The 20th Annual Chicago European Union Film Festival opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center and runs through March 30. The festival, with 62 new feature films representing all 28 EU nations, is the largest showcase of EU films in the country. See a complete list of films and showtimes.
We’ve viewed some of the films being screened in week 1. Here are our mini-reviews.
20,000 Reasons (Malta)
The festival’s opening night film is a bit of Maltese froth that won’t give any of the opening night guests heartburn. Sophie (Maria Pia Meli), the daughter of a wealthy family, wants to go her own way and persevere at making her PR company succeed. But when her granny orders her to marry or lose her inheritance and her company, she decides to marry the handyman, Ramon (Aldo Zammit), who is a very handy man. The two really fall in love and Ramon proves his value. Unlike the randy Jonathan, who proves he’s just a golddigger. Lots of clever repartee and beautiful people as is necessary in a true romantic comedy. A kerfuffle in a confession booth gets the two lovers back together again. The Maltese film industry is just developing and 20,000 Reasons is an early step in its growth. It was produced through a training program by the Malta Film Commission and funded by the European Social Fund.
See the film at 6pm Friday, March 3, or 6pm Monday, March 6.
–Recap by Nancy Bishop.
The Sense of an Ending (United Kingdom)
Based on the award-winning 2011 Julian Barnes’s novel, The Sense of an Ending tracks the struggle for Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), an elderly divorced man living in London, to close out a chapter in his life that has clearly troubled him since his university days (the younger Tony is played by Billy Howle). Events kick off when the older Tony receives notice that his college girlfriend’s mother (played in flashbacks by Emily Mortimer) has left him something in her will, and he grows strangely obsessed with retrieving it from his ex, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), who refuses to turn it over. Much like director Ritesh Batra’s previous work The Lunchbox, The Sense of an Ending is about a complicated love entanglement, in this case made all the more so by fading and selective memories, which are brought into focus the more Tony interacts with an openly hostile Veronica, whose younger self (Freya Mavor) left him for his best friend (Joe Alwyn). The film is filled with both sophisticated emotional complexities and soap opera-like plot turns that combine to form a compelling and beautifully acted piece. Harriet Walter (as Tony’s ex-wife) and pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery) are also on hand to add commentary and perspective on his predicaments. It’s a rich and sometime bristly work, but highly fulfilling.
The film screens Friday, March 3 at 2pm; and Thursday, March 9. at 7:45pm.
–Recap by Steve Prokopy.
Beloved Days (Cyprus)
What could have easily been a simple tribute to the movie The Beloved, becomes so much more in the hands of Constantinos Patsalides. Sure, the beginning third of the film focuses on sultry actress Raquel Welch and her mystique, but Patsalides reveals the real star of the documentary to be Karmi, Cyprus. The Beloved was filmed in 1970 in the seaside village, casting the local people in stand-in roles. In a few years, those people would face a war that still divides their country in half. Come watch Beloved Days to observe Hollywood glamour and learn more about the so often ignored political reality of dreamy islands.
The films screens at 7:45pm Monday, March 6, and 8:15pm Thursday, March 9.
— Recap by Sherry Zhong.
Cooking Up a Tribute (Spain)
What happens when the three owners of a famed Spanish restaurant close for five weeks to take their culinary creations on tour across the Americas? In Cooking Up a Tribute, Andrea Gómez and Luis González present a documentary detailing the cultural impact of such a venture, although much of the storytelling feels half-cooked. Director of Photography Jaime Rebato Felipe Vara de Rey captures vibrant culture and truly tantalizing dishes over the course of the film’s quick 83 minute runtime, but with some pieces of the narrative comprising more montage than substance, viewers may be left hungry for a bit more.
The film will be screened at 2:15pm Saturday, March 4, or 6pm Thursday, March 9.
