TIFF 2023: The Monk and the Gun, Toll, Woodland | Festivals & Awards

The story’s setting is lovely, thematically and visually. It’s 2006 in Bhutan, and the nation has just started to receive Internet and television. Its gorgeous hills and serene mountainsides remain unchallenged, but it makes the slowly growing number of TVs and satellite dishes pop when we see the outsides of homes. It’s exciting how the movie focuses on an entire time of a country, but “The Monk and the Gun” goes epic without having the finesse for its individual arcs. 

This is all a backdrop for one young monk, Tashi (Tandin Wangchuk) to find a gun for his aging lama. Tashi’s presence is packaged almost like vignettes, connecting one interaction to the next. With no sense of confrontation, he is nonetheless a standout from the process, as one of this movie’s most gorgeous images presents: a rolling mountain on the left, another massive form of land on the right, and a hill in the center. Tashi approaches in the middle, the center of all of them. Then he picks up the gas tank he’s been lugging and walks away. 

And yet—and you can see how this is frustrating—the movie is also about the upcoming elections, and the new process of democracy that must be taught to villagers who have been set in their way for centuries. They need to be registered, many of them need to learn their birthdays, and they even need to learn how to disagree about politics. “The Monk and the Gun” creates a roster of good characters, including a family who is bullied for the father’s beliefs, but they distract from one another. 

With all of these of gentle conflicts, “The Monk and the Gun” only achieves its desired wisdom by the third act, and that’s after a whole bit with a greedy American gun trader and his Bhutanese translator. Across too many storylines, the movie wrestles with modernity and Western ideas. 

Of all of the films that I’ve screened remotely for the Toronto International Film Festival, Carolina Markowitz’s “Toll” has to be the most bleak. Which is never a problem, unless it has the shortcomings of something like “Toll”: a self-serious drama that mistakes tragedy for a sludgy parable. In which the rules of this story seem to be: don’t be so homophobic against your child that you enter a life of crime trying to pay for his conversion camp, or something like that. 

“Toll” is made of two stoic performances which are reduced to glum ideas in the process: the mother, Suellen (Maeve Jenkings), works at a toll booth and is trying to keep things together in her working-class home with a shady boyfriend and her queer son Tiquinho (Kauan Alvarenga), who likes to film himself lip syncing Billie Holiday with the bravado of a sold-out bar, among his aesthetic choices. They are both two endearing spirits, thanks to the performances bringing them to the screen. It hurts to see the two become even more distant than teen angst guarantees and for Tiquinho to not be accepted for who he is. Markowicz’s thinning script then puts them on a journey that gradually disintegrates their senses of self.