Chicago Int’l Film Festival’s First Weekend: What to See

The 53rd Chicago International Film Festival is happening now (through October 26), and the Third Coast Review film team got a chance to screen many of the film selections in advance. Throughout the Festival, we'll bring you quick takes on what's screening and what you should - and maybe shouldn't - see. For all our Festival coverage, follow this link

The first weekend of the Festival boasts some of the biggest titles of this year's event, plus Chicago-made productions and more. Each brief review below (in alphabetical order) is credited to the Third Coast writer who checked out the film. A Ciambra screens at the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival

A Ciambra

Pio Amato (played by himself) is an illiterate Romani slum-dweller who finds himself confronting a classic teenage dilemma: even though he wants his relatives to start treating him “like a real man,” he also doesn’t want to relinquish the creature comforts of childhood. His efforts to escape this quandary supply the premise for Jonas Carpignano’s engaging, grittily poetic A Ciambra, which Italy selected as its submission to the Academy for next year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Carpignano provides an uncommonly intelligent testament to the unpleasant, morally gray sacrifices that adulthood often entails – and his portrait of modern-day Italy accurately delineates the many economic and social problems that that country faces. What’s most refreshing about A Ciambra, however, is its refusal to romanticize Pio’s delinquent lifestyle, even as it clearly indicates why Pio finds crime so alluring. All in all, you don’t have to be poor or illiterate to appreciate this universal story about dashed idealism. -AX

A Ciambra screens Sunday, 10/15 at 5:15pm and Monday, 10/16 at 8:45pm.

Birds are Singing in Kigali

How do you overcome the trauma of genocide? For the main characters of Joanna Kos-Krauze’s Birds Are Singing in Kigali, that question has no answer – because the enormity of what they saw in Rwanda has left them in a state of total, inescapable helplessness. Like Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, Kos-Krauze’s film tackles the delicate subject of coping with grief. But unlike her predecessors, Kos-Krauze largely leaves it to the viewer to imagine the suffering her two protagonists (brilliantly interpreted by Jowita Budnik and Eliane Umuhire) must’ve gone through. And whereas Lonergan and Villeneuve both hinted at the healing power of companionship, Kos-Krauze’s vision is complete in its bleakness: whatever capacity Budnik and Umuhire’s characters may have had for bonding was obliterated at the hands of murderous Hutu. This edifying, unflinching meditation on human indifference and fragility is certainly not for the fainthearted. -AX

Birds are Singing in Kigali screens Sunday, 10/15 at 5:30pm and Monday, 10/16 at 5:30pm. Filmmaker Joanna Kos-Krauze is expected to attend. Blade of the Immortal screens at the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival

Blade of the Immortal

The 100th film from Japanese genre master Takashi Miike is as epic and riveting and one might expect from a filmmaker marking such an occasion. Blade of the Immortal is the tale of Manji (Takuya Kimura), a fallen samurai who is cursed with never being able to die. He spends his version of eternity fighting evil to make up for the misdeeds of his youth (and the death of his beloved sister) by agreeing to help a young girl named Rin (Hana Sugisaki, who also plays the dead sister to really mess with Manji’s head) as she sets out to get revenge on an army of master swordsman (led by the enigmatic Sôta Fukushi) who killed her parents. As one would expect from Miike, the film is wildly, poetically violent, but with a raw emotional core that permeates every scene. The visuals are spectacular and the stunningly choreographed fight sequences are pure art. One of the highlights of both Miike’s career and the festival. -SP

Blade of the Immortal screens Friday, 10/13 at 10:45pm and Sunday, 10/22 at 8:45pm


From writer-director-actor Daryl Wein (Lola Versus, Breaking Upwards) comes this stripped-down story of Jerod (Jerod Haynes), a recently laid-off daycare teacher on the Southside of Chicago, whose best friend is killed by police under questionable circumstances. While he’s grappling with the reality of both this very personal event and the bigger-picture implications of his community’s violent day-to-day reality, he’s also attempting to mend fences with his on-again/off-again girlfriend and their two kids. While there’s a bit of an amateur feeling to both the filmmaking and acting in certain places, there’s no getting around Blueprint’s grasp on the reality and authenticity of its characters and their often terrifying world. In it’s own sometimes quiet way, the movie packs an emotional punch, especially when Jerod begins attempting to better himself and the universe he inhabits. -SP

Blueprint screens Friday, 10/13 at 9pm; Saturday 10/14 at 1pm and Wednesday 10/18 at 1:30pm. Director Daryl Wein is expected to attend, along with actors Jerod Haynes, Edgar Sanchez, Tai Davis, Shanesia Davis, and Sandra Adams-Monegain.

