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Toto The Hero

Toto The Hero DVD Cover.Toto The Hero is a low budget Belgian film from the early 1990s, which garnered some critical praise at the time, was screened once or twice on Channel 4, and subsequently faded into obscurity, due to the much-hyped director's failure to match the quality with his second feature (more of that later) or to do anything at all after that. It's a film that I found incomparably moving and profound when I first saw it, and one that has revealed much about itself on subsequent viewings the older I get. This isn't to me an interesting, quirky foreign film that should have been seen by more people - this is the genuine, cast-iron greatest film ever made, and it makes me bilious with rage that it is not recognised as such. I've always rattled on about it, forced the video into peoples hands, and watched a small army of converts form. And as it has recently been released on DVD, I'll use my first column on NTS to champion it.

Toto The Hero begins with Thomas, a young boy who believes he has been switched at birth with neighbour Alfred after a hospital fire. The suspicious Alfred, content with his bigger house and richer family, forbids Thomas to reveal this information, sparking a chain of events that will haunt both men their entire lives. I'll refrain from divulging any more plot details as in the age of the internet and spoilers it's rare to get a chance to see a film without having had the ending spoilt for you except in the case of someone recommending 15 year old Belgian films, and the emotional impact of the film when viewed without an inkling as to what will go on is huge. Save to say that it eloquently speaks of love, loss, friendship, rivalry, envy, compassion, innocence, coincidence, longing, fantasy and memory in an epic, human narrative that still clocks in at an arse-friendly 90-odd minutes.

The new documentaries on the DVD are wonderful - catching up with the child actors (one of whom - Sandrine Blancke, google image search fans - may be the most beautiful woman on the planet now she's not 10 years old) and reviewing the film with them, and providing in depth access to the complex working processes of Jaco Van Dormael, who provides many surprises about the film. For example, he speaks of the problem of the audience being able to fully identify with the a character that is played by a number of different actors, and reveals how the Michel Bouquet who plays the elder Toto also provides the dubbed speaking voice for the middle aged Toto, played by Jo de Backer. This is seamlessly done, and does create a subconscious association which makes the transition seamlessly believable. Such attention to detail in no way draws attention to itself in the film, but it is fascinating to see the various subtle ways that Van Dormael coaxes or manipulates the viewer through these kind of techniques, and also wonderful to see them explored in such depth considering this is a fairly low profile release. A seperate documentary entitled Architect Of An Unfinished Dream reveals how on the films timeline, the sections with the elder Toto were supposed to take place in a dystopian, Blade Runner-style future which was largely excised for budget constraints but even here the attention to detail and depth of research puts most Sci-Fi blockbusters to shame.

The characters fixation with the past and detachment from the present is recognised visually in their modes of dress and choice of transport etc marking them out, and the influence of their childhood on these aspects of them really bridges the gap between the different periods of the film, as does the poignant recurrence of locations. The waves of emotion that greet a return to say, a holiday destination from childhood that remains unchanged, and how such an experience can highlight changes in yourself, is one key motif of the film.

At this point I'd only been able to show it to a couple of schoolfriends who berated me for "just liking it to seem clever" because they didn't really get it. My attempts to dredge it up from the depths of obscurity were proving futile as I'd lent my copy to one unreliable character who didn't return it, and it was practically impossible to get hold of another copy. By posting stilted French on various messageboards I finally managed to obtain a copy of the soundtrack (composed by the directors Brother, a reknown Belgian jazz guitarist) as a kindly Belgian rented the long deleted CD from their library and sent me a copy, and picked up the script from a second hand bookshop in Canada via Amazon. Each item or brief online mention of the film was like water to a dying man, I was that obsessed with the film, eventually picking up a second hand PAL video of it that I couldn't even play online for a ridiculous price just so I could hold it and remind myself that it existed. My obsession with this film was truly terrifying, much like the fact that it's four in the morning and the lounge door just opened on its own. I now have to finish this article tonight, because I'm too scared to get off the couch.

