On March 9, the Gene Siskel Film Center kicks off their annual European Union Film Festival, a month-long celebration of the newest and most impressive cinema from that association of nations across the Atlantic. Featuring more than sixty films from all 28 EU nations, the program is one of the most anticipated of the Siskel’s year-round programming.
One can’t possibly review sixty films in one sitting, so rather than inundate these pages with a slew of updates before the festival begins, we’ll break our coverage up over the course of the four weeks (March 9 through April 5), highlighting as many of the selections as we can. Each film only screens a couple of times, so if one of our previews sparks an interest, don’t delay!
More information on this year’s EU Film Festival is here; most tickets are $11, though if you’re a member they’re just $6. What else can you buy for $6 these days? Not much, and certainly not an international adventure like the one on screen here.
Our reviews of the first week’s highlights follow alphabetically.
Barefoot is set in 1943 in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, where Czechs hope for liberation by Russia and the Allied forces. It’s a story of everyday life in wartime, seen through the eyes of 8-year-old Eda (short for Eduard, played by the sunny, bright-eyed Alois Grec). Eda lives with his father (Ondrej Vetchý) and mother (a sweet Tereza Voriskova) in Prague. When the family is evicted from its apartment, they move to the country where Father’s family owns a farm. The city boy becomes a country boy and learns to walk barefoot. Director Jan Sverák films a beautiful nostalgia story about Eda’s experiences with bees, rabbits, horses, his country buddies and the new family he meets, including his outcast uncle (Oldrich Kaiser). While US bombers fly overhead and German soldiers march through the village, the boys continue their play. In school, the headmaster talks over the sound of a required Nazi broadcast and tells the children to listen to the birds singing outside the window. Sverák’s beautiful nostalgia story never wavers in its viewpoint: wartime surrounds Eda, and he views it all with childhood innocence. -Nancy Bishop
Screens at 3pm Sunday, March 11, and 7:45pm Monday, March 12.
Catch the Wind
Managing to be both hard edged and lyrical, the latest from writer-director Gaël Morel (Our Paradise, Après lui) is a moving portrait of loneliness embodied in a middle-aged widow named Edith, played by one of France greatest actresses, Sandrine Bonnaire. When she discovers that the company in whose textile factory she works is shutting down in favor of a cheaper labor pool in Tangiers, she accepts the option to relocate to the new facility rather than take a severance package. Taking stock in her own life and realizing she has no real reason to stay in France, Edith faces suspicion, culture shock, and outright aggression against her by some of the Moroccan locals, none of whom understand why she would want to live there and work in often oppressive conditions. But as the film progresses, we being to learn more about her fortitude and the strength of the struggling people around her. Catch the Wind isn’t attempting to be inspirational, but that doesn’t stop it from being so, and Bonnaire is an absolute treasure who we don’t get to see nearly enough on this side of the ocean. Edith may frustrate audiences at times with her dogged conviction to her life choices, but ultimately she’ll have you rooting for her. (SP)
The film screens Friday, March 9 at 2pm; and Wednesday, March 14 at 8:15pm.
The Death of Stalin
It’s not often that a comedy can accurately be called subversive, but the latest from In the Loop writer-director and “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci is just that and then some. While he recounts the power struggle that erupted upon the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953, he has populated The Death of Stalin with fantastic British and American actors (all using their normal accents to add to the absurdity), all playing characters attempting to out-maneuver each other as they rip apart the country in order to appear to be the one to bring it back together. Among the cast are standouts like Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as the next in line but completely ineffective Georgy Malenkov, Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov and the brilliant Simon Russell Beale as secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, who might be the most potent example of funny and evil I’ve ever seen in a single character. Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, and Andrea Riseborough add to the chaos and pure joy of watching this nasty piece of historical fiction that doesn’t shy away from some of the ugliest, bloodiest truths about the USSR at the time. The result is a biting, hilarious and masterfully choreographed Dance of the Buffoons. Thank goodness, this type of political chaos and treachery could only exist in the movies. -Steve Prokopy
Screens Saturday, March 10 at 8:00pm and Wednesday, March 14 at 6:00pm. (Opens theatrically in Chicago on Friday, March 16 at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.)