— Recap by Brent Eickhoff
Personal Shopper (Germany)
Re-teaming after their spectacular 2014 collaboration The Clouds of Sils Maria, actor Kristen Stewart and writer-director Olivier Assayas (Demon Lover, Something in the Air) return with another role that places Stewart in a subservient (but quite mysterious) position, working for a rich woman with many demands that Stewart must weigh and juggle. This time around, Stewart plays Maureen, the personal assistant and personal shopper to a French celebrity, spending most of her time running from one clothing boutique or jewelry store to another collecting outfit and accessories for her boss to wear out at high-profile events in the evening. Their paths almost never cross, which is perfect since Maureen is also mourning the death of her twin brother, who was working in France and believed himself to be a medium. Maureen is staying in the house where he died, attempting to pick up on a sign from her departed sibling, and the results are sometimes terrifying. Personal Shopper moves from genre to genre with each new scene—sometimes an effective horror film, other times the story of a lonely woman living vicariously through her rich and famous employer. But the film also becomes a bit of a mystery when Maureen starts getting texts from an unknown admirer, attempting to lure her into bed and opening up her mind about trying on her boss’s extravagant and stylish clothes. Assayas keeps us locked into Maureen’s ordeals and choices, and the result is a fascinating character study of a woman whose options are limitless, but who still feels trapped in her life. The film’s occasional lack of focus and central through line may be troubling to some, but I found it endlessly interesting.
The film screens on Saturday, March 4, at 4pm; and Wednesday, March 8, at 6pm.
— Recap by Steve Prokopy.
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Czech Republic)
Although the adventures of Baron Munchausen have been told several times on the big screen, this 1962 Czech rendition from director/animator Karel Zeman is one of the most influential in terms of innovative special effects and mixing live action with animation. And it becomes quite clear early on that Terry Gilliam was not only inspired for his version of the Munchausen tale, but in his earlier animation work for Monty Python. In this telling, Munchausen (Milos Kopecký) begins the film living on the moon where he is discovered by astronaut Tony (Rudolf Jelínek), whom the Baron believes is a native moon-man. Eager to return to earth, the Baron brings his new friend back with him, only to turn up in 18th-century Turkey, where they meet the stunning Princess Bianca (Jana Brejchová) and both vie for her affections. The film is shamelessly entertaining (and safe for all ages), wildly original, and completely captivating as original storytelling.
The film screens Saturday, March 4 at 8pm; and Sunday, March 5 at 5:15pm, both of which mark the U.S. premiere of this new digital restoration. There will be post-film discussions after both screenings by Ludmila Zeman and Linda Spaleny, who undertook the restoration in cooperation with Prague’s Karel Zeman Museum.
— Recap by Steve Prokopy.
Losers (Karatsi) (Bulgaria)
“God cares for the cuckoos” says Elena, one of the main protagonists of the film and she is more or less right. Losers (Karatsi) is a coming of age story revolving around Koko, Patso, Gosho, (a verifiable id, ego, and superego) and Elena as they and their middle-of-nowhere town await an upcoming gig by a “famous” rock band. The film focuses on these “loser” teens that come from broken or tattered families whose only solaces seem to be each other and the music they connect with. The film does a great job of juggling the more serious moments of the teens’ lives with some achingly dry humor that borders on absurdism and off-the-wall surrealism that drips into some scenes, especially in the Spinal Tap–esque antics of the band Kislorod that break up the film’s narrative. These moments offer a reprieve to the very realistic ennui/existential crisis that constantly surrounds the teens’ lives. Ultimately the broad strokes of the plot/themes of young romance and don’t-meet-your-heroes vibes can come off as very by the numbers. The film at times feels like a modern take on the strange teen movies of the ‘80s, but Losers’ interesting black and white cinematography and the actors’ subtle performances save it from its predictability. Elena Telbis (Elena) and Ovanes Torosian (Koko) in particular breathe life into their awkward teen characters, making them more complex than the film initially allows. Bulgarian with English subtitles.
See the film at 8pm Saturday, March 4, or Wednesday, March 8.
Recap by Julian Ramirez.
