Written & Directed by Jaco Van Dormeal
Belgium/ 1991/ 91 mins
homas is an unreliable narrator and swears he has been swapped at birth with his spoiled, meanspirited and irritating neighbour Alfred. Toto the Hero begins in Thomas’ future, the crisp cold darkness of a manor home the scene of a death, revenge and the payoff of a life’s turmoil and imagination-fuelled vengeance. It’s not always clear where the line of fantasy is drawn, with the mosaic of flashbacks and whimsical perspective clouding the narration but, as Thomas reflects, we realise this has always been the case. Its peculiar sense of childlike innocence and fantasy reinforces the traumatic struggles and occasionally outlandish plot while enriching the humour.
Taking its title from Toto, the imagined self Thomas wishes he could be, a detective righting the wrongs of his father’s death, the film plays out with clever laughs and catching visuals. For decades filmmakers have endeavoured to blend aspects of children’s fantasy with adult themes and humour, usually leaning heavily on one rather than incorporating them together. Toto the Hero is an abnormally rare example of infusing two story-telling methods sublimely, building on the foundations laid by the other.
Walther van den Ende’s cinematography plays expertly into the daydream angle, offering up heaps of enjoyable shots as the film plays into Thomas’ imagination. Whether this is reducing the colour scale as the film-noir Toto, or the hyper-realist colours of Belgian suburbia with the dancing tulips, the film’s editing allows a seamless cause and effect narrative, gradually switching between the catalyst of Thomas’ frustrations and repercussions. There’s also a dose of adroitness as the characters age, where scenes tend to have quicker edits, while the never-ending days of youth are served with complimentary lengthier shots.
Despite these leanings into rich colours, Toto the Hero refreshingly abstains from sentiment. Relationships can be pure and loving, but the grief, loss and trauma strikingly never stray into melodrama. Michel Bouquet’s sombre voice throughout means that Thomas’ emotional pitch never crescendos; nothing is played for the sake of drama. His desire for revenge on childhood nemesis Alfred never reaches a pitch of ridicule, rather a bitter pang which allows the two to remain speaking, even when vying for the affection of their mutual crush Alice.
Standing head-and-shoulders ahead of her adult peers, Sandrine Blancke’s short time as Alice, Thomas’ possible-sister-love-interest is, for a child performer, exceptional. The incestual nature of Alice and Thomas’ relationship, even if he may not be her brother, is off-putting, and there’s a disturbing focus on Alice’s sexuality as a minor. This does, however, play into the hands of Thomas’ fantasy, and is handled with a deal of delicacy and authenticity which staves off ill-intent. Blancke’s powerful presence balances Thomas Godet’s impetuous, imaginative but shy Thomas as a child.
Nowhere is the writing tauter than in the conclusion, the final clutch Thomas takes to turn the tables and reclaim his ‘stolen’ life. From murder plot to acceptance, the disjointed beginning finds meaning in a tightly stitched series of events which result in a tremendous payoff. But irritatingly this is Toto the Hero’s key fault – it’s too positive. There are a few too many occasions where Jaco Van Dormael’s direction is hesitant to bite down. His reputation for respectful films, which promote those with mental and physical disabilities makes for an exceptionally well-cast film, with intricate writing that both understands and values the struggles of individual characters. It just means Van Dormeal refrains from drawing blood.
Maintaining the film’s ethereal nature, Arrow Film’s Blu-ray rerelease brings an exemplary piece of Belgian cinema to fresh audiences, showcasing a rare species of film. One where the nuances of childhood revelry, make-belief and daydreaming enhance the adult comedy, ideas and repercussions.
Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/toto-the-hero/