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

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

The 53rd Chicago International Film Festival ended yesterday, with Diego Lerman’s A Sort of Family taking home the top prize. Here’s a quick look back at seven other films that (for better or worse) made their way into the festival’s proceedings.

  1. Hannah

    Image courtesy of I Wonder Pictures.

On the surface, Andrea Pallaoro’s Hannah doesn’t seem to have much going for it. Its namesake elderly protagonist (Charlotte Rampling), after all, has next to no dialogue. And its plot – Hannah copes with singledom after her husband is imprisoned – is virtually nonexistent. Yet Pallaoro succeeds in harnessing these supposed constraints to create an affecting, surprisingly engaging portrait of one woman’s struggle to distinguish illusions from reality. His depiction of Hannah ultimately supplies a meaningful, concrete illustration of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous claim that “man is condemned to be free”—and unlike Michael Haneke’s Amour, it also manages to make the “trivial” exertions of old age feel relatable. If none of that sounds enticing, however, you should at least see this for Rampling’s sake: one look of bitter indifference from her says more than what most performers take entire films to express.

  1. Bitter Flowers 

    Image courtesy of Mille et Une Films.

In Bitter Flowers, an idealistic Chinese woman (Xi Qi) moves to Paris in the hopes of striking it rich. But when she realizes that there aren’t any jobs to spare, she’s forced to deploy the one skill she has left – her body. Olivier Meys’ directorial debut plays with the storylines of several French classics (Les Misérables, Madame Bovary) to offer a fresh, oft-neglected perspective on the multiculturalism-assimilation debate; as this writer can personally attest, Meys also accurately captures the exoticist mentality with which many Europeans still approach the Asian community. What eventually proves most valuable here, however, is Meys’ outsider critique of three aspects of modern Chinese culture: its all-consuming obsession with material advancement, its reliance on guanxi, and its persistent sexism. Artful lighting and Xi’s bravura performance round out this ironically dark perspective on the so-called “City of Light.”

  1. Golden Years 

    Image courtesy of ARP Selection.

Paul Grappe was one of the thousands of French soldiers who deserted during World War I. But while most of those men were eventually arrested, Grappe successfully evaded the authorities…by crossdressing as a woman. Now, his life story is the subject of André Téchiné’s Golden Years, a rich, energetic biopic that also furnishes an indirect portrait of the 1920s’ underground gay subculture. Here, Téchiné doesn’t just offer a perspective on LGBT history – believe it or not, it wasn’t all about lobotomies –  that many mainstream movies overlook. (Cough cough, Danish Girl.) In the contrasting storylines of Paul (Pierre Deladonchamps) and his wife Louisa (Céline Sallette), Téchiné also presents an intriguing, Beauvoirian case study in the different ways men and women historically exploited sexual liberation. And to top it all off, he eventually even manages to sneak in a thoughtful critique of the screen-spectator relationship. This, in short, is a film whose apparent blitheness belies its exceptional complexity.

  1. Liquid Truth

    Image courtesy of MPM Film.

Movies as disperse as The Graduate and The Descendants have made the swimming pool a go-to metaphor for emotional unease. In Carolina Jabor’s Liquid Truth, however, a pool symbolizes the factual ambiguity behind something far different: a mother’s (Stella Rabello) allegation that a swimming coach (Daniel de Oliviera) molested her child. As the conflict between said coach and mother develops, Jabor proves an expert manipulator of expectations; she lulls you into siding with the mom, only to slap you awake with evidence of the coach’s innocence. Undergirding this suspense, moreover, is an equally fascinating examination of the teacher-student relationship – a potentially precious bond easily sabotaged by social media and the interference of anxious, guilt-ridden helicopter parents. For both you and the characters, whether the coach actually “did it” eventually proves irrelevant: instead, what really stings is the way the mere idea of his guilt irrevocably shatters an atmosphere of trust and innocence.

  1. Wind Traces

    Image courtesy of Varios Lobos.

Jimena Montemayor’s Wind Traces portrays a family that’s recently been afflicted by an unnamed tragedy. To cope, the mother (Dolores Fonzi) pours her soul into alcohol, the daughter (Paulina Gil) dresses up as a widow, and the son (Diego Aguilar) plays with his imaginary Navajo friend (Ruben Zamora). The film Montemayor weaves from this peculiar premise is hardly flawless: she has an annoying fixation with images of hands and feet, her eventual explanation for the family’s grief proves painfully banal, and the story’s solemn subject matter clashes with its languid pacing. Still, the cinematography does an amazing job putting us into the head of a child; its use of shadows, moreover, ably evokes the sorrow that hangs over the family’s day-to-day routine. And if nothing else, Gil and Aguilar both prove themselves to be exceptional child actors.

  1. A Man of Integrity

    Image courtesy of The Match Factory.

A scorching examination of the lengths to which men will go to preserve their egos. A chilling demonstration that true justice inevitably entails harm to innocent bystanders. A moving story about an underdog who relentlessly pursues his notions of success – only to realize too late that he’s been chasing illusions. All of these descriptors could be applied to Mohammad Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity, a remarkably disquieting film about an Iranian (Reza Akhlagirad) who tries to keep his farm from the clutches of a mysterious organization called “The Company.” Even if you find the film’s many meanings opaque, Rasoulof’s Kafkaesque depiction of sprawling bureaucracies and impenetrable authorities (which recently landed him in hot water with the Iranian government) ought to resonate. And Akhlagirad delivers a spellbinding interpretation of a character you find yourself hating and admiring all at once.

  1. La Familia

    Image courtesy of Celluloid Dreams.

What would you do if your impetuous teenage son just killed the child of a local crime boss? That’s the unsavory dilemma that Andrés (Giovanni García) has to face down in Gustavo Rondón Córdova’s La Familia, the first Venezuelan film to ever be screened in the International Critics’ Week section at Cannes. Córdova’s contribution to the Latin American “gritty realism” movement is admittedly not the best thing you’ll see at CIFF: it regurgitates tropes and images from coming-of-age classics like The 400 Blows, and it lacks the stylistic creativity of Jonas Carpagnino’s A Ciambra (another, better CIFF film about headstrong sons and frustrated parents). Still, thanks to the film’s carefully balanced mixture of fast and slow sequences, you’ll always be eager to find out what happens next. And Córdova’s illustration of the suffering that Chavism has brought on ordinary Venezuelans proves very difficult to shake off.