In the autumn march of film festivals, Chicago's comes after Montreal, Telluride and Venice, and is held at about the same time as New York. All of these festivals are essentially fishing in the same pond, so the remarkable thing about the 31st annual Chicago event is how many new or unfamiliar titles have been discovered.
In its earlier years, Chicago's festival was known as a showcase for American independent films and the European avant-garde. Martin Scorsese showed his first film here, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Bertrand Tavernier were introduced to America in Chicago.
Now, with New York limited in the number of titles it can show because of its costly overhead, Chicago seems to be reasserting itself in that role, with 14 discoveries from the independent realm.
This year's festival also has high-profile titles, of course: It opened Thursday with the world premiere of "Two Bits," starring Al Pacino (who was scheduled to attend) and directed by James Foley, whose "Glengarry Glen Ross" gave Pacino one of his best roles. And the festival closes Oct. 29 with Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite," starring Allen in the close-to-life story of a New Yorker who adopts a child and then becomes obsessed with finding the child's natural mother. (She's played by Mira Sorvino in one of the year's more fetching comic performances.)
Star power also will be on view Oct. 28 for the festival gala honoring two-time Oscar winner Sally Field. And Italian director Lina Wertmuller will be present for a 15-film retrospective of her work.
In between, festival founder Michael Kutza and Marc Evans, his departing program chief, have scheduled about 100 films, including new work by Eric Rohmer of France, Nicolas Roeg of England, Hou Hsiao-hsien of Taiwan, Doris ("Men") Dorrie of Germany and the perpetually insouciant U.S. independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom.
Kutza founded the festival 31 years ago after he met Orson Welles at the Cannes Film Festival and Welles promised to attend. He never did, but Kutza carried on and is now far and away the longest-serving of the world's film festival chiefs. At least there is a documentary about Welles this year.
Kutza's festival sometimes has been broke and often has been uneven in its selections and peripatetic in its wanderings (screenings have been held in about 15 Chicago area venues), but that's the lot of most American festivals. Chicago was 11 years old and thriving when Toronto started its festival, but Kutza couldn't wring more than stingy handouts from local and state agencies, while Toronto got a huge subsidy from its city and provincial governments. Result: Toronto is now the largest film festival in North America, drawing tens of thousands of tourists and millions of dollars to its event, while Chicago is still basically just an ambitious local happening.
Still, if you're local, it's a nice event to have available, and here are some of the more promising offerings this year:
"Les Miserables" (Oct. 20-21), the 174-minute extravaganza by France's Claude Lelouch, is not a film of the stage musical, or even of the Victor Hugo novel, but an original work that spans the first 50 years of this century and applies Hugo's lessons and some of his characters to its treatment of the rise and fall of Nazism. JeanPaul Belmondo, the French legend, plays Jean Valjean and three other roles.
Liv Ullmann now considers herself a director and says she has retired from acting. Her most ambitious film so far is "Kristin Lavransdatter" (Oct 21-22), inspired by Sigrid Undset's classic novels about 14th century Norway. Its heroine falls in love with a raffish hero against a backdrop of medieval Nordic culture, in a Norwegian "Gone With the Wind" or "War and Peace."
Jacques Rivette, the beloved French veteran, presents his new film "Up Down Fragile" (Sunday), a musical comedy about the adventures and romantic missteps of three young French women.
Lina Wertmuller, once called the most important director since Ingmar Bergman, was wildly popular in the 1970s and has continued to work, sometimes to less acclaim. The festival presents a retrospective of Wertmuller, the first woman nominated for an Oscar as best director, beginning with her little- known 1960s work and continuing with the international hits "Swept Away," "Seven Beauties," "Love and Anarchy," "The Seduction of Mimi" and 11 other titles.
Billy Wilder is one of the most beloved of all directors, and although Kutza wasn't able to persuade the octogenarian to attend in person, seven of his masterpieces will screen in prints newly preserved by the American Movie Classics cable channel, including "The Apartment," "Sunset Boulevard," "Stalag 17" and, of course, "Some Like It Hot."
"You really like me!" cried Sally Field when she won her second Oscar. Her joy was so simple and heartfelt it has gone into Academy Award folklore, and we really like her in Chicago, too. She will be honored with the festival's Lifetime Achievement Award at a Gala Tribute on Oct. 28; some of her friends are expected for surprise appearances, and then there will be dinner and dancing.
Tim Reid's new film "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored" (Oct. 25) stars Phylicia Rashad, Al Freeman Jr., Richard Roundtree, Taj Mahal and Isaac Hayes in a re-creation of a young boy's coming of age in a segregated world that provides him with good examples and support from black role models.
Bertrand Tavernier's first film, "The Clockmaker," premiered at the 1973 Chicago festival, and he has served on the jury here more than once. His new film, "Fresh Bait" (Tuesday-Wednesday), which won the grand prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival, tells a harrowing story of young people on a senseless crime spree. Like Tavernier's underappreciated "L.627" (1992), it continues an examination of the pathology of criminals. And like "The Clockmaker," it is about crime that has no easy explanation.
"Orson Welles - the One-Man Band" (Oct. 25-26) is the long-awaited documentary by Oja Kodar, Welles' companion in the last years of his life. She has possession of many of his uncompleted films and his video archives, and has compiled a documentary that helps complete the story of the genius who always seemed about to get organized.