Lying in his grim little room in an old people's home, 80-year-old Thomas regrets that nothing of any importance has happened in his life. He clings to his childhood conviction that things would have been different if only he had not been mixed up, as a baby, with the rich and successful Alfred. So begins an odyssey through Thomas' memories, full of quirky comedy and seemingly inevitable tragedy, as his thoughts turn toward revenge.

Toto The Hero is a truly original film, visually inventive and imaginative, which packs in a remarkable number of surprises for what seems at first like a straightforward story. Beautifully shot with rich colours and perspectives that change throughout the hero's life, it makes full use of the medium to tell its tale, though its real strength is in the script.

As Thomas' obsession with Alfred blurs the boundaries between them, so the language becomes ambiguous and filled with gentle double entendres, reminding the viewer of the different ways each incident might be interpreted. Having never really separated himself from his childhood identity, Thomas is unable to examine events from the outside, but the clever script and strong supporting performances enable the viewer to observe a much more complex world.

The irascible hero is surprisingly likeable, largely because he never quite stops being a child. Playful camerawork and brief diversions into fantasy evoke the films of Terry Gilliam, but Toto The Hero never gets sidetracked into homage. Jaco van Dormael's vision remains clear throughout. It is this simplicity and single-mindedness that make the film something really special.

As well as being well worth watching for its own sake, the film features the debut performances of Thomas Godet and Sandrine Blancke, both on fine form. Michel Bouquet is a strong lead, and the actors playing each of the main characters at different ages are quite believable as incarnations of one another. The use of recurrent visual motifs (yellow dresses, little red fish, a home-made rose) links them together across time, with van Dormael cutting between scenes connected by similar themes so that his chronological adventurousness seems to make perfect sense.

Though it drags a little in places, most of the film has been shaped by fast cutting, which gives it an energy and immediacy that makes everything seem like the present.

Toto The Hero is a real gem, and should not be missed.

Reviewed on: 04 May 2006
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An old man looks back on his life and on the life he believes was rightfully his.
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Director: Jaco van Dormael

Writer: Jaco van Dormael, Laurette Vankeerberghen, Pascal Lonhay, Didier de Neck

Starring: Michel Bouquet, Jo De Backer, Thomas Godet, Peter Bohlke, Mireille Perrier, Sandrine Blancke, Gisela Uhlen, Didier Ferney

Year: 1991

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France/Belgium/Germany

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