Life struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat.
Sixty-two features and one short screen in the 19th Annual Chicago European Union Film Festival, an exemplary sampler of recent cinema from the 28 member countries. Running from March 4th through 31st at the Gene Siskel Film Center, this non-competitive roster of Chicago premieres is curated by Barbara Scharres, director of programming, and Martin Rubin, associate director of programming.
Slated as “the largest showcase in North America for cinema from European Union nations,” this year’s fest offers twelve entries for Best Foreign Language Film and three U.S. premieres. Notable directors include Chantal Akerman, Terence Davies, Alexander Sokurov, and Paolo & Vittorio Taviani.
War, war crimes, endemic conflict between ethnic groups, and the current immigrant crisis recur as subjects. For lighter fare, cinema’s never-ending self-regard is on display. Stars and screenwriters are the focus of assorted documentaries and dramas.
The best lens on the continent’s social landscape may be “The Paradise Suite" [pictured above], the opening night film by Dutch filmmaker Joost van Ginkel that screens March 4th (6pm) and March 5th (8pm). Characters speaking Bulgarian, French, English, Swedish, Bosnian, Serbian and Dutch cross paths in Amsterdam.
This impressive five-strand film shares a narrative plan with the Taviani brothers’ five-part “Wondrous Boccaccio” based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1353 book “The Decameron.” Another fest drama, “The High Sun,” relates three love stories set in 1991, 2001 and 2011. Croatian writer-director Dalibor Matanić terms his setting “the ever-present inter-ethnic hatreds in the Balkan region.” As his grandmother used to say about his girlfriends: “as long as she isn’t one of them.” She meant Serbs.
Set in 1835, “Aferim!” finds black comedy in outrageous prejudice. On horseback a vulgar constable and his dim son track a Gypsy slave on the run from his rich owner. They meet an anti-semitic priest who spouts toxic critiques of national character types. This Romania/Bulgaria/Czech Republic treat—shot in a black-and-white with dialogue and detail based on pre-Romanian texts—screens on March 6 (5pm) and March 9th (8pm). Director Radu Jude screened his rude soap opera “Everybody in Our Family” at the festival three years ago.
Recent events inform two related entries this year. The 1992 riot over Roma refugees in Rohrstock, Germany that lead to violence against Vietnamese refugees inspires “We Are Young. We Are Strong.” The 2010 attack on African immigrants in Rosarno, Italy figures in the making of “Simshar.”
An actual case handled by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is fictionalized by Bulgarian writer-director Iglika Triffonova in “The Prosecutor, the Defender, the Father and His Son,” screening March 27th (5:30pm) and March 30th (8:30pm). Truth is elusive in this nuanced trial of a Bosnian war criminal. “We are living in times characterized by complete disorder of values,” opines the prosecutor (Romane Bohringer).
A military inquest climaxes “A War” by Dutch writer-director Tobias Lindholm ("A Hijacking"). Screening March 25th (6pm) and March 26th (8pm), this gripping story of a father of three and a commander serving in Afghanistan is a superb case study in the fog of war. Lindholm told an interviewer: “I thought I’d start with something my sweet, leftist mother taught me: war is evil, and so people at war are evil, too.” A war crimes trial about 11 civilian deaths in Taliban territory will complicate that simplism.
Against the backdrop of terrorist chaos in the streets of Lagos, a trio of German business consultants deal with payback in “Age of Cannibals" [pictured above]. This nasty satire of global capitalism directed by Johannes Naber ("North Face") screens March 12th (6:15pm) and March 16th (6pm). Over-educated nihilists get their comeuppance when they realize none of them know a prayer to save their skins as faith-crazed killers knock down their hotel door.
Elmo Nüganen's “1944” frames Estonia’s plight in World War II. Titles state the Red Army conscripted 55,000 Estonians in 1940, then a year later the Waffen SS forced 72,000 Estonians into uniform. An Estonian official collaborating with the Nazis fatuously proclaims: “After years of meticulous scientific research we have been able to prove we belong to the Aryan race.” This wrenching tragedy of Estonians forced to fire upon their countrymen screens March 26th (6pm) and March 29th (8pm). Director Nüganen dedicates his earnest history drama “To all who fought and suffered in the name of freedom.”
Postwar freedom under Joseph Stalin is at stake in “The Fencer,” a biopic about Endel Nelis (1925-1993) by Klaus Härö that screens March 8th (8pm) and March 11th (8pm). The title athlete (Mart Avandi) starts a fencing club in a little Estonian town far from Leningrad, where he once competed. When the school principal uncovers a politically incriminating German military passport hidden in state archives, exile ensues. The conventional plot suffers from a score full with sports music cliches, however.
