Dispatches from the 54th Chicago International Film Festival

The 54th annual Chicago International Film Festival took place this past October. Here, quick takes on 10 films that stood out:

Ash Is Purest White

Image courtesy of CIFF.

With films like Platform (2000) and Still Life (2006), Jia Zhangke established himself as the chronicler par excellence of modern-day China’s economic, social, and spiritual states of being. Now, in Ash Is Purest White, he turns his perceptive eye to the gangster underworld, telling the story of a woman (Zhao Tao, in a remarkably steely performance) who spends five years in prison for defending her mobster boyfriend (Liao Fan) during a street fight. Eschewing the deceptive glamour that pervades many Asian crime dramas, the film offers a poignant depiction of Chinese women and the subordinate, thanklessly sacrificial role they’re expected to play in society. And as usual, Jia skillfully analyzes the consequences of China’s rise as a superpower, offering a look at the unpleasant, frequently whitewashed inequities that belie its apparent economic prosperity.

Daughter of Mine

Image courtesy of CIFF.

Laura Bispuri’s Daughter of Mine tells the story of two Sardinian women, a factory worker named Tina (Valeria Golino) and a prostitute named Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher). After Angelica gets pregnant by Tina’s husband (Michele Carboni), Tina decides to raise the child and give Angelica monthly payments as compensation. But their arrangement crumbles after the child, a precocious girl named Vittoria (Sara Casu), realizes she’d rather have Angelica as a mom.

On one level, Daughter of Mine is a thoughtful, nuanced “nature vs. nurture” story that’ll remind you of Three Identical Strangers and Like Father, Like Son. What distinguishes Bispuri’s work, however, is its authentic representation of rural Sardinian life (particularly when it comes to gender roles) and its poignant depiction of how economic stress can engender feelings of alienation. Golino and Rohrwacher’s equally convincing performances both ensure that you’ll leave this film utterly heartbroken.

Diane

Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival.

In Kent Jones’ Diane, Diane (Mary Kay Place) is an elderly woman who looks like the very definition of a “good Samaritan.” While her friends sit around and complain about the younger generation, Diane looks after her drug addict son (Jake Lacy), regularly visits her hospitalized cousin (Deirdre O’Connell), and serves food at a local soup kitchen. Yet far from acting out of altruism, Diane really just wants to atone for a past sin: 20 years earlier, she ran off with her cousin’s boyfriend, abandoning both her husband and son in the process.

In terms of its themes and setting, Diane plays like a cross between Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Paul Schrader’s Affliction. Without indulging in melodrama, Jones offers an affecting portrait of one woman’s private emotional agony, an overwhelming feeling of shame that no person, religion, or organization can help her eradicate. The film examines many weighty themes – guilt, forgiveness, and the power of grudges among them. But thanks to the restrained cinematography and Place’s moving display of vulnerability, Jones’ efforts never feel remotely pretentious or heavy-handed.

In the Aisles

Image courtesy of CIFF.

Thomas Stuber’s In the Aisles follows Christian (Franz Rogowski) and Marion (Sandra Hüller), two workers at a wholesale market who develop an awkward but quietly intimate relationship. Despite its premise, the film is less a traditional love story than a study of the effects of routinized work, offering a look at how such labor turns people into dehumanized, emotionally repressed shells. Stuber’s intentions are never explicitly political. But given that the narrative is set in eastern Germany, it’s hard not to see the film as social commentary – a chilling portrait, in other words, of a region that still hasn’t rid itself of the feel of a surveillance state.

Mug

Image courtesy of the 6th Polish Film Festival.

At the start of Malgorzata Szumowska’s Mug, Jacek (Mateusz Kościukiewicz) is a Polish guy who’s apparently got everything going for him. He has a loving girlfriend (Małgorzata Gorol), a stable construction job, and a car in which he can blast heavy metal to his heart’s content. One day, however, he has a serious accident at work. And after receiving a life-saving face transplant, he finds that nobody in his town wants anything to do with him anymore.

At first glance, Mug might just look like a darker version of Wonder, a better-known film about a character with a facial deformity. Look beneath this familiar surface, however, and you’ll find a scathing, occasionally surrealist indictment of the influence that consumerism, organized religion, and conservative mores exert over provincial life. Szumowska’s allegorical messages occasionally feel too didactic for comfort. But even then, you’ll find it hard to forget her outlook on Poland, a country that still hasn’t fully shaken off the soullessness of its Communist era.