Chasing the Blues screens at the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival

Chasing the Blues

Part mystery, part road movie, part comedy about the rivalry that exists amongst collectors of anything rare (in this case vinyl records), director Scott Smith’s Chasing the Blues traces the journey that Alan Thomas (Grant Rosenmeyer) takes to acquire the rarest blues record ever made. Naturally, there’s a mythology surrounding the recording (supposedly only three copies were ever pressed), and it is said that people have turned homicidal after listening to it. But that doesn’t stop Alan or competing collector/record store owner Paul (Ronald L. Conner), as the two stake a claim in the home of a sweet old woman (Anna Maria Horsford) whose dead husband’s record collection features the notorious pressing. Something about their time in the house lands them both in jail for years, and we’re told the story in flashback as Alan takes a bus to Louisiana to once again have a shot at purchasing his vinyl prize from an attorney played by Jon Lovitz(!). Along the way, he meets a lovely young singer (Chelsea Tavares), and for the first time in years, his life is looking up. Chasing the Blues is as its best when it focuses on the music-collecting scene, and the lengths some will go to to acquire the impossible. The comedy is a bit broad, but the performances are charming in a dark and playfully evil way. And the vintage (or seemingly vintage) music selections are tough to beat. -SP

Chasing the Blues screens Saturday, 10/14 at 8:45pm; Wednesday 10/18 at 5:45pm and Saturday, 10/21 at 12:30pm. Director Scott Smith; producers Aria DeBenny, John Fromstein and J.J. Ingram; and actors Jon Lovitz and Grant Rosenmeyer are schedule to attend.

The Confession

It sounds like the premise for an absurdist sex comedy: a celibate priest discovers that one of his parishioners looks exactly like Marilyn Monroe. But in Zaza Urushadze’s The Confession, that’s the very real and serious dilemma that Father Giorgi (Dimitri Tatishvili) faces in Lily (Sophia Sebiskveradze), a piano teacher who puts all his ideas about friendship, sex, and femininity to the test. Urushadze’s depiction of Giorgi’s struggle makes a timely, disquieting statement on the challenges traditional religion faces in the 21st century; along the way, the film’s gentle yet suggestive cinematography also offers a splendid visual summation of Giorgi’s conflicted feelings towards Lily. And although the story takes some time to fully develop, that slowness is precisely what eventually makes the climax such a bombshell. You’d have to go back to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence to find another movie so willing to tear at our idealized conception of rural life. -AX

The Confession screens Sunday, 10/15 at 5:45pm and Monday, 10/16 at 8:30pm. Director Zaza Urushadze and producer Ivo Felt are scheduled to attend. Goodbye Christopher Robin screens at the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival

Goodbye Christopher Robin

The creative process of any artist, especially a writer, can be a tough thing to capture on film, but director Simon Curtis’ (My Week with Marilyn, Woman In Gold) latest illustrates how playwright A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) forged the most beloved children’s books of all time (those featuring Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin, and their animal friends) from the mental anguish he was still suffering from following his service in World War I. Milne wanted to create something made of pure good and joy, and so he looked to his young son, C.R. Milne (the overpoweringly adorable Will Tilston), and the adventures he created in the woods that surrounded their country home. The film deals with the creative mind, but it also addresses the popularity of the books and how C.R. suffered greatly from such exposure. Margot Robbie plays Milne’s wife Daphne, who pushes both husband and son to embrace the popularity of Winnie the Pooh, while Kelly Macdonald plays nanny Olive, who attempts to shield her young charge from the press and public alike. Goodbye Christopher Robin is a sometimes precious but often quite eloquent telling of this true story and how it impacted everyone involved, even years later. The performances are appropriately stoically British, and Curtis makes everything look picturesque and inviting. This one is largely a success. -SP

Goodbye Christopher Robin screens Friday, 10/13 at 6pm. Director Simon Curtis is expected to attend.

The Line

At the start of Peter Bebjak’s The Line, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a Slovak rehash of The Godfather. After all, the protagonist, a robust middle-aged man named Adam (Tomáš Maštalír), is a crime boss who preaches the importance of family, adamantly refuses to deal in drugs, and mercilessly punishes disloyalty. (Plus, like Vito Corleone, he also has a daughter who’s getting married.) Yet in its depiction of Adam’s smuggling business on the Slovakia-Ukraine border, The Line eventually unfolds like a kind of anti-Godfather: an unusual, riveting mixture of comedy and suspense in which Adam’s ineptitude provokes the deaths of relatives, the demise of colleagues, and his empire’s gradual unraveling. The film’s eclectic blend of instrumental and electronic music exhilarates, and its stark, colorful cinematography effectively holds your attention. But if there’s only one reason to see this, it’s Maštalír: he makes the movie that rare thriller that knows when to slow down and remind itself that human lives are at stake. -AX

The Line screens Saturday, 10/14 at 8:30pm; Sunday 10/15 at 2:30pm and Tuesday, 10/17 at 3:15pm. Actor Andrej Hryc is expected to attend. Lover for a Day screens at the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival

Lover for a Day

As are many of legendary French director Philippe Garrel’s works (Regular Lovers, In the Shadow of Women), Lover for a Day is shot in an atmospheric, lush black and white while telling the whirlwind tale of sexual exploits, broken hearts, and that type of passionate yet fleeting love that seems to be the hallmark of French films. Esther Garrel plays college student Jeanne, who breaks up with her boyfriend (Paul Toucang) and comes knocking on the door of her father Gilles (Éric Caravaca), who much to Jeanne’s surprise, is living with a woman her age and also still at school, Ariane (Louise Chevillotte). The film captures their conversations and watches as the women become friends and confidantes, while Ariane and Gilles go through a rather tumultuous romance. Gilles becomes so insecure that he tells Ariane it’s okay if she sleeps with other (he presumes younger) men as long as he doesn’t know about it, an allowance she foolishly takes as gospel. I’m not sure there are takeaway life lessons in Lover for a Day, but the performances and sexually charged situations are certainly intriguing and sexy, even when a great deal of their decisions and actions make little logical sense. But hey, it’s a b&w French flick—as long as they look good acting nuts, I can handle lapses in sense. -SP

Lover for a Day screens Friday, 10/13 at 6:15pm and Saturday 10/14 at 12:30pm. Actress Esther Garrel is expected to attend.

The Other Side of Hope

What do a Syrian refugee and a sleazy European businessman have in common? That’s the apparently silly question that Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki tries to answer in The Other Side of Hope, which follows one such refugee (Sherwin Haji) as he immigrates to Finland and starts working for one such businessman (Sakari Kuosmanen). Throughout the film, Kaurismäki skillfully exposes the hypocrisy underlying the EU’s approach to its refugee crisis – preach humanitarianism, then find excuses to expel migrants anyway – without getting bogged down in sentimentalism. More intriguingly, he decides to couple his portrayal of this mishandling with a blistering critique of bourgeois superficiality, as if to suggest that these two seemingly unrelated problems stem from similar underlying causes. Haji and Kuosmanen’s hilarious yet chilling performances ensure that the story never loses its vicious sense of irony – so that when Kaurismäki finally answers his “silly” question, his response leaves you somewhere between shocked and completely devastated. -AX

The Other Side of Hope screens Friday, 10/13 at 8:30pm and Saturday 10/14 at 1pm. Sicilian Ghost Story screens at the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival

Sicilian Ghost Story

Based on actual events, filmmaking duo Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia's latest is an ethereal, foggy wonder in film form. Sicilian Ghost Story revolves around the mafia kidnapping of Giuseppe, a young teen and the son of a man caught up in their criminal web, and the budding romance that drives his classmate, Luna, to find answers about his disappearance. Both barely fourteen, Luna and Giuseppe's innocent but authentic connection evokes a Romeo and Juliette type of youthful doom; she's far too young to understand the dark forces at work here, and is probably all the more determined because of it. Piazza and Grassadonia, who previously co-directed Salvo (another brooding Italian drama), deliver a film that looks like a bit like a ghost, sort of blurry around the edges and not entirely solid. It's as if you could reach out and put your hand right through it. And though the story is tragic, the film, though dark and at times very sad, is mercifully not. -LT Sicilian Ghost Story screens Sunday, 10/15 at 7:30pm; Monday, 10/16 at 5:30pm and Thursday, 10/19 at 3pm. Co-director Antonio Piazza is scheduled to attend.

The Square

Ruben Östlund's Force Majeur garnered much-deserved acclaim when it debuted at Cannes Film Festival in 2014, winning that festival's Un Certain Regard award. This year, Östlund conquered the Riviera again when The Square outdid even that earlier title, this time taking the Palme d'Or (the festival's top honor). Both films will challenge what you consider an enjoyable movie-going experience, making you squirm in your seat with the tension and awkwardness on screen. But where Force Majeur was subtle, almost covert in its subversiveness, The Square wears its absurdity on its sleeve. Claes Bang is Christian, curator at a modern art museum (and he looks it, too, in trendy glasses, sharp/casual suit jackets and jeans, just-messy-enough hair) who's got a major opening in the works and the publicity to show for it. When he's victim to a pick-pocket, he finds himself embroiled in a goofy, immature plot to get his wallet and phone back. Everything unspools from there and though it's not always easy to watch, you won't be able to take your eyes off it (including another accomplished notch Elisabeth Moss's acting belt. She shines.) -LT The Square screens Friday, 10/13 at 8:15pm and Saturday, 10/14 at 5:15pm. Terry Notary is scheduled to attend. Thelma screens at the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival


If, like me, you go into Thelma knowing little more than it received acclaim out of the Toronto International Film Festival last month, I hope that, also like me, you leave just as mesmerized and moved as I was. But perhaps you need a little more than that to go on. Thelma has been raised in a sheltered, conservatively religious family, and as she makes her way from her small town home to college in the city, she struggles to meet friends and fit in. It doesn't help that every now and then, she's victim to unexplained seizures. To reveal more about Thelma, the character and the film, would be to reveal too much. Suffice it to say all is not of this world and everything is not what it seems. Anchored by Eili Harboe as Thelma, whose performance channels both a teenager's aloofness and frustrations and a more mature reckoning with her new reality, the film (directed by Joachim Trier of Oslo, August 31) is at turns tense and menacing. It's also a gorgeously visual supernatural coming-of-age search for self. -LT Thelma screens Saturday, 10/14 at 8:30pm and Sunday 10/15 at 12:30pm
Picture of the author
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.