Some time after this Jaco Van Dormaels second feature film The Eighth Day was screened on Channel 4. Much as I wanted to adore this film, I could barely watch it. Towards the end I was beginning to wonder if it was simply the burden of my own expectations, but I think the bit with the clown dwarves laughing and singing and buying candyfloss or whatever the bloody hell they were doing would stretch anyones patience. It's the story of a middle aged businessman who is a bit of a shit, but befriends a Downs Syndrome sufferer called George who teaches him to see the world with a childlike beauty and win back his family. It's notable for the performance of the actor playing George, a genuine sufferer of Downs Syndrome who gives a stunning performance. There's one unbearably sad scene where he gives a waitress a present and she seems to be enjoying his affections until she takes off his sunglasses and notices Georges disability. Sensing her shock and revulsion, he starts crying and pounding the ground, which is pretty much what I did too. But the rest of it is just utter, cloying, patronising, sentimental tosh. Overlong, stylistically overwrought, and with none of the assurance or panache that made Toto so wonderful. And in the ending, the Downs chap kills himself to be at one with a ladybird or something, it's stupid. I hate it.

Being unable to watch Toto The Hero for such a long time enabled me to come to the DVD with fresh eyes, and unsurprisingly for a film about a life, more aspects of it become resonant the more experience you accrue. I intend to watch it once a year until I die, and possibly have it screened at my funeral, and once a year around my grave until nobody can be arsed anymore. Despite the unlikely and fantastical narrative, it's a story that connects with the whole array of basic human experiences, and despite telling the tale of a tragic life, finally leaves you with a message of hope and joy.

Toto The Hero is available here for £14.99.

About this entry


> incomparably moving and profound


I've been raving about this movie for a decade, since I saw it on VHS at college. I'd been hoping for a DVD for years before it finally showed up - don't know which surprised me more, the fact that is had some decently informative bonus material, or the fact that it not only lived up to my memory, but actually surpassed it.

Art-house-phobic nonsense about 'subtitled foreign films' be damned. In a post-Tarantino mainstream, Toto's fragmented narrative is even more accessible, but with a beauty and relevance that outstrips its peers. It's art, but it's no more 'art-house' than, say, The Usual Suspects. Except it lacks the paranoias about representing sexuality, gender and age that the mainstream constantly exhibits.

(It's on Terry Gilliam's Top Ten Movies list solely for a scene where the aging Thomas looks in the mirror and caresses his own sagging chest.)

And the style, the tone - it's like Jean-Pierre Jeunet mated with Christopher Nolan...or something.

The humour's graceful, the performances elegant, the photography incredibly evocative (such a simple trick, too, using the height of the camera to identify the fim's three eras), and the final twist is...what's the opposite of cheap? Expensive, I suppose.

Or maybe I should just stick with "incomparably moving and profound". That about covers it.

By Andrew
August 03, 2006 @ 3:29 pm

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Yeah, I was surprised by people writing it off as art-house piss too because as you say, it bears very little similarity to Jarmusch-style art house stuff, where everyone sits round and nothing happens. The pacing and structure of Toto are very tight., and it's even got shoot outs.

Is that chest-caressing shot the one where it cuts to Evelynes hand going up his younger arm and then back again? That's a fucking beautiful touch, that. I'm almost exploding with tears just thinking about it.

It doesn't say much that isn't in the documentary, but there's an ace interview with Jaco in the scriptbook, my copy of which is in my flat in Glasgow at the moment but I'll try and type up some highlights when I go back. Have you seen The 8th Day?

By Michael Lacey
August 03, 2006 @ 7:54 pm

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> Is that chest-caressing shot the one where it cuts to Evelynes hand going up his younger arm and then back again?

I assume so - I just caught him talking about it with Mark Kermode on the Newly Free Film Four.

> Have you seen The 8th Day?

I haven't. It's starting to sound like I shouldn't!

By Andrew
August 03, 2006 @ 8:13 pm

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I saw this movie, on some movie channel ages ago and it always stuck with me. I only saw it that once, but I was hooked. It is everything you all have said it is. I will go out on a limb and say it is one of the best pictures I've ever seen. I am planning on grabbing the DVD.

By Angela
August 06, 2006 @ 9:15 pm

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Michael Lacey: writing reviews of things that everyone likes since the weekend.

By Michael Lacey
August 06, 2006 @ 9:33 pm

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Hi, I'm looking for a copy of Toto le heros's soundtrack, but it's no longer avaible on the market (even for a second hand sale). May you get in contact with me to see how we can manage to exchange ? (my e-mail :]. Thnak you. Greg.

By Greg
February 12, 2007 @ 10:40 am

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Wow. Just watched this after pulling it up from the DVD section at Blackwells. Film should be the ultimate medium for artistic expression and yet we have so little of any worth. I absolutely agree about it being a cast-iron film, this is art at its best- lifting the soul, encapsulating in wide-angle all of human experience, loss of innocence etc. For me though it was most poignant in its depiction of a childhood and the past. tres tres belle indeed. Did 'If' appeal to any lovers of this movie? A long shot maybe.

