The Chicago European Union Film Festival is the Siskel Film Center’s annual love letter to the cinema of nearly an entire continent, a month-long program that includes films from all 28 member countries—including the UK, even as Brexit goes into effect. With dozens of films screening from March 6 through April 2, there’s no shortage of options for exploring the stories, cultures and artistry from the other side of the Atlantic. And particularly as travel abroad is more and more difficult (some of the Festival’s special guests have already canceled their planned attendance), use our weekly previews (this one, and three more to follow) to plan what to see for a bit of an adventure without leaving the city.
A full schedule of films and events at the Chicago European Union Film Festival is available here.
Comic Sans, Croatian writer/director Nevio Marasović’s fourth feature film, opens with adman Alan (Janko Popović Volarić) desperately trying to win back ex-girlfriend Marina (Nataša Janjić). She left him a few months earlier, and her absence looms large over the story of Alan’s subsequent emotional breakdown and his trip with estranged father Bruno (Zlatko Burić) to the remote Croatian coast to bury a deceased aunt and settle her estate. Green text bubbles sent to Marina, unanswered for days, lead Alan to sleepless nights and drug-fueled work meetings. A possible missed call from her dismantles the tiny progress he has made, and leads to more grief. At its heart, the film explores the relationship Alan has with himself, and by proxy with his decent though emotionally unavailable artist father. Tonally, Comic Sans recalls Alexander Payne’s Sideways, with its subdued dark humor, and anxieties tied to drug use and failed relationships. Croatia’s coastline is made up of a thousand tiny islands, and that scattered setting ties nicely into Marasović’s study of the fractured. Alan is an archipelago of a soul—a little bit of charm here, a flash of genius there, but never unified enough to define sovereignty. The film is successful because of Volarić’s generous performance; he displays Alan’s recklessness and desperation with an emphatic ease. But Comic Sans is anchored tightly by the supporting cast, mainly the actresses portraying the women left in Alan’s wake. -Matthew Nerber
Screens Friday, March 6 at 6:00 pm and Wednesday, March 11 at 7:45 pm. Immediately following the Opening Night film and program, the audience is invited to a reception in the Gallery/Café generously hosted by Sanja Laković, Consul General of Croatia, Chicago.
The Barefoot Emperor
This deadpan Begium/Netherlands comedy co-production from directors Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens has a great deal to say about the current state of affairs in the European Union, particularly in the age of Brexit, but I’m not sure many outside of Europe are going to be able to interpret the messages. Structured as a follow-up to the 2017 mockumentary The King of the Belgians, The Barefoot Emperor tracks the unlikely journey of said king (Peter Van den Begin) when he is almost accidentally assassinated and whisked away to an isolated tropic island to recover. Meanwhile, the continent he’s left behind is fractured, and those in charge (secretly and otherwise) are looking for a leader who can once again unite Europe (under the name Nova Europa) as its new Emperor. While the King finds himself a helpless pawn under the care of a nefarious asylum director (Udo Kier), he befriends a woman (Geraldine Chaplin) who seems to have the ability to see through the obscene pageantry that is being staged in preparation for the naming of the new Emperor, who may be closer than anyone realizes. The film is perhaps not as edgy or clever as it thinks it is, but that doesn’t keep it from being fascinating, funny, and an endless source of curiosity in trying to figure out exact where this loopy ride is going. —Steve Prokopy
Screens Friday, March 6 at 2:15 pm; and Tuesday, March 10 at 6pm.
Director Kamila Jozefowicz weaves this grim 68-minute documentary from testimony of elderly Poles living in a rural Polish village. They tell stories of life before and after the Germans invaded on that fateful date: September 1, 1939. The Polish elders describe their town, with a population divided among Jews and Christian Poles. “Everyone lived as they could,” one man says, telling about how Jews were shopkeepers, tailors and blacksmiths and lived at peace with their neighbors. Children went to the same school. The differences were apparent only on Fridays, when Jews observed Shabbos.
Then the Germans invaded. Gradually, Jews were stripped of their businesses, homes and possessions, and the synagogue was set on fire. Jews were forced into a ghetto and later marched off to trains that took them to the death camps. Many were slaughtered and burned in pits in nearby forests. The interviewees remember the stench that pervaded the area (everyone knew what the smell was). A few Poles harbored Jews in their homes; some Jews hid in forest dugouts. But some neighbors reported their locations to the Nazis. The elders remember young friends like Maryla, who converted to Christianity to save herself, and Jankiel, whose Polish friends were not able to save him. In the final moments, the elders tell of recent efforts to determine where bodies were buried or burned so a memorial could be created. The film ends with a memorial service near the village of Radecznica in southeastern Poland. The memories are horrific, but since the interviewees would have been young children at the time of the events, we wonder how much their memories are embellished by their parents’ stories. The film is enhanced with black-and-white archival photos. —Nancy Bishop
Screens Friday, March 6 at 4:30pm and Monday, March 9 at 6pm.
