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TIFF 2017: Christopher Nolan goes big with Dunkirk screening at Ontario Place Cinesphere

Is it strange that one of the most exciting films to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival so far is one that was released two months ago? That was the question I had to mull while sitting inside Ontario Place's once-abandoned Cinesphere, as Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk flooded its six-storey Imax screen on Sunday afternoon.

Although the first weekend of TIFF has already delivered a bounty of adventurous, bold and even dangerous cinema – the bloody satire of Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin, the expert human drama of Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, the sheer outrageousness of Joseph Kahn's Bodied – it was a theatrical leftover, so to speak, that stole the show.

When Dunkirk was released across North American this past July, I was one of those many annoying critics who insisted that the Second World War drama could only be seen on an Imax screen, where Mr. Nolan's overwhelming imagery and tick-tock editing could overwhelm your heart and mind. Well, now I'm going to take that admonishment a supremely smarmy step further to insist that Dunkirk can truly, really, only be experienced on 70 mm Imax inside the Cinesphere, a sacred space for the ultraorthodox cinephile.

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Before introducing Sunday's screening, TIFF chief executive Piers Handling cracked to the audience, "Haven't you all seen this already?" Certainly most had, but the opportunity to see Mr. Nolan's vision play out on one of the world's premiere Imax screens ensured a capacity crowd.

History was in the air as well, with 2017 being Imax's 50th anniversary, and the Cinesphere being the first venue to hold a TIFF gala screening, back when it was known as the Festival of Festivals, in 1976. To top it off, Mr. Nolan brought his first film, Following, to TIFF in 1998. So when the director stepped in front of the massively intimidating Cinesphere screen to introduce the film Sunday, eveything felt right at home.

That sense of comfortable familiarity collided with one of bracing innovation once the movie started. In the background was the whir of an old-school 70 mm projector, a sound you just don't encounter at the multiplex today, and its flicka-flicka hum was almost a Proustian moment. But once Dunkirk moved from the beach to the sea to the air and the bombs started dropping, Mr. Nolan's modern-blockbuster vision took over not only the screen but the entire physical space. It was a beautiful collision of analog tech and modern art.

Inside the Cinesphere, located a world away from the frenzied environment of TIFF's King Street hub, it was possible to feel truly transported. Or, to borrow from TIFF's occasionally frustrating mission statement, everyone inside the theatre was transformed in the way they see the world through film – for at least a moment or two.

Programming the event – a free one, though Godspeed if you were able to get tickets before they were snapped up by TIFF members and privileged members of the media such as myself (sorry!) – was a generous move on the festival's behalf, but also a canny one. As TIFF still fashions itself as the unofficial starting line of the Oscar race – a view mostly shared by the industry, depending on the shifting winds of Telluride and Venice – working this year's odds-on best picture favourite into the proceedings meant that the festival gets to claim Dunkirk's potential Academy Awards success. Even if it's only in spirit.

Mr. Nolan himself wasn't preoccupied with any awards-race talk, though. After the film ended, he leapt to the front of the theatre to participate in a 20-minute Q&A with TIFF's artistic director, Cameron Bailey, and the conversation mostly kept to aesthetics and projection.

"We shot the majority of the film using Imax 65 mm film, so this is from the original negative print. This is the best possible format," Mr. Nolan said. "There are 35 prints like this around the world. This is as good as I've ever seen it."

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Later, when Mr. Bailey asked whether it was hard to qualify the difference between images when it came to shooting on film versus shooting on digital, Mr. Nolan offered an eloquent treatise on the importance of cinematic tradition without getting into the weeds.

"It's hard to qualify, because you would have to go into the technical details of resolution, but that's irrelevant," he said. "What's the feeling you get while you're watching? There's a depth to film. Film is the best analogy for how the eye sees that we've come up with."

Afterward, as I made my way out of the otherworldly Ontario Place and back to the relative normalcy of downtown – filled with frenzied members of the media and industry buzzing about, trying to duck offers of free McDonald's coffee while public rush lines wrapped around side streets and alleyways – I couldn't help but mentally relive as many of Dunkirk's images as possible. And the last thing I wanted to do was watch another movie.

After all, once you go big, how do you go back?

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About the Author

Barry Hertz is the deputy arts editor and film editor for The Globe and Mail. He previously served as the Executive Producer of Features for the National Post, and was a manager and writer at Maclean’s before that. His arts and culture writing has also been featured in several publications, including Reader’s Digest and NOW Magazine. More

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