Toronto relieved as fest bows ‘Barbarian’

City to welcome celebs like Cage, Kidman, Altman

TORONTO — Toronto, which has had a tough year due to the SARS epidemic, is poised to bounce back to life, thanks to the Toronto Film Festival, which starts today.

Many in Canada’s largest city figure the fest, which literally takes over the town during its 10-day-run, will help rejuvenate the city and send out the message that Toronto is finally over SARS.

All indications are that the festival is in fine form — a few months back, it seemed possible the event would be nixed or scaled back due to the health emergency, but, if anything, the fest looks to be attracting more high-profile pics and guests than ever before.

A partial guest list released Wednesday includes Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Nicolas Cage, Gus Van Sant, Jane Campion, Joel Schumacher, Jonathan Demme, Robert Benton and Robert Altman.

Others include Gary Sinise, Samira Makhmalbaf, Joan Cusack, John Sayles, Richard Curtis, Amos Gitai, Gong Li, Katie Holmes, Emmanuelle Beart, Jerry Bruckheimer, Ridley Scott, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn, Omar Sharif, Denzel Washington and Isabella Rossellini.

The festival kicks off tonight with the first screening in English-speaking North America of Montreal auteur Denys Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions,” a double prize-winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The French-language comic drama about a group of aging baby boomers, which Miramax is set to launch across North America later this fall, is already a major hit on its home turf of Quebec. It has rung up more than C$5 million ($3.6 million) since its bow in May.

Toronto starts screening in earnest Friday, with a lineup that includes gala presentations of Scott’s “Matchstick Men” with Cage, Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman, and French helmer Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s “Bon Voyage,” starring Isabelle Adjani, Gerard Depardieu and Virginie Ledoyen.

Last year’s edition was marked by media grumbling about overbooked screenings, and fest organizers say they have remedied the problem by adding extra industry screenings. In addition, the fest has kept certain theaters free in order to quickly book additional screenings for films generating media and industry heat.

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