Dispatches from the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival: Part I

(Note: Most of the reviews below originally appeared at this link.)

The 53rd Chicago International Film Festival kicked off a week ago and will be running until the 26th. As expected, the incredible diversity of its lineup – 150 films from 50 countries – has made it a paradise for moviegoers sick of dull commercial releases. Below, quick reviews of some of this year’s standouts:

  1. A Ciambra

    Image courtesy of Academy Two.

Pio Amato (played by himself) is an illiterate Romani slum-dweller who finds himself confronting a classic teenage dilemma: even though he wants his relatives to start treating him “like a real man,” he also doesn’t want to relinquish the creature comforts of childhood. His efforts to escape this quandary supply the premise for Jonas Carpignano’s engaging, grittily poetic A Ciambra, which Italy selected as its submission to the Academy for next year’s Best Foreign Language Film award. Carpignano provides an uncommonly intelligent testament to the unpleasant, morally gray sacrifices that adulthood often entails – and his portrait of modern-day Italy accurately delineates the many economic and social problems that that country faces. What’s most refreshing about A Ciambra, however, is its refusal to romanticize Pio’s delinquent lifestyle, even as it clearly indicates why Pio finds crime so alluring. All in all, you don’t have to be poor or illiterate to appreciate this universal story about dashed idealism.

  1. The Other Side of Hope

    Image courtesy of B-Plan.

What do a Syrian refugee and a sleazy European businessman have in common? That’s the apparently silly question that Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki tries to answer in The Other Side of Hope, which follows one such refugee (Sherwin Haji) as he immigrates to Finland and starts working for one such businessman (Sakari Kuosmanen). Throughout the film, Kaurismäki skillfully exposes the hypocrisy underlying the EU’s approach to its refugee crisis – preach humanitarianism, then find excuses to expel migrants anyway – without getting bogged down in sentimentalism. More intriguingly, he decides to couple his portrayal of this mishandling with a blistering critique of bourgeois superficiality, as if to suggest that these two seemingly unrelated problems stem from similar underlying causes. Haji and Kuosmanen’s hilarious yet chilling performances ensure that the story never loses its vicious sense of irony – so that when Kaurismäki finally answers his “silly” question, his response leaves you somewhere between shocked and completely devastated.

  1. The Confession

    Image courtesy of Cinema24.

It sounds like the premise for an absurdist sex comedy: a celibate priest discovers that one of his parishioners looks exactly like Marilyn Monroe. But in Zaza Urushadze’s The Confession, that’s the very real and serious dilemma that Father Giorgi (Dimitri Tatishvili) faces in Lily (Sophia Sebiskveradze), a piano teacher who puts all his ideas about friendship, sex, and femininity to the test. Urushadze’s depiction of Giorgi’s struggle makes a timely, disquieting statement on the challenges traditional religion faces in the 21st century; along the way, the film’s gentle yet suggestive cinematography also offers a splendid visual summation of Giorgi’s conflicted feelings towards Lily. And although the story takes some time to fully develop, that slowness is precisely what eventually makes the climax such a bombshell. You’d have to go back to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence to find another movie so willing to tear at our idealized conception of rural life.

  1. The Line

    Image courtesy of Film Republic.

At the start of Peter Bebjak’s The Line, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a Slovak rehash of The Godfather. After all, the protagonist, a robust middle-aged man named Adam (Tomáš Maštalír), is a crime boss who preaches the importance of family, adamantly refuses to deal in drugs, and mercilessly punishes disloyalty. (Plus, like Vito Corleone, he also has a daughter who’s getting married.) Yet in its depiction of Adam’s smuggling business on the Slovakia-Ukraine border, The Line eventually unfolds like a kind of anti-Godfather: an unusual, riveting mixture of comedy and suspense in which Adam’s ineptitude provokes the deaths of relatives, the demise of colleagues, and his empire’s gradual unraveling. The film’s eclectic blend of instrumental and electronic music exhilarates, and its stark, colorful cinematography effectively holds your attention. But if there’s only one reason to see this, it’s Maštalír: he makes the movie that rare thriller that knows when to slow down and remind itself that human lives are at stake.

  1. Birds Are Singing in Kigali

    Image courtesy of Kino Swiat.

How do you overcome the trauma of genocide? For the main characters of Joanna Kos-Krauze’s Birds Are Singing in Kigali, that question has no answer – because the enormity of what they saw in Rwanda has left them in a state of total, inescapable helplessness. Like Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, Kos-Krauze’s film tackles the delicate subject of coping with grief. But unlike her predecessors, Kos-Krauze largely leaves it to the viewer to imagine the suffering her two protagonists (brilliantly interpreted by Jowita Budnik and Eliane Umuhire) must’ve gone through. And whereas Lonergan and Villeneuve both hinted at the healing power of companionship, Kos-Krauze’s vision is complete in its bleakness: whatever capacity Budnik and Umuhire’s characters may have had for bonding was obliterated at the hands of murderous Hutu. This edifying, unflinching meditation on human indifference and fragility is certainly not for the fainthearted.

  1. Sicilian Ghost Story

    Image courtesy of BIM Distribuzione.

It’s a story you think you know well – a young boy and girl meet and fall in love. But what if the boy mysteriously disappears right after? That’s the frustrating plight that befalls Luna (Julia Jedlikowska) and Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) in Sicilian Ghost Story, a film loosely inspired by a real-life Mafia kidnapping. Co-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza turn Luna’s search for Giuseppe into a fantastical journey through the Sicilian landscape that, like Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, testifies to the vivid, escape-furnishing power of a child’s imagination. But what’s most chilling about the film is its depiction of southern Italian mores – mores that encompass both a stubborn fixation with the Madonna-whore complex and a willful indifference to organized crime. Don’t be fooled by the film’s resplendent visuals: as Grassadonia and Piazza make poignantly clear, the strongest light also gives rise to the deepest shadows.

  1. Let the Sunshine In

    Image courtesy of Curiosa Films.

Back in 1999, Claire Denis took American critics by storm with Beau Travail, a piercing examination of one man’s struggle to come to terms with new conceptions of masculinity. Now, in Let the Sunshine In, she tells the complementary tale of Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a woman trying to make the most of new, sexually-liberated definitions of femininity by running from boyfriend to boyfriend. As a viewer, you’ll be hard-pressed not to like Binoche, who provides an affecting follow-up to the repressed housewife she portrayed in Three Colors: Blue. And if you look around her, you’ll find an absorbing story that effortlessly melds comedy with poignant, wistfully sensuous commentary on love’s simultaneous beauty and transience. Like Andrea Pallaoro’s Hannah (another CIFF film), Isabelle’s struggles eventually furnish an ironic, bittersweet testament to the challenges of being truly independent in modern-day society.