In the 90s, whenever Terry Gilliam was interviewed and asked about recent films you should see, his standard answers were Unforgiven and Toto the Hero. I tried to hunt the film down for ages, and first found it in a charity shop. Now it’s available on Blu-Ray, so you, too, can see that it’s a very Gilliamesque story.
The film is set in a not-so-distant future that looks exactly like Belgium in 1991—the original plan was for something much more futuristic, but budget constraints prevented it. The focus is Thomas, a dying man, who calls himself Toto. The film is told mostly through flashbacks that run through how his life could have been different. He’s a very unreliable narrator who believes he may have been switched with another baby, Alfred Kant, who was born at the same hospital. Alfred was wealthy and had everything handed to him, so Toto is filled with resentment. These are themes that would definitely attract Gilliam, and there’s even a bit of Citizen Kane in there with its plot of a man looking back on his life with regret.
Toto’s resentment grows over the years, and he plots his revenge against Alfred. His thoughts are shown through fantasies of all the ways his life could have been different, such as being a secret agent. It was written and directed by Jaco van Dormael, whose better-known film, Mr. Nobody, was one of the most ambitious movies ever made. Similar to The Fall or Cloud Atlas in scope, that film is about parallel lives and choices in a science-fiction setting. Mr. Nobody can be seen as a continuation of the themes he addressed in Toto the Hero, although he needed someone to rein him in a little the second time around.
Van Dormael is known for his sympathetic portrayals of characters with disability, and this film introduces the excellent actor Pascal Duquenne, who has Down syndrome. The director himself grew up in the shadow of disability due to an accident at birth. His films also generally deal with death, but in a positive way, in a similar vein as Fellini or Kusturica. It’s one of those films that the older you get, the more it has different forms of relevance to your own life, which is the sign of a really powerful film and one that warrants revisiting.
If you’re a fan of filmmakers like Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet, you will feel at home with Toto the Hero. It’s very impressive for a first feature as well.
The disc includes an hour-long making-of documentary and a featurette on Francois Schuiten, a comic-book artist who was involved with the film. Both were ported over from the previous Second Sight DVD. There’s also a new booklet with an essay by Jon Towlson. A interview or introduction with Gilliam would have been a nice addition.