Other than it being a highly watchable affair, the reason you care about this strange, unnerving little work from Luxembourg is that it stars hometown hero Vicky Krieps (currently featured in Phantom Thread, and also appearing in another EU Film Festival title The Young Karl Marx, set to play in the festival’s final week). Gutland stars Frederick Lau as Jens, an unkempt, long-haired German man looking for seasonal farm work in a small town. At first, the locals want nothing to do with him, but after he has what he thinks is a one-night stand with Lucy (Krieps), the mayor’s fiery daughter, he gets a job offer helping to bring in the latest harvest. He begins to blend into the landscape and be accepted by all, perhaps a little too effortlessly, and he begins to get suspicious (and rightfully so) about it. Director Govinda Van Maele allows the tension in the film to build slowly, using small details that Jens uncovers as he explores his surroundings. Gutland moves from creepy to curious to something worthy of a small anxiety attack. Lau is an effective, evolving lead, and it was really great just to see Krieps smile for long stretches of the film—something I’ve never seen her do in previous performances. The movie works best as an exercise in atmosphere, but the story and subtext are quite intriguing as well. -Steve Prokopy
Screens Sunday, March 11 at 5:15pm; and Tuesday, March 13 at 7:45pm.
A sometimes brutal father-daughter relationship mirrors the political conflicts in Athens during the height of the Greek financial crisis in Happy Birthday. Margarita (Nefeli Kouri) is a teenaged anti-authoritarian protester. Her father Giorgis (Dimitris Imellos) is an Athens cop and a member of the riot squad. During a protest, he sees Margarita throw a Molotov cocktail that results in severe burns for several police, including himself. Her mother insists father and daughter get away for a few days to cool off and try to salvage their relationship. So they drive to their seaside cottage two hours away. The trip is a “time-out” for Margarita but results in constant battles between father and daughter. Eventually, the bitter relationship leads to a kind of truce (helped along by roller skates). Writer/director Christos Georgiou doesn’t take sides; both characters have good and bad attributes. The bitter fights and violent urban and jail scenes are contrasted with gorgeous seaside settings. The birthday in the ironic title is Giorgis’; two celebrations are disrupted by violence and a family fight. -Nancy Bishop
Screens at 8pm Saturday, March 10, and 8:15pm Wednesday, March 14.
A truly inspired documentary from Germany from director Rüdiger Suchsland (From Caligari to Hitler), Hitler’s Hollywood is an in-depth, fully engaging examination of one of the most troubling and fascinating periods in film history—the closely orchestrated and scrutinized (by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels himself) Nazi film industry, which produced more than 1,000 films, very few of which were outright propaganda pieces. Mirroring Hollywood’s studio system and many of its finest movies of the time, the Nazi films were stories of heroes and villains, love stories, musicals, all of which stressed the values of the party and the Fatherland. Director Suchsland gives example after example of how the Nazis valued glorious sacrificial deaths, giving up individuality for the greater good, certain prejudices, and the perfect physical form. Their biggest stars and most talented actors look a lot like those in America (including replacements for actors who fled, such as Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman, who was born in Sweden and acted in at least one of these early films). Many of the beautifully restored film clips are astonishing, both in terms of their production value and scope; some of them are shocking or laughable at how blatant the insertion of propaganda beliefs is. But the film feels like an alternate history, providing escape for German citizens just as films do around the world. We meet and begin to recognize the stars from film to film, and by the end of Hitler’s Hollywood, I was ready to take a class on the subject on this mostly forgotten cinematic world. A highlight of the EU Film Festival’s first week to be sure. -Steve Prokopy
Screens on Friday, March 9 at 2pm; and Wednesday, March 14 at 6pm.