Non-Fiction

Image courtesy of CIFF.

Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction follows a group of friends who belong to the French artistic elite, including a publishing house editor (Guillaume Canet), a famous actress (Juliette Binoche), and a successful author (Vincent Macaigne). The film’s narrative is apparently nondescript: crudely speaking, in fact, it’s little more than a series of filmed conversations. But such appearances belie Assayas’ dark outlook on the digital age – an era in which people never say what they mean, intimacy is seen as a burden, and mindless trend-following is valued more than individuality. Overall, the film’s depiction of the current technological zeitgeist has a human, unimposing quality that similar works (think Michael Haneke’s Happy End) largely lack.

Retablo

Image courtesy of CIFF.

Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio’s Retablo whisks us to the Peruvian Andes, the home of most of Peru’s remaining Quechuan communities. There, a 14-year old boy named Segundo (Junior Béjar Roca) is learning his father’s (Amiel Cayo) trade, the art of making triptych altarpieces called “retablos.” But after discovering that his father is gay, Segundo finds himself questioning everything – his future, his place in society, and his relationship with a man he’s always viewed as a mentor.

In the wrong hands, Retablo could easily have been an over-the-top screed against homophobia. Thanks to Delgado-Aparicio’s sensitive direction, however, the film carries refreshing nuance, telling a moving and relatable story about a child who learns that his parents are humans, not gods. Throughout the story, Delgado-Aparicio offers an unflinching depiction of the rigid gender roles, strict hierarchies, and emotionally repressive solitude that the Quechuan lifestyle can engender. And in his efforts, he’s also aided by the subtle, exceptional power of Roca and Cayo’s performances.

Sorry Angel

Image courtesy of CIFF.

Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a 30-something Parisian writer. Arthur (Vincent Lacoste) is a young student who runs a summer camp in Brittany. In Christopher Honoré’s Sorry Angel, the two of them fall in love after engaging in a one-night stand. But their budding relationship is hindered by the fact that Jacques is dying of AIDS.

Sorry Angel will likely remind you of Robin Campillo’s BPM (2017), another LGBT-themed film about France’s AIDS epidemic. Unlike Campillo’s work, however, Sorry Angel eschews a nakedly political narrative, opting for a more intimate look at the damage that AIDS inflicts on a personal level. Thanks in part to this, Honoré succeeds in capturing the atmosphere of desperation, secrecy, and creeping despair that overhung the French gay community in the 90s. And the film also greatly benefits from Lacoste and Deladonchamps, both of whom prevent the narrative from degenerating into melodrama.

Too Late to Die Young

Image courtesy of CIFF.

Dominga Sotomayor’s Too Late to Die Young depicts a group of people – in particular, an alienated teenager named Sofía (Demian Hernández) – who live in a mountain commune during Chile’s transition to democracy. With its long takes and languid camera movements, the film provides an astute depiction of adolescence and the endless, “Where am I going in life?” self-questioning it inevitably entails. But Sotomayor also gives the film a political subtext, offering a mesmerizing portrait of a post-totalitarian society and the muted disillusionment that its citizens feel. Hernández’s perceptive performance is only one of the many strengths of this thoughtful, strikingly mature directorial debut.

Transit

Image courtesy of CIFF.

In Christian Petzold’s Transit, the Germans have invaded France. Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German expat living in Paris, decides to flee to Marseille, where he assumes the identity of a dead writer who had secured asylum in Mexico. While waiting for the ship that’ll take him to the Americas, however, Georg falls in love with Marie (Paula Beer), the widow of the very man he’s impersonating.

As you probably could’ve guessed, Transit was adapted from a novel about World War II. Tellingly, however, Petzold sets the story in the present day, thereby turning it from a mere period piece into a more universal depiction of refugee life. A haunting look at the hidden pain of people we often marginalize, Transit offers an astute portrayal of refugees’ psychology, delineating the tensions between their self-interest and the compassion they involuntarily feel for others. And the film also constitutes an intriguing meditation on the role that homeland plays in our sense of identity.