According to the Chicago Film Office, there are more than 30 film festivals that call Chicago home. Now in its 33rd year, the Chicago Latino Film Festival, presented by the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago, is a worthwhile gem on an otherwise busy film calendar. The 15-day festival kicks off on Thursday, April 20, with a slate of more than 70 feature films and more than 40 short films from across South and Central America, Spain, Portugal and even the United States.
While higher-profile film festivals may entice audiences through programs so diverse they could be accused of lacking vision, CLFF pulls into focus the best Latino filmmaking of the moment. That’s not to say its program is monotone. Quite the contrary, in fact. Through films from Mexico and Peru, Portugal and Cuba and everywhere in between, the kaleidoscope that is Hispanic culture comes into sharp, entertaining focus.
Here are a few highlights of the upcoming festival that exemplify the variety of styles, moods and genres you’ll discover in this year’s lineup. See the full schedule and get tickets in advance at the Chicago Latino Film Festival official website. The Chicago Latino Film Festival runs April 20 through May 4 at AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
The Way to Andina – In this debut documentary, Arlen Parsa discovers an unproduced opera his immigrant great-grandfather wrote in 1830s Chicago and decides he’s got to give it its moment in the spotlight. Parsa is clearly in over his head, and he’s charmingly not afraid to admit it. His endearing self-deprecation is probably what convinces singers, stagehands and an orchestra to pitch in on the production, and it’ll keep you cheering him on as well. Though clearly made on a budget (the film and the opera), Parsa’s generations-in-the-making mission is an underdog story with depth and sincerity, deserving of a bravo moment or two of its own. Chicago premiere. Screens April 29, May 30.
U.F.O. (OVNI) – A fun and funny sci-fi adventure, U.F.O. is just self-aware enough to be in on the quirky one-liners and visual gags (one character’s “Quiero Creer” (I want to believe) tshirt is a personal favorite) of this aliens-on-earth comedy. Nico and Obie are out observing a massive meteor shower one night when they witness an unexplained arrival in the form of light and energy. The town drunk, Cosmo, bumps into the alien in human form; it just so happens it’s assumed the look of Cosmo’s cousin, Jorge. Uno, as he calls himself, soon has to explain to Nico, Obie, Cosmo and the national guard why he’s really on Earth and who’s looking for him, as his female counterpart – badass Dos and her loyal not-a-chihuahua – are hot on his trail. It may seem odd to be reading subtitles and lol-ing at the same time, but U.F.O. will have you doing just that. Screens April 27, 28 and 29.
On The Roof (El Techo)- Since President Obama normalized relations with Cuba, visiting the long-isolated island nation seems to be all the rage lately. If, like me, you’re not headed to the land of rum and cigars anytime soon, seek out at least one of the many Cuban films included at CLFF this year, including On The Roof, the unassuming but poignant slice-of-life story of three young Cubans navigating their aimless days in the newly opened economy. Vito is obsessed with his grandfather’s Italian heritage; Anita is several months pregnant and hasn’t yet told her estranged mother; Yasmani breeds pigeons but hasn’t kissed a girl. When they decide to open a pizza joint on their roof, the locals love it, even if they can’t pay for what they order. Exceedingly well-framed (more than one of the many lingering shots could be a postcard), the film suffers from a slight shift in tone halfway through that may jar sensitive viewers. Regardless, it’s strongest in its honesty about youth, love and building a future. Screens April 21, 23 and 24. (Trailer below is not subtitled, but rest assured, the film is.)
Crazy In Love (Locos de Amor)- Spanish-language musical version of Love, Actually, anyone? Yeah, you read that right. Though not a remake at all, it’s similar to that 2003 romcom in that it weaves together a series of related but separate love stories and as each unfolds, the four main stories about women and their romantic escapades become ever more intertwined. She’s in love with her younger, very good looking yoga instructor but afraid to admit it. Over here, she can’t decide between her long-time boyfriend or her life-long friend. This one’s finally leaving her husband to live the life she’s dreamed of…maybe; and that one is done with her philandering joke of a husband…unless she’s not. The cast spontaneously breaking out into song is, honestly, a bit odd at first (and this comes from a lover of all things musical), but soon the poppy, perky numbers get the better of you, and it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself at least a little bit. Screens April 26, 30.
Esteban – The second Cuban film screened for this preview, it sets a different tone than On the Roof, as Estaban is a promising young student who gets himself into trouble, determined as he is to take piano lessons from the local curmudgeon. When his struggling single mother discovers what he’s been up to, her first reaction is to punish his deceit; but even she can’t deny his natural musical talent, and soon she’s not only allowing the lessons, she’s forged her own friendship with Professor Hugo. Yes, that’s the violins you hear in the midst of this sappy plot description. Though it takes itself a bit too seriously, the film is ultimately harmless, a gentle reminder of the brevity of life and the importance of following one’s passion. Screens April 27, 28 and 30.
Le Soledad – I try to pay attention to the news, and until recently, keeping up with global events was fairly easy to do (the headline-hogging antics of a certain reality TV star / President notwithstanding). So I know just enough about the economic crisis in Venezuela to know that times are hard there; crazy inflation, empty store shelves, no work to be found. Le Soledad, in a cinema verite style one would be forgiven for mistaking for a documentary, puts this struggle into stark relief as it follows one man’s efforts to keep a roof over his family’s head. Squatting in the dilapidated house of a wealthier family his grandmother used to work for, now it’s up to him to keep his abuela on her blood pressure meds, keep his brother out of trouble and keep food in the fridge for his wife and young daughter. Quiet and nuanced, it’s in the ruins of his world that he searches for answers. Screens April 30, May 4.
Maligno – Though CLFF doesn’t have a declared “midnight” section for horror films and thrillers, there are a few to choose from for the boldest among us. Peruvian feature Maligno is about a cursed wing at a local hospital and the havoc it wreaks on patients and doctors alike. As disappearances mount, it becomes impossible to deny there’s something nefarious behind the wall of the Red Wing, even to men and women of science. When the daughter of one of the hospital’s doctors is possessed by the evil spirit haunting the facility, her mother abandons her medial training and enlists the help of spiritual healers. Whatever the film lacks in depth (mother and daughter aren’t close, but we have no idea why), it more than makes up for in spooks, with solid scary effects and intense performances. Suffice it to say I’m glad I viewed it during the day. Screens April 21 and 23.
Vanished (Desaparecer)- In the jungle communities in rural Peru, natives believe in a strange scaled water-man creature who wreaks havoc on innocent villagers. It’s in one such village that Milena goes missing and her fiance, Giovanni, joins the police chief to search for her and the other young girls also missing. As they uncover more and more clues about what’s really going on in the secluded small town, the stakes grow ever higher – and the chances of finding the missing alive fall ever lower. Despite a promising action-packed premise, Vanished ultimately plays as a slick telenovela, too polished and convoluted (and overdramatic) to be taken too seriously. That it serves as a welcome counterpart to the likes of slower, more arthouse fare like Le Soledad, however, may be just enough to warrant the price of admission. Screens April 26 and May 1.
The Chicago Latino Film Festival takes place at AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois St.) April 20 – May 4. Ticket information and the full schedule can be found on the festival’s website.