Right from the start, you get acclimated to the grimy setting of this modern-day Italian fairytale. Hookers line the streets leading up to the home of conjoined twins Dasy & Viola, who perform under the name Indivisible. The film examines the twin’s struggle with their caretakers, their rival managers with a penchant for the unique, and the local religious figures; but it’s how the pair deals with their personal issues and their journey to escape it all that takes the spotlight. Themes of autonomy, selflessness, and the claustrophobia of being with someone at all times are handled in a surprisingly relatable way. This is due to actual twin (although not conjoined) sisters Angela and Marianna Fontana feeling so real in their roles. Every moment we share with the sisters feels full of insight, as if we are reliving conversations they previously had. It’s inevitable that a film about talented conjoined twins being exploited by everyone around them would be surreal, but Indivisible never succumbs to its wildest eccentricities. That’s partly why the film works: it doesn’t try to overwhelm you in its oddities but rather slowly lure you further into its dream like state. Even during its most outlandish moments, the film finds a way to connect you back the heart of the story, Daisy and Viola trying to find themselves in this snow globe folklore. -Julian Ramirez
Screens Sunday, March 11 at 5:15 pm & Thursday, March 15 at 8:15 pm.
Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle
Gustavo Salmerón’s Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle is a deep yet relaxed look at the director’s mother, a film that defies clear categorizations or critique. Salmerón’s mother Julia is so witty, sharp and beautifully eccentric that any review quickly devolves into a detailed retelling of her more amusing moments. Who needs clear plot points when the main character accidentally puts her children’s teeth in her coffee rather than sugar, or loses her grandmother’s vertebrae in her many over-packed closets? There’s no need to preempt the movie with extensive research; just allow the film’s charm to wash over you like a hot bath. The greatest achievement of Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle is its ability to side step self-indulgence, which often plagues personal movies. It may follow one odd octogenarian, but it reveals universal truths about marriage, faith and aging. -Arielle Ismail
Screens on Friday, March 9 at 4:00pm and Monday, March 12 at 6:00pm
Song of Granite
Song of Granite relies on tradition and the eventual upheaval of it. The meditative biopic focuses on life of lauded Irish folk sings Joe Heaney. Make no mistake; this is no by-the-numbers biopic. The film presents Heaney‘s life through disjointed and evocative imaginary rather than a typical narrative, letting the natural sounds sing just as vividly as Heaney would. Even the beginning of the film, which centers on Heaney‘s childhood, is more concerned with showing how the beautiful and lush landscapes that surrounded him affected his life. These long stretches of scenery dwarf its inhabitants and bring to mind Andrei Tarkovsky, although at a slightly brisker pace. The film embraces its dreamy presentation so well that you don’t find fault in entire segments of Heaney’s life entering as quickly as they dissipate. Important moments of his life are pinpointed and said plainly, letting them echo across the gorgeous Irish folk songs and archival footage that is interweaved. Song of Granite acts as poem that Heaney might have sung, creating an utterly hypnotic aura that escalates its experimental vision to a breathtaking final act. -Julian Ramirez
Screens Saturday, March 10 at 3:00 pm & Thursday, March 15 at 6:00 pm
It wouldn’t be an EU Film Festival without at least one film starring the Queen of Melancholy, France’s Isabelle Huppert. Here, she stars as Liliane, an aging woman working for a catering company in their food factory. She leads a solitary life until she meets a new hire, Jean (Kévin Azaïs), a much younger man whose real line of work is training to be a professional boxer. He recognizes her as a former, quite famous pop singer (her career ended when she lost a singing competition show to ABBA) who his father had a crush on, and the two begin a flirtatious relationship that leads to him coaxing her out of retirement for one performance. The revival goes so well (and his boxing career ends before it really begins) that Jean decides to become her manager and gets her to perform in bigger and bigger venues, leading to an appearance on the same signing contest. As brave as Huppert is to take on the singing herself, she equally impressive playing Liliane as a raw bundle of self doubt, lacking all forms of confidence to the point where she has to be near-blind drunk to perform at times. Things are further complicated when Liliane starts working again with her ex-lover and songwriting partner, who also happens to be a contest judge. Souvenir may be lesser Huppert, but director/co-writer Bavo Defurne does an admirable job tapping into her strengths and vulnerabilities, helping her create a character who craves success almost as much as she fears it. -Steve Prokopy
Screens on Saturday, March 10 at 3:00pm; and Monday, March 12 at 6:00pm.