissed – until it's too late.
The obvious examples are Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, in which a hitherto unseen giant planet is rolling ever so inexorably toward tiny little Earth, which only confirms the despair of a clinically depressed bride (Kirsten Dunst); and Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter, about a Pennsylvania construction worker (Michael Shannon) who becomes convinced that his sweat-soaked nightmares of Armageddon are about to come true.
Because these are TIFF films, the apocalypses are not only visually stunning, they're multi-layered metaphors, too. Both Dunst and Shannon's characters are also engaged in side struggles that have nothing to do with the end of the world. She's getting married, allegedly in the bosom of friends and family. But even under a mountain of tulle, she can't hide her malaise. And instead of truly caring for and about her, her so-called loved ones are really just hoping that she doesn't make one of her usual scenes.
The same is true for Shannon's character. His mother (Kathy Baker) was swept under by schizophrenia when she was his age, and at first he tries to deal with his visions clinically. But the signs of social apocalypse are everywhere, too – his small-town heath-care system can't support him, and when he breaks down at a church supper, his allegedly Christian brethren stare at him in horror instead of rushing to his aid.
In both films, the end of days is macro, yes, but it's the micro that is even scarier. If what is melting down is society, religion, fellow feeling – and ultimately, one's own sanity – then there's nowhere to run and hide, no place that's safe.
Those kinds of smaller, more personal apocalypses are always in evidence at TIFF. Crisis is the stuff of drama, after all, and you shouldn't make a movie about someone unless something pretty interesting is happening in his or her life. Also, most films released after Sept. 1, whether they're in TIFF or not, look dire next to the fluff we've been consuming all summer, the season in which a film like Bridesmaids is earnestly discussed for its trenchant wit and groundbreaking approach to gender issues.
But even given all that, "The stakes are especially high in a lot of films this year," says Jane Schoettle, and she should know – as TIFF's programmer for the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Israel, she's seen hundreds of them. "Those issues are cranked up, they're not shrouded in metaphor. A lot of films are confronting moral, ethical dilemmas and the human cost of being alive." She cites examples as varied as Think of Me, whose tagline reads, "As things unravel for a struggling single mother [Lauren Ambrose]in Las Vegas, she must decide what she's willing to give up to get by," and The Hunter, about a biomedical company that hires Willem Dafoe to try to find a Tasmanian tiger, a species rendered extinct due to human selfishness.
In those key words – unravel, struggle, give up, extinct, selfish – lies the trend. The world ends over and over in the random selection of films I've seen, be it families torn asunder by violence ( Drive) or emotional crises ( Take This Waltz); young lovers' lives circumscribed by death ( Restless); an innocent couple stalked and tortured for sport with the help of contemporary technology ( 388 Arletta Ave.); or sex bereft of connection to the point of oblivion ( Sleeping Beauty). And anyone searching for signs that humans are morally bankrupt will find it in Machine Gun Preacher, both in its depiction of child soldiers in Sudan and in its hero's distressingly violent attempts to help.
"Film is the most accessible vehicle we have to raise these kinds of issues, and have these big discussions," Schoettle says. What the myriad international filmmakers present at TIFF are the stirrings they've picked up from the collective unconscious, and made manifest in pixels, celluloid and light. We watch together to learn what we're thinking about.
Another major trend that Schoettle's noticed is the seismic shift in mass migration, and the tensions and upheavals it brings in its wake. "Nobody lives where their grandparents are from any more," she says. "The impact is felt on societies, cultures and families, on every level. It involves war, politics, the economy." (That is, all the armageddons.) This subject can be seen in films from all over Europe, including Terrafirma (Italy), Hotel Swooni (Belgium), Omar Killed Me (France) and The Color of the Ocean (Germany).
It's no metaphor: For much of humankind, the world we grew up in is dead, and the one we have now feels none too steady. But if fiction doesn't convince you, how about fact? The documentary The Island President tells the true story of Mohamed Nasheed, the leader of the Maldives, a tiny territory composed of 1,200 coral islands off the coast of India, of which 200 are occupied. Nasheed spent two decades leading a pro-democracy movement against a dictatorship, was imprisoned and tortured, got elected president at 41, and now faces a challenge beyond daunting: Thanks to global warming, his country is literally sinking into the rising ocean. For him and his people, the apocalypse is a fact, and unless the larger world can be stirred to care, it's right around the corner.