In recent years, the Romanian film industry has been a veritable hot spot for unnerving human dramas that take risks like few other countries. Director Radu Dragomir’s Mo takes a Mamet-esque approach to its subject by combining dialogue that feels like a combination of actual speech with expressive and highly affected words as well that tell a darkly tense story of two female university students (Dana Rogoz as the edgier, risk-taking Mo and Mădălina Craiu as the more reserved Vera) who are caught cheating on a exam by a much older male professor named Ursu (Răzvan Vasilescu, one of Romania’s best known actors). After they are initially caught, he agrees to meet them later in the day to return Mo’s phone, but eventually he invites them to his apartment for a home-cooked dinner. At this point, the film becomes a dance among these three characters, with Ursu moving effortlessly from kindly mentor to stern taskmaster, all the while attempting to see which of the girls falls under his spell first so he can pounce and move well into sexually predatory behavior. The film goes observes the girls’ often comical rebellious spirit, tapping into their love of music and film, but Ursu is a grotesque master of patience and questionable morality—whatever he needs to conquer his next target. The film may leave you with a sickening feeling, but that’s probably the intended goal. If you think you can stomach it, Mo is a powerful statement on the power structure in the education system. —Steve Prokopy
Screens Saturday, March 7 at 8pm; and Wednesday, March 11 at 6pm.
It’s hard to imagine during the first hour of Bille that the film is a sliver of autobiography of Vizma Belševica, an internationally known writer and poet whose work has been translated into 40 languages. Set in the 1930s and directed by Inara Kolmane, the Latvian film stars Ruta Kronberga as Bille, sweet, smart and daring. Kronberga is delightful as Bille, a girl of about 10, who lives in a small village and spends most of her time unmonitored by her parents. She has a vivid imagination and is the ringleader of a group of street-running friends. She dreams of escaping to Dreamland, which she imagines as a place beyond the fields and forests. In one long scene, she leads three friends on a long walk (with many beautiful landscapes with the four kids in the distance) that never materializes in Dreamland.
Bille thinks her parents don’t love her; she will run away and no one will notice. Her mother (Elina Vane) seems cruel and her father (Arturs Skrastins) adores her but is a drunk who has lost his job as a baker; several scenes show how desperately stressed they are about money. Bille is an avid reader and begins to do well after her parents have her baptized so she can attend a better school. Her mother finds money for piano lessons and her teacher encourages her too. Late in the film, Bille overhears her mother tell her father that Bille’s teacher said she’s a gifted student and should get “into higher places.” The film ends with Bille leaving home with her schoolbag; the text overlay tells us that Bille succeeded at that. —Nancy Bishop
Here are a few lines from Belševica’s poem, “Offspring”:
Birds die, poets too,
but the word—even the most whetted
axe cannot blunt its edge, like
the fledgling swift, it is hard to catch.
Screens Saturday, March 7 at 7:45pm and Thursday, March 12 at 6pm.
As much as each member of the disconnected family featured in Real Love has their flaws, they are all good people in search of the smallest piece of happiness on which to cling so they can crawl out of their unique pit of despair. Our way into their utterly warm yet unsentimental French family drama is Mario (Bouli Lanners), a civil servant whose wife of 20 years, Armelle (Cécile Rémy-Boutang), has just moved out, leaving their two teen daughters in his care. Both of the girls are moody and have something of a rebellious streak in them, but they try to look out for their father, even though they don’t make living with them easy, as they go through their own versions of sexual awakening and the usual teenage fare like drinking and smoking. Mario gets involved in a local theater company (initially because his wife works there), and he finds it a useful outlet to express his emotions as he struggles through life as a single father worried about failing his children the same way he failed his wife. Director Claire Burger (Party Girl) has found a beautiful way to make each character sympathetic but also not about criticism in the choices they make. This is typified when the youngest daughter slips MDMA in Mario’s tea, so that she can go live with her mom, and ends up having one of the scariest nights of her life. Despite the weighty emotional content, the film is fairly low key and the resolutions feel believable and graceful. —Steve Prokopy
Screens Sunday, March 8 at 3pm; and Thursday, March 12 at 6pm.
The Ground Beneath My Feet
Recognizable to American audiences for her role in Terrance Malick’s transcendent portrait of faith, A Hidden Life, Austrian actress Valerie Pachner stars in writer/director Marie Kreutzer’s The Ground Beneath My Feet, a psychological drama about sisters who couldn’t be more different from each other. Pachner is Lola, an ambitious and fierce business consultant who specializes in restructuring companies that’ve fallen on hard times. Behind the iron-clad façade, she’s juggling a secret affair with her boss, Elise (Mavie Hörbiger), and a mentally unstable sister, Conny (Pia Hierzegger), who’s been institutionalized for years but is ready to begin transitioning out of the hospital. Desperately trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in her day-to-day life, Lola at first keeps Conny and her issues at arm’s length, but soon her sister’s calls become more concerning and can’t be ignored. Except when she calls the hospital to check in with her sister’s doctors, Lola is told that Connie doesn’t have access to a phone and hasn’t been calling her. Kreutzer creates a disturbing, unreliable reality, one where interactions can’t be trusted, but also can’t be denied. As Lola’s world spins more and more out of control, Pachner takes her performance to depths of confusion, desperation and control that keep the audience guessing throughout. —Lisa Trifone
Screens Sunday, March 8 at 3pm and Monday, March 9 at 7:30pm.
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