Toto -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

VIENNA -- Though he's bafflingly unheralded outside his native Austria -- and not exactly a household name even within its boundaries -- Peter Schreiner confirms his status as one of Europe's finest living documentarians with his superb, poetic "Toto." Taking a challenging and radically unconventional approach to seemingly unremarkable material -- a middle-aged man travels from his home in Vienna to his Italian birthplace -- Schreiner's intense attention to detail yields startling sensory magic from everyday sights and sounds.

Maximum festival exposure is fully deserved, ideally alongside retrospectives allowing adventurous audiences the chance to discover this master for themselves. Arthouse distributors seeking cutting-edge fare really must check it out, even though it isn't exactly an easy "sell" in the current economic climate.

The protagonist, Antonio Cotroneo, is no celebrity, and even after 128 minutes of crisp monochrome video, we're still not quite sure exactly what he does for a living. There are no captions to guide us, no voice-over but just an expertly-organized mosaic of fragmentary scenes in which we observe Toto (as Cotroneo is known to his friends) in a variety of settings. These include the opulent spaces of his work-place, Vienna's Konzerthaus; the sun-baked streets, bars and beaches of his birthplace Tropea, a bathing and fishing resort way down in Calabria; and the train that transports him from the former to the latter.

The soundtrack is filled with Toto's ruminations on life and death, explorations of his personality and sometimes just the sound of his breathing. Schreiner's tripod-mounted camera gets close enough to examine the pores and wrinkles on Toto's world-weary face -- the image is frequently cropped at disorienting angles, catching us off guard and forcing us to see the world through Schreiner's eyes and Toto's mind.

A resident of Vienna for some decades, Toto is clearly a reflective, philosophical chap, an intellectually restless maverick who takes life seriously. But Schreiner provides welcome changes of tone by interviewing elderly members of the Cotroneo family and various childhood friends including the toothless, scene-stealingly garrulous Melo de Benedetto.

By accumulating oblique "strokes," Schreiner painstakingly constructs a piercing study of an individual and his environments. While some may balk at his refusal to impart seemingly crucial information, even they will surely concede the stark beauty of his images and soundscapes.

Pretty much a one-man show in creative terms, "Toto" showcases Schreiner's skills as director, cinematographer, sound-designer and editor. The film is the latest organic addition to a sparse but impressive body of work -- most recently 2006's similarly striking "Bellavista" -- that reveals Schreiner's passionate and empathic fascination with outsider figures, especially those who express their difference through unusual forms of language. Toto Cotroneo, for example, is heard composing poetry in the unusual Tropea dialect. And, while his "day job" at the Konzerthaus is, we realize, a relatively mundane one, he's treated here with the dignity and gravitas appropriate for a Nobel Laureate.

Venue: Vienna International Film Festival
Production companies:
Director/producer/director of photography/editor/ music: Peter Schreiner
Sales: Sixpackfilm, Vienna
No rating, 128 minutes