Three festival documentaries focus on film itself. “Forbidden Films” is a high-minded, if self-serving essay on what to do with 1200 films made by Nazis between 1933 and 1945. Five tons of highly combustible nitrocellulose film is archived in Hoppegarten. Are these preserved works inflammatory propaganda? German director Felix Moeller, the son of filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta, screened his "Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss" at the festival in 2010. He ends his new film with talking heads making reasonable cases to not censor toxic cinema. That helps justify his making and showing “Forbidden Films,” which screens March 6th (3pm) and March 9th (6pm). Extensive clips represent many genres, including musicals and comedies. Forty films are still officially banned.
"Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words" by Stig Björkman is a beautiful life story accompanied by wonderful music by Michael Nyman that is showing on March 11th (2pm) and March 12th (4pm). Swedish actress Alicia Vikander reads from the diaries and letters of Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982). “I love the freedom I feel in front of the camera,” she wrote at age 19. Later she observed: ”I’ve seen so much yet it is never enough.”
Besides roles in “Casablanca,” “Anastasia,” “Notorious,” “Stromboli," "Journey to Italy” and "Autumn Sonata," the star shot home movies chronicling her offscreen life. Interviews with her adult children, including Isabella Rossellini, face the troubling fact that their loving mother would start a family, then marry another man, move to another country and start another family. Her first child, born in Stockholm, affably adds: “I guess we weren’t that much fun. What can I say? … The realty is is that sometimes children are not that interesting. Not to all parents, anyway.”
“Why are you filming me?” asks Natalia Akerman, the mother of Chantal Akerman during a video call. “I film everybody, Mommy,” answers the Belgian filmmaker best known for “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” “Of course, you especially more than others.” This exchange occurs in “No Home Movie" [pictured above], a minimally styled personal documentary about an elderly Auschwitz survivor at life’s end that plays March 19th (3:30pm).
The filmmaker, traveling abroad, explains why her mother is seeing her pointing a video camera at the laptop screen: “I want to show that there is no distance in the world. You’re in Brussels and I’m in Oklahoma. Look, there is no more distance.” Natalia responds to Chantal: “You have such ideas! Don’t you, sweetheart?”
“I Don’t Belong Anywhere–The Cinema of Chantal Akerman,” a portrait filmed by Marianne Lambert, scheduled to screen on March 19th (2pm) prior to “No Home Movie," her last film before committing suicide last year. Her mother died in 2014. Lambert interviews Akerman and shows clips of her art film oeuvre. “I always did what I liked and what interested me,” Akerman states. “And I though that if it interests me, I don’t see why it wouldn’t interest others.” Despite her intimate access, Lambert cannot anticipate that “No Home Movie” would be Akerman’s last work. She committed suicide last year, a year after her mother died.
Three comic films with behind-the-scenes conceits include two from the “Festival of New Spanish Cinema,” a touring sidebar organized by Pragda. The slightly saucy “Latin Lover” screens March 5th (6pm) and March 8th (6pm). To celebrate the tenth anniversary of a film star’s death, his five daughters—by way of five different mothers—gather for a salute. Their tales of life with—and mostly without—their idolized father around evokes the remembrances of Ingrid Bergman’s grown offspring. In both families, a couple kids get into pictures too. “Dad was proud of us,” one daughter notes. “He said so in every interview.” The director of this slight mash note to Italian show biz, Cristina Comencini, is the daughter of Luigi Comencini, a commedia all'italiana director. Her sister Francesca is a director too.
“My Big Night” is a far more zany concoction by Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia, who set his earlier “Ferpect Crime” in an upscale Madrid department store and satirized machismo, castration panic and merchandizing. This time he limits his action to a TV studio producing a New Year’s Eve special. Madcap yuks include a ploy to steal the semen of a pop star, an on-air assassination plot against another, a duo of Romanian gynecologists doing their schtick under a prop giraffe, and upset union members rioting outside. This goofy fun unspools on March 26th (6pm) and March 30th (8:30pm).
Fans of meta entertainment will find gentler humor in “Easy Sex, Sad Movies” by Alejo Flah. A blocked writer (Ernesto Alterio) in Buenos Aires is supposed to script a romantic comedy set in Madrid, but his own real love life is not per genre. Wishful thinking links the outcomes of characters in both plots for a pleasing, polished Spain/Argentina co-production screening March 18th (2pm) and March 23rd (8:30pm).