By thomas
January 19, 2008 @ 8:58 pm

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Oh and i wept profusely. I am 22.

By thomas
January 19, 2008 @ 9:01 pm

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> Did 'If' appeal to any lovers of this movie? A long shot maybe.

I love 'If....' (Yes, four dots.) Not sure it has much relationship to 'Toto' beyond being 'good' and 'a film', but I finally picked up the DVD and adored it all over again.

I always wanted to write a book about the curious effect a combination of colour and black and white has on an audience - 'If....' being absolutely key to that discussion. 'A Matter of Life and Death' and 'The Wizard of Oz' put it to specific 'geographical' use, and 'Schlindler's List' uses colour as a simple identifier (albeit to powerful effect), but 'If....' - man, there's a whole other layer of use going on there.

A simpler filmmaker would have used colour for the 'real' stuff and black and white for the 'surreal' - or, more likely in the 60s, vice-versa. But the way 'If....' is made has something far more complex going on.

And it's not just that they ran out of money for colour stock...

By Andrew
January 21, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

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I read it was shot in monochrome because they had to use high speed film to catch the light during the chapel scenes which was provided by the large stain-glass window and too dim for conventional film.

The shoots done on colour stock were too grainy, hence they used the black and white. After watching these scenes Anderson added more, by and large at random, enjoying the way it 'broke up the surface of the film' and added to viewer disorientation before the plot slipped into fantasy.

Can anyone (Andrew, Michael?) recommend any films akin in Genre/Calibre to Toto?

By thomas
January 24, 2008 @ 11:42 pm

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> I love 'If....' (Yes, four dots.)

Ah, so the Beat The Geek captions were a subtle reference to this?

By Ian Symes
January 26, 2008 @ 9:48 am

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> Can anyone (Andrew, Michael?) recommend any films akin in Genre/Calibre to Toto?

God, where do you start?!

Atom Egoyan can be infuriating if he's not to your taste. But he is to mine, so try Exotica for something accessible, or Calendar for something impressive. (Fractured narratives in both, too.)

Chris Nolan's Memento, natch. Cronenberg's Spider has some thematic correspondence, but Dead Ringers is a better movie. Pan's Labyrinth if you like questioning what's 'real'.

Oh, and for a recent work of brilliance, David Fincher's Zodiac.

By Andrew
January 30, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

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There really isn't anything that "akin" to Toto, but you might enjoy the following for similar reasons...

The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser
Die Blechtrommel / The Tin Drum
The Fountain (along with Toto and Eternal Sunshine, makes up my best 3 films of the last 20 odd years)

I can't think of any more cos I've got a headache and the library is well noisy. I'll do more later

By Michael Lacey
January 31, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

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Pan's labyrinth explored very vividly the fantasy genre but didn't, I feel, set out to examine the nature of reality or, as you say, what is 'real'. It shared some qualities with Toto the Hero in that both films are infused with a hovering, child-like lack of distinction between dreams and reality, and to some extent, propose a triumph of imagination over 'banal' reality. So few films i have seen explore and celebrate the subconscious, with the exception of David Lynch, who often paints things in a dark or twisted light, albeit with great skill. The effect of watching something like Inland Empire or Blue velvet is one of omnipresent dread, as if you're expecting a tap on the shoulder from some psycho in a bunny outfit.

Fincher's Zodiac...hmmm. I saw it, on your recommendation actually, and while I did think it was good: good in its stylistic set-pieces, attention to detail, good in its script, acting, and camera-work, it didn't grab me or leave a lasting impression. Downey jnr. is a very lazy actor too. It felt like a very faithful version of events (with occasional flourishes of mastery) that took place, if not a life-changing or even 'brilliant' (to quote you Andrew) motion picture.

Perhaps I won't push this film onto my friends just yet, I am enjoying it all on my own very happily for now.

By Thomas
February 14, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

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> but didn't, I feel, set out to examine the nature of reality

I only said if YOU like questioning what is real. Given that the film never takes a side on whether the girl's experiences are happening, or just an imagined journey fueled by experience (deliberate correlations between the acts around her and the symbols along her journey abound), I think it's a fair comment.

And Zodiac IS brilliant. Which proves you are wrong. :-)

By Andrew
February 15, 2008 @ 1:59 am

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I've got to say, I did enjoy Zodiac, but it amounts to less than the sum of its parts somehow - hasnt really stuck in my head.

