An Eerie, Thrilling Trip to the Toronto International Film Festival

“Would you like to move to the orchestra?” a voice from the dark whispered.

I was at the Toronto International Film Festival and, moments earlier, had just realized that I was the only festivalgoer in the very capacious, very empty balcony. In normal years, this 2,000-seat theater, a festival mainstay, is packed with excitedly buzzing attendees. But normal is so very 2019 as are crowds. It felt awfully lonely up there with just me and some ushers, so I said Sure! and ran down to the orchestra, settling amid other attendees who, perhaps like me, were trying to feign a sense of togetherness — at a Covid-safe distance, of course.

One of the largest film happenings in the world, the Toronto festival celebrated its 46th anniversary this year and, more gloomily, its second year of putting on a show during the pandemic. On a number of levels, it was a success: Although scaled down from its preplague era, the festival, which ends Saturday, presented some 200 movies, in person and digitally, from across the world. There were premieres, panels and lots of mask-muffled “Have a great day!” from the staff. Benedict Cumberbatch — the star of Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” and Will Sharpe’s “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” — popped in via satellite for a chat.

It was much the same while being profoundly different. More than anything, as I attended movies in the festival’s eerily depopulated theaters — sitting in rooms that, per Canadian safety rules, couldn’t exceed 50 percent capacity — I was reminded that a film festival isn’t simply a series of back-to-back new movies. It’s also people, joined together, and ordinarily jammed together, as one under the cinematic groove. There is always vulgarity, of course, the red-carpet posing, the Oscar-race hustling, and I’ve watched plenty of profane monstrosities at Toronto, Sundance, et al. But even when the movies disappoint, I am always happy at a festival, watching alongside people as crazy about movies as I am.