Week two of Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Film Festival sees more documentaries make their way into the schedule of 60 films from 28 countries, as themes from immigration to politics emerge in stories based in reality. Each film screens just a couple of times throughout the festival, so if something piques your interest, don’t sleep on it! Keep an eye on the schedule, too, for special guests and post-film conversations around some of the most interesting European cinema of the year. Here’s what we had our eye on this week….
Image courtesy of Siskel Film Center
Love and Bullets
It’s probably true that any movie musical is bound to include some degree of camp. It’s essential to the deal filmmakers strike with audiences: please suspend disbelief just long enough to enjoy these characters spontaneously breaking out in song. Love and Bullets, the Italian mafia movie musical (yes, you read that right) directed by the Mantetti Bros., has camp in spades, as gangsters belt out ballads and mafia wives cut a rug in the kitchen. Whether or not that’s a good thing is to be determined. As a spoof on the machismo culture of Naples, it’s a rollicking comedy that spares no victim from its goofy interpretation of figures that are more often the bad guys in dark dramas. But the film loses itself in its over-long runtime (134 minutes!), dragging out plot lines about faked deaths and missed connections until it’s impossible to care much about how it all turns out, even if the musical numbers are a laugh. The film took Italy by storm, winning five of that country’s Oscars recently, and it’s understandable that Italians saw a lot to appreciate in a social satire that skewers nearly every local cliche. If only that translated better to the States. ––Lisa Trifone
Screens Sunday, March 17, at 4:30pm and Thursday, March 21, at 7:30pm.
For those up on your mid-19th century French history, first-time director Marine Fancen’s The Sower should be a particularly pleasing affair. Although the film is fiction, it’s set just after Louis Napoleon took power, when all of the men of a distant village are rounded up and taken away for an indeterminate amount of time—maybe forever—for defying the current leadership. The women who are left behind barely make it through the first harvest, but almost more importantly, they have no idea when or if their fathers, sons, brothers and husbands will ever return. As their frustrations—both maternal and sexual—grow over time, they all agree that the first man who comes into the village will be offered the chance to sleep with all of the women, both to get them pregnant and just to fulfill certain desires.
Into this situation walks Jean (Alban Lenoir) a blacksmith with a mysterious past, who takes a liking to the isolation of the area and one young woman in particular, Violette (Pauline Burlet). The two begin to fall in love, but she is loyal to the other women and poses the situation to Jean, even though it breaks her heart. It would be easy to compare this film to something like The Beguiled, although the sexual power dynamics are nothing like that film. Here, there is a desperate innocence, and Jean is in no way manipulating the situation for his own gain. More than anything, it’s a beautifully photographed, tragic love story, coupled with a fable about female strength in the face of the great unknown. The Sower is a mostly quiet but remarkably powerful film with a humble sensuality running through its core. —Steve Prokopy
Screens on Saturday, March 16, at 3:30pm; and Monday, March 18, at 6pm.
Tiger Milk, director Ute Wieland’s adaptation of Stefanie de Velasco’s best-selling novel, is the story of best friends Nini (Flora Thiemann) and Jameelah (Emily Kusche), two teens who live and play in Berlin. We first meet them right before school ends for the summer; their goal for the vacation is to each lose her virginity, an assignment Jameelah dubs “project defloration.” The girls are by no means mature, but they have a street-smartness that serves them well as they bounce from public pool to boozy summer party, chasing their crushes (for Jameelah it’s the handsome daydreamer Lukas; Nini has her sights set on edgy graffiti-artist Nico) and navigating the repressive German society. They both come from various states of unrest at home: Nini’s father left years ago, and she is all but invisible to her couch-potato mother and bratty siblings, while Jameelah lives alone with her mother Noura. The two fled Iraq after Jameelah’s father and brother were killed in conflict. They’ve had to grow up fast, particularly Jameelah, whose quick wit and cavalier approach to the city’s dangers serve to mask the ever-present fear of deportation.
The title of the film refers to the girls’ favorite drink, a pastel concoction made from passion fruit juice mixed with milk and brandy. They drink it at school and on the bus around town, happy to loosen inhibitions while getting the calcium needed for their nutrition. It’s this same attitude that crosses over to their navigation of girlhood, particularly their sexuality—these girls are curious and intentional, wanting to flirt with adulthood just enough to know what it tastes like, while staying grounded in the safety of adolescence. The plot pivots around an act of violence witnessed by the girls that serves both to hasten their maturation and threatens to sever their friendship. It’s a mostly satisfying tale, though the film’s second half feels a bit weighed down, as if writer/director Wieland wasn’t sure what elements of the novel to really focus on. But when the balance is right, Tiger Milk shines as a loving depiction of female friendship and youthful resilience. —Matthew Nerber
Screens Friday, March 15, at 6pm and Wednesday, March 20, at 7:45pm.
The Waldheim Waltz
Ruth Beckerman crafts one of the most chilling political documentaries of the year in The Waldheim Waltz, recounting through archival footage––both her own and from news coverage––the tumultuous 1986 Austrian presidential election. If that sounds like an obscure historical event to focus on, it certainly is. But its significance couldn’t be more meaningful to today’s political climate, a moment when careers (and perhaps lives) are destroyed in a matter of days (hours?) after the unearthing of racist, sexist or abusive past behavior. Kurt Waldheim rose to prominence in politics following World War II, eventually becoming Secretary General in the United Nations and generally earning goodwill around his leadership and inclusivity. That all changed when he decided to run for president in his native Austria and the country’s investigative journalists uncovered telling omissions in Waldheim’s biography, particularly during the war, where he served in the Nazi military and would have been present during mass deportations. What unfolds following the revelation is a masterclass (for better or worse) in political theater, as Waldheim goes into crisis mode, avoiding and evading hard questions at every pass. The scandal would eventually encompass multiple countries and governments, with groups of every political and religious nature stepping up and speaking out on the matter, holding hearings and determining their own courses of action. Scholars of mid-1980s European history likely know how it all turned out, but for those who don’t remember (or weren’t alive) at the time, Beckerman’s film plays like a suspenseful political thriller that’s as eerily relevant as ever. ––Lisa Trifone
Screens Friday, March 15, at 2pm and Sunday, March 17, at 4:30pm
You Are My Friend
Last year, Siskel’s EUFF featured Miss Kiet’s Children, a touching documentary about a Dutch elementary classroom for immigrant children learning to speak the language and settle into their new homeland. Filmmakers Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czich return this year with You Are My Friend, this time centered around a single student in that same classroom. Branche and his parents have recently arrived from Macedonia, and as the film begins at the start of the school year, he is a scared, shy little boy who doesn’t speak Dutch and channels his frustrations into distracting, sometimes bullying behaviors. But the classroom is a haven, thanks in no small part to Miss Kiet’s nurturing, patient approach to teaching her students. Conflicts are settled with conversation, an apology and a handshake. Friendships are forged despite language barriers, both in the classroom and on the playground. A few slides share updates on Branche’s progress, but watching his growth unfold on screen, the changes are almost imperceptible, as they happen a bit here, a bit there. His words are stilted, his sentences incomplete. But he’s trying, and with the love and support of a classroom like Miss Kiet’s, he’ll find his way. ––Lisa Trifone
Screens Friday, March 15, at 4:15pm and Wednesday, March 20, at 6pm.