By Michael Lacey
February 15, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

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> Atom Egoyan can be infuriating if he's not to your taste. But he is to mine, so try Exotica for something accessible, or Calendar for something impressive. (Fractured narratives in both, too.)

How did I say this without including Where the Truth Lies. A much more mainstream Egoyan flick - see it and piss off the MPAA!

By Andrew
February 18, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

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Guillermo on Pan''s L:

For me, what she sees is a fully blown reality, spiritual reality," del Toro said on "Fresh Air," the public radio program hosted by Terry Gross. "I believe her tale not to be just a reflection from the world around her, but, to me, she really turns into the princess.

"There is a point in our life when we are kids when literature and magic and fantasy has as strong a presence in our soul as religion would have in later days ... it's a spiritual reality as strong as when people say, 'I accept Jesus in my heart.' Well, at a certain age, I accepted monsters into my heart."

Theologists and church-goers, rather oddly, are loving this movie for its ability to accommodate all casts and creeds. Specualtion exists about the film representing a global shift from the doctrines of organized religion, of which people are largely sceptical, to a personally defined faith/spirituality. Ophelia's getting sidetracked in the after-world could by some be seen as warning against dabbling in a practice for which you have not received proper training and guidance. Everything in her culture would have told her this was dangerous, possible satanic and scary. Del Toro was raised a strict catholic, his grandmother putting bottle ends upside-down in his boots as a child to encourage bleeding, a mortification of the flesh she insisted would raise spiritual awareness. Also she and G's grandfather tried to exorcise him twice as he drew monsters, so the macabre heaven and hell style plot have their roots in a reaction of the child's imagination to religious fanaticism.

By Thomas
February 20, 2008 @ 1:31 am

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And that's nonsense about Zodiac which is really jusr quite-good. At times it feels laboured and rather pious
for such an average movie.

By Anonymous
February 20, 2008 @ 1:36 am

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Cool - can you show me how you do that Google, copy and paste thing! :-)

> "For me, what she sees is a fully blown reality"

And Ridley Scott says Deckard's a replicant. Doesn't make the question based on the actual text any less interesting, doesn't leave the film less open to interpretation. Nor does it somehow prove me 'wrong', since I never declared a preference either way.

> And that's nonsense about Zodiac

"Thus I am wrong"?

By Andrew
February 20, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

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I really liked Toto the hero . The cinematography in it is simply amazing as is the acting of the young Thomas Godet. Got the DVD just recently - but it is now one of my favorite. Thanks for the great review.

By skykid
February 25, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

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I must apologise for what I see now is some very low-grade input. I am sort of ashamed. This film is still really good :) ps. coming off cipralex can be a real eye opener

By Anonymous
March 17, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

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yes. saw the enigma of kaspar hauser which is brilliant, very poignant. thanks for the introductions btw. atom egoyan's where the truth lies was pretty dire though.

By Anonymous
May 09, 2008 @ 7:55 pm

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Yes where the truth lies was really awful, sorry. good films- killer of sheep, 400 blows, ENIGMA OF KASPER HAUSER, looking for a 'the fountain' on pirate bay. fuck the system.

By Thomas
June 06, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

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Despite loving many films, this is the clear winner for Favorite Film for me. I sobbed — not cried, sobbed — for 15 minutes during and after the end when I saw it in a theater. It got a limited theatrical release, and I saw it mostly because of references to Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (which van Dormael quotes verbatim at the very beginning).

I think a lot of people didn’t really understand that this movie is about not wasting your life, about recognizing what is good that you have and not neglecting it for the sake of some ideal that you don’t. I see that everywhere. I see it in me. Embodying such a notion had to have been frighteningly difficult. And it’s so wonderfully rare to see image, word, and music work in such happy conspiracy toward a concerted effect.

So my question: Does anyone know where I can buy a Region 1 or 0 copy for USA DVD players? I’ve wanted a copy of this film since it came out, and any sources would be hugely appreciated. Thanks so much.

By Steve Boyett
September 15, 2008 @ 3:30 am

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I can’t seem to find a region 1 version online. Odd, since an old roommate of mine had a copy. Maybe he had a multi-region DVD player.

One thing you might want to try, Steve, is a quick Google to find out if you can change the region on your specific DVD player. On lots of them you can…you just need to use a code on the remote control that the manual doesn’t tell you about. Do a little research on your model number and see if you can turn your player into an all-region one.

If you can do that, you’ll be able to import loads of great stuff that you can’t get here. Good luck!

Phil Reed's picture

By Phil Reed
September 15, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

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