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Introducing a prime candidate to get lost in the shuffle: a film about a lovelorn French soccer player, who kicks a ball around Montreal and fumbles into crime. A film so deadpan and unassuming, it has been called the Québécois equivalent of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise.

It was also a film so under-the-radar when it was made last year that those programming the Canadian selections at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, that is, those most in the know about independent Canadian films coming down the pipeline, weren't even aware of it.

End of story, you'd think.

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But Sur la trace d'Igor Rizzi (On the Trail of Igor Rizzi), Montreal director Noël Mitrani's feature debut, now out in Quebec and playing today at Toronto's Royal Cinema, with future dates to come in Vancouver and Ottawa, has become one of the most acclaimed recent Canadian films by the few who have seen it. Championed by programmers at Cannes, Venice and Toronto, each nudging the other to take a closer look, the very name On the Trail is apropos to the winding path the film has taken.

It was still a week away from completion when applications for last year's Cannes festival were due. Mitrani took a chance as an utter unknown and sent in a DVD of the rough edit. The film wasn't selected, but Mitrani learned a month after the festival that programmers had wanted to accept the film, but hesitated at the last minute. Instead, they got in touch with the Venice programmers and recommended the film. The Venice programmers then contacted Telefilm Canada to find out about the movie.

As Mitrani explains, Telefilm didn't know anything about it. Yet On the Trail of Igor Rizzi went on to become the only Canadian drama at the last Venice festival. "In Venice, it was incredible. We arrived with no publicity, and the theatre was completely full with 800 spectators. I don't know where they all came from," Mitrani says. But word of mouth had grown after Italian critics enthused about it.

Meanwhile, Stacey Donen, who was until recently a key programmer of Canadian films at the Toronto festival, only heard about the movie through a filmmaking friend. Donen then received a DVD copy mere days before he and other TIFF programmers had to make their final selections for the 2006 TIFF.

The film went on to win the festival's Best First Canadian Feature (causing many to wonder what this little-seen film was all about). It also won a spot on the annual Canada's Top Ten awards, organized by the Toronto International Film Festival Group.

"It was an eye-opener and the rest of our team thought similarly. So it was a pretty simple decision [to support it]once we saw it," says Donen, who has since left TIFF and is now programming director for Toronto's Royal, an art-house cinema that is one of the few in the country showing a new, wonderfully hip spate of Canadian films, such as Reginald Harkema's Monkey Warfare and now Igor Rizzi.

Mitrani, who is now 37, had wanted the film about Montreal's not-so-mean streets to remain his own work, without artistic interference. That meant self-financing it and finding a way to shoot on 35-mm film for only $50,000.

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He could initially only offer his crew and actors, including acclaimed French actor Laurent Lucas, a hot meal per day as payment. The self-financing route also kept the project out of the Canadian film-funding grapevine.

The film's draw is his self-assured directing, a compliment often heard from fans. He succeeds in continually returning to scenes with the highly uncommunicative, soul-searching soccer player (played by Lucas) wandering around the city, in pseudo-training with ball in hand, and making it all subtly hilarious.

And although Mitrani says the comparison with Jarmusch has become old hat, it does make easy critical shorthand.

Still, shooting the film in the Montreal cold does lend the film a Stranger Than Fiction feel. "I really wanted to make my film in February in the snow in Montreal," Mitrani says. "I really wanted to show the real Montreal, the city where I live every day."

And in the ice and snow, he shot the whole movie first on video to organize the shots. Much of the film seems improvised, such as when the soccer player doodles and fumbles around in his car while waiting for Igor Rizzi, the man he has been hired to assassinate. But Mitrani had all of the fumbling preplanned in his head.

"We were so prepared for the [actual]filming, most of the [final]movie was shot with one take," Mitrani says in passable English. He grew up in Toronto until he was 5, speaking English. But moving to France with his French parents, his French was so bad that he was forbidden to speak English at home in order to improve.

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After studying at the Sorbonne and making a series of short films before relocating to Montreal in 2004, Mitrani has had to relearn English. It's a convoluted personal story he can only laugh at, a lot like the path his film has taken.

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