One of my favourite things about TIFF is the ability it affords cinephiles to discover, and then follow the careers of, international talent whom we might not otherwise get a chance to see at work, be they actors or directors. Many years ago, I saw a film at the festival called The White Masai and immediately fell under the spell of its captivating lead actress, Nina Hoss. In 2008, again at TIFF, I saw her in the brutally riveting A Woman in Berlin, which cemented my admiration. So, when I saw that this as-yet-undiscovered-by-North-America star had a film on deck for TIFF 2012, I immediately got myself a ticket without even reading the synopsis.
As it turned out, Barbara (6/8) is exactly the kind of film that boasts a role, I would assume, many actress would kill for. Hoss stars as the titular Berlin doctor, who’s banished to a remote country hospital in 1980s East Germany after she asks to head to the West. Under the omnipresent eye of steely Stasi officers and who knows how many civilian informants, Barbara begins working alongside a strapping and scruffy physician (Ronald Zehrfeld, who’s very much like a German Russell Crowe), who makes no secret of his growing attraction to his decidedly unhappy new colleague. But, with time and the arrival of a pair of troubled young patients, Barbara’s desire to escape her fate is suddenly not quite as strong as it once had been.
Anchored in Hoss’s reserved yet quietly intense performance (she’s amazing!), the film moves at a glacial pace and is more about mood and atmosphere and meticulous attention to detail than elaborate set pieces and action. Yet I wasn’t ever bored – there was something compelling about these characters and the world in which they lived that just watching them think or react was as engaging as watching them sprint down a dusty path while being chased by police dogs and accompanied by thunderous musical stings (which, by the way, never happens… it’s not that kind of movie).
Even though the screening I attended was the film’s premiere at the festival, there wasn’t a single person associated with the production on-hand for a pre-show intro or a post-film Q&A, which was disappointing. I’d kind of hoped that Hoss might show up, and that I’d be able to say I’d seen her in person, but that was not to be. Maybe next year, though, if she returns with Gold…