What will open TIFF?

Organizers weigh star power, scripts and politics as top-shelf titles including Silk, Eastern Promises and Fugitive Pieces look to land the plum, opening-night spot at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. A special report from Playback Daily

With the Toronto International Film Festival expected to soon announce this year’s opening film, the frontrunners include Deny Arcand’s L’Âge des ténèbres, which is closing Cannes’ official program, David Cronenberg’s thriller Eastern Promises, and Francois Girard’s period drama Silk, starring Keira Knightley.

Other contenders emerging from what could be the strongest field of Canadian films in years include Jeremy Podeswa’s Fugitive Pieces, Paolo Barzman’s Emotional Arithmetic, with an impressive international cast, and Rogers Spottiswoode’s Rwanda drama Shake Hands with the Devil.

TIFF co-directors Piers Handling and Noah Cowan are tight-lipped about this year’s prospects, as are most funders, producers and distributors contacted for this story, most of whom have a horse in the race.

But the early betting is on Silk, starring Michael Pitt as a 19th century French smuggler who betrays his wife (Knightley) with a Japanese mistress (Sei Ashina), from Rhombus Media and distribs Odeon Films and Picturehouse in the U.S.

Silk marks Girard’s first feature since 1998′s Academy Award-winning The Red Violin, also coproduced by Rhombus, which screened first in Venice before opening Toronto. It could repeat that Venice-to-Toronto path.

Also gathering industry buzz is Emotional Arithmetic, produced by Montreal’s BBR Productions and Toronto’s Triptych Media and distributed by Seville Pictures. The drama, about three characters separated by the Nazis who reunite 35 years later, boasts a cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne, Roy Dupuis, Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow. Director Barzman is a TV veteran whose credits include Relic Hunter and Queen of Swords.

There’s also Arcand’s L’Âge des ténèbres (Cinémaginaire, Alliance Atlantis Vivafilm). The Quebec director and his producer-partner Denise Robert have a long relationship with TIFF. Robert, busily preparing for Cannes, said she would like the film to make its North American bow in Toronto to back an English-Canadian theatrical release after that in Quebec.

While directors like Girard and Cronenberg might seek a Venice launch, if Cowan and Handling want a world premiere for their opening night, the best choice could be Jeremy Podeswa’s Fugitive Pieces (Serendipity Point Films/Strada Films/Maple Pictures).

The drama, featuring Rade Serbedzija, Rosamund Pike and Stephen Dillane, lacks North American star power, but producer Robert Lantos has had eight of his previous movies open Toronto, so he’s a known quantity. And Podeswa is also an insider, having screened his first two movies, Eclipse and The Five Senses, in Toronto.

Ditto for fellow Fugitive Pieces producer Sandra Cunningham, who is a former TIFF programmer. In another connection, the Harold Greenburg Fund has equity in Fugitive Pieces, while HGF parent company Astral Media annually sponsors TIFF’s opening-night gala at Roy Thomson Hall.

Toronto needs to book smartly this year. Selecting Deepa Mehta’s Water to open in 2005 underlined the fest’s ability to effectively launch a Canadian film and filmmaker into critical and box-office orbit.

By contrast, last year’s opener, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, flopped with the first-night audience.

This year, the industry consensus is that TIFF could use a crowd-pleaser that plays to cinephiles as well as the bankers and politicians perennially on hand for the invite-only opening gala.

The solution could come from Cronenberg, whose Eastern Promises (Focus Features/Alliance Atlantis), a U.K./Canada copro thriller about Russian mob intrigue in London, stars Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts, who would bring celebrity wattage to the red carpet. And it is also produced by Lantos.

Other contenders include Shake Hands with the Devil (Barna-Alper Productions/Halifax Film/Seville), which features Roy Dupuis as retired Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire in Rwanda at the time of that country’s genocide.

Another dark horse is The Stone Angel (Buffalo Gal Pictures/Skogland Productions/Odeon Films), an adaptation of the classic Margaret Laurence novel, with Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn in the starring role.