Franca: Chaos & Creation (Italy)
Directed by the subject’s son, Francesco Carrozzini, this black-and-white documentary about the late Italian Vogue editor (since 1988) Franca Sozzani was meant to be a celebration of the unmoving spirit and transcendent vision of a woman who grew up privileged and beautiful in Italy but refused to let those things define her. Instead, she worked her way up in publishing until she led Italian Vogue into an era where she deemed it necessary to link world events with fashion in an attempt to show how the two could no longer exist separately. The move and resulting photo essays tackled everything from oil spills to domestic violence, and she had a reputation for trusting her photographers (including all-time greats like Peter Lindbergh and Bruce Weber) and rarely interfering in their art. But where Chaos & Creation really shines is in the moments between mother and son, where they playfully snip at each other about his line of questioning about her life, especially the choice to put the magazine before being a more attentive mother. A list of dignitaries and tastemakers (including filmmaker Baz Luhrmann and artist Marina Abramović) speak about Franca’s greatness, but knowing she died (in December 2016) after the film was finished makes the special family moments all the more touching and melancholy. The film is also a great introduction to both Franca’s life and the barriers she tore down in the name of improving the culture.
The film screens Saturday, March 4, at 6:15pm; and Monday, March 6, at 7:45pm
— Recap by Steve Prokopy.
King of the Belgians (Belgium/Netherlands/Bulgaria)
This charming and) wacky mockumentary, directed by Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth, begins in Turkey with the fictional Belgian king, Nicolas III (a properly royal Peter Van den Begin) and his entourage making a gift to Turkey to honor its pending entry into the European Union. A British filmmaker is producing a documentary about “Our King” to enhance the image of Nicolas III. Everything starts to go wrong when Wallonia, the French-speaking half of Belgium, decides to declare independence and the king must get back to Brussels to deal with the political fallout. At just that moment, a “cosmic incident” causes Turkey to close down all air travel. Boat travel is too dangerous. The filmmaker comes up with the idea of producing a free music video for the Black Sea Sirens, a Bulgarian dance troupe, and to take the king and his entourage along, disguised as Bulgarian dancers. The idea is that they will travel through eastern Europe and then back to the EU and Brussels. Along the way, the king bonds with his fellow travelers of all types, befriends children and judges a small-town yogurt festival. At one point, as they drive a rickety old van toward Sofia, the king announces he wants to drive, despite what his adviser Ludovic thinks about his safety and security. Clearly, the king is enjoying being a real person. “This experience is like a gift,” he says, “being among the people.” Along the way, he muses with fellow bus passengers, a melon farmer and a small-town mayor about the nature of freedom and happiness. The king and his entourage (chief of staff, PR aide and body man) travel through the Balkans, now having lost their passports, and at one point land in Albania when they were headed for Italy. The film satirizes the EU, government protocol and the monarchy, and reveals small town life in the Balkans
The film screens at 2pm Saturday, March 4, nd 6pm Wednesday, March 8.
–Recap by Nancy Bishop.
A German Youth (Germany)
Taking its context exclusively from archival materials shot when events were taking place in the 1970s, A German Youth tells the story of the radical political movement the Red Army Faction (also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group), who used a campaign of bombings and other forms of violence in West Germany to get its anti-establishment messages across to the masses. With no modern perspective on the materials used or current interviews with those who lived through those turbulent times, first-time feature director Jean-Gabriel Périot allows the power of the coverage of the time to tell his story of how chaos and turbulence held a great deal of Europe hostage in that decade. Most fascinating are interviews with Ulrike Meinhof, whose slow transformation into a domestic terrorist is carefully tracked. Also quite eye-opening are the short films some RAF members made to incite paranoia and violence in members or would-be rebels. The resulting work is often quite powerful but some explanation of the warring political idea of the time would have been useful and appreciated. Still, the detail-oriented research and editing makes A German Youth an often devastating political drama.
The film screens Sunday, March 5, at 3:15pm; and Tuesday, March 7, at 6:15pm.
— Recap by Steve Prokopy.