French director René Féret (“Mozart’s Sister”) seeks to show what made a Russian writer tick in “Anton Tchékhov 1890" [pictured above], playing March 6th (3pm) and March 10th (6pm). “I write as one eats a pancake, I put pen to paper, when I lift it off, it's finished,” quips Chekhov (Nicolas Giraud). At first this physician sells short stories as a sideline. “A comedy is easily written,” he later relates. “I take pleasure in it. Delight even.” Love eludes him: “In bad novels perhaps. Not in real life.”
The reserved author reflects: “I can philosophize about love, but I am incapable of it.” Although Chekhov (1860-1904) is best known for his plays “The Seagull” and “The Cherry Orchard,” Féret devotes more screen time to the writer’s long sojourn collecting material on Sakhalin Island. “It will be a record of your misery,” he apprises godforsaken prisoners of the Czar.
Leo Tolstoy makes a disposable cameo in this mediocre period exercise in literary biography that illuminates less about Chekhov’s life or work than it attempts.
René Descartes (Patrick Bachau) by contrast is indispensable in his supporting role in “The Girl King” by Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki. This superior biopic focuses on the court scandal incited by Queen Christina of Sweden (Malin Buska). Philosophical frisson and lesbian passion bring this historic figure (1626-1689) to life.
Christina writes to Descartes: “First, I would like you to tell me what is love.” She confides to her beloved lady-in-waiting between the sheets: "I know how to set a bear trap, how to clean a musket but I do not know how to place my lips on yours, what to do with my hands.” She upsets powers-that-be by proclaiming: “We must build schools, theaters, libraries. We must welcome the finest thinkers and those banned for their ideas.”
Enamored of “Principles de la Philosophie" by Descartes (1596-1650), she beckons the French philosopher to Stockholm. Long walks to their 5am tutorials, however, make have sickened him unto death. This film—playing March 25th (6pm) and March 26th (2pm)—prefers the theory of Theodor Ebert at the University of Erlangen that a Catholic priest sprinkled arsenic on Descartes’ communion wafer.
“Therapy For a Vampire” gives Sigmund Freud (Karl Fischer) a role larger than Descartes’ schooling of Christina: he is psychoanalyzing a count for 100 schillings an hour. All appointments must be after-dark, of course. “I need your help,” shares the angst-stricken vampire who bets Freud will interpret double entendres he tenders. “I feel old and tired I’ve seen everything. There’s nothing left for me to discover. I no longer have a thirst for life … I’m not myself. Or what I used to be. That’s my problem. Life has lost its bite.”
David Rühm, a Viennese director of features and TV ads, sets his inventive comic vampire yarn in 1932, “Somewhere near Vienna.” There’s a young painter that Freud hires to render his patients’ dreams. Since the vampire’s wife cannot see herself in mirrors, she hires this realist-style artist to paint her portrait. For centuries her condition denied her desire to behold her own beauty. Freud’s preliminary diagnosis: “A scopophobia of herself.” Fortunately for us, she is visible on screen: March 19th (8:15pm) and March 24th (6pm).
A more rustic tale of cures is found in “Home Care” by Czech writer-director Slávek Horák. In a near-perfect performance Alena Mihulová plays Vlasta, an over-dedicated home care nurse who must face a dire diagnosis. Rejecting morphine from her co-workers, she finds new companions among alternative healers who urge her to drink her own urine. There will be spoon bending. Her rough-edged, shots-for-breakfast husband looks askance as she increases her all-around independence. Never soapy, this life-affirming fare slips in a few slivers of magical realism. Healers of all persuasions ought to appreciate this humanist story that screens March 12th (8:15pm) and March 15th (8pm).
Of the 24 entries I previewed so far, my favorite is “Tale of Tales” by Italian director Matteo Garrone (“Reality” and “Gomorrah”). He borrows from “Lo cunto de li cunti," Giambattista Basile’s 1634 collection of fairy tales, yet employs English dialogue throughout his cautionary narratives set in three kingdoms. Magic with ironic turnabouts, wrong-hearted desires, doublings, marvelous transformation and moral retribution link this richly imagined cosmos.
A barren queen sends her husband to cut out the heart of a sea beast that only a virgin must cook for the Queen. The necromancer's promise comes true and she indeed delivers a boy who will grow up to run away with his doppelganger. A king raises a flea to monstrous proportions. When the dear thing dies, he saves the skin and promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to the suitor who rightly guesses the critter of origin. An ogre gets the girl but she will get his head and the crown in the end. Another king lusts for a ghastly hag made comely after a witch gifts her, but not her sister, with a royal makeover.
A complete schedule for the Chicago European Union Film Festival can be found here. The festival runs from March 4 - 31.
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