Siskel’s CEUFF Week 2: European Films (Mostly) Worth Braving the Crowds For

With the ever-developing news around COVID-19, institutions like the Siskel Film Center are diligently implementing the recommendations and precautions necessary to keep their audiences safe while not compromising programming that's been months in the planning. As the Chicago European Union Film Festival continues into week two, we previous some of the titles premiering this week, most of which are well worth the trip to the cinema on State Street, pandemic or not. One Last Deal Image courtesy of Gene Siskel Film Center

One Last Deal

As the title implies, Klaus Härö's One Last Deal centers around Olavi, an aging art dealer (Heikki Nousiainen) eager to make one final fantastic find before selling his small gallery and retiring. A regular at the local auction house, he spots a nondescript, unsigned portrait the oily auctioneer hasn't recognized as the masterpiece it is. Already barely getting by in a business that's not a lucrative as it once was, Olavi has to figure out how to afford the portrait even as he knows just what a deal he'll be able to strike for it at resale. Written by Anna Heinämaa, One Last Deal is far more than an old man's swan song; as his business and finances are failing, his estranged daughter sends her teenage son to the gallery for his work study program, an arrangement neither are too keen on to begin with. Nousiainen's warm and effective performance draws sympathy and compassion throughout, as Olavi insists, sometimes to the detriment of those closest to him, on pursuing his plan at any cost, and Härö skillfully builds both personal and professional tension as the film reaches its touching conculsion.  A sentimental but never sappy film, it's a shame One Last Deal hasn't received a wider audience in the U.S. —Lisa Trifone One Last Deal screens Friday, March 13 at 2pm and Thursday, March 19 at 6pm

Living the Light: Robbie Müller

To most passionate cinephiles, the work of Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller in well known and respected, especially his collaborations with such directors as Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas; The American Friend; Until the End of the World), Jim Jarmusch (Down By Law; Mystery Train; Dead Man; Ghost Dog) and Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves; Dancer in the Dark). All three of these great filmmakers are interviewed at length about Müller, who passed away in 2018 and is the subject of Living the Light: Robbie Müller, a heartfelt tribute to a tremendous artist and less of a traditional walk through his career highlights. The thing that becomes clear about Müller is that he was beloved for not only his eye behind the lens, but also his sensitivity as a human being. Directed by Claire Pijman, a fellow Dutch cinematographer herself, the movie makes a case that his heart is what made his use of natural light and painterly composition so effective. Even before his death, Pijman was given access Müller’s home movies, film sketches, video diaries, and hundreds of coveted Polaroids, all of which reveal that even in his personal world, filming and capturing beauty was the most important thing. There was very little separation between life and art, and this quite moving documentary (made all the more impressive by a guitar score by Jarmusch and Carter Logan) is often a side-by-side testimonial to that way of expression. —Steve Prokopy

Screens Friday, March 13 at 4pm, and Monday, March 16 at 6pm.

Stories from the Chestnut Woods

Many figures of dream and reality dance through this film of magical realism that could have been drawn from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel (it’s not; it’s an original script). The main characters are Mario (Massimo De Francovich), an aging carpenter with a frugal streak, and Marta (Ivana Roščić), a young chestnut seller who yearns to emigrate from her village, as many of her neighbors have already done. Set in post-World War II Slovenia in a village near the Italian border, the film introduces us to the poverty-stricken rural environment in which transportation is still medieval—on foot or by horse-drawn cart. Director Gregor Božič contrasts gorgeous scenes of interior candlelight with brilliant sunlight in the glorious landscapes of fields and forests.

Mario and Marta meet after his wife dies and they form an odd friendship that inspires Mario to help her. Scenes repeat themselves, as your vivid dreams sometimes swirl through your brain the next day. Paintings come to life and turn into banquets and dancing parties. Men of the village play a fast game of morra, the Italian finger game at which Mario excels, until he doesn’t. My favorite scenes are when the Three Kings appear. I won’t tell you what they are like but they are unlike any Three Kings I have ever seen in Spain or Mexico. Funny and philosophical, they enliven what would otherwise be quite a different scene. Stories from the Chestnut Woods is lyrical, beautifully filmed and an homage to a lost culture and way of life. —Nancy Bishop

The film screens Saturday, March 14 at 5pm and Wednesday, March 18 at 8pm.

Rounds Image courtesy of Siskel Film Center


Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev's Sofia-set feature follows a night in the company of three sets of cops as they navigate the capital city on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Their paths will intersect within the patchwork plot through narrative nods in a way that recalls Paul Haggis' Crash, though Komandarev's social commentary is far nimbler than the oft-maligned oscar winner. On patrol the cops encounter romantic disturbances, punk graffiti artists, and dilapidated buildings--- the shadow of communism lingers, and the picture of a society still in repair is painted in stark relief. The meandering plot is carried along by the partner's banter and sly observations; when one cop is called to a cemetery he jokes "Great, tonight we're on dead people duty." Lucky for the audience, Rounds is always a lively affair. —Matthew Nerber Rounds screens Saturday, March 14 at 7:45pm and Thursday, March 19 at 6pm

Koko-di Koko-da

From the darkest corners of Sweden comes this grim tale of two tragic family vacations. The first is more celebratory as a mom (Ylva Gallon), dad (Leif Edlund) and young daughter go to a slap-happy resort that results in mom going to the hospital for an allergic reaction and tragedy unexpectedly strikes while she’s being cared for. Three years, later the couple are still reeling from their loss, arguing as they drive to their destination, when the husband decides to camp out in the woods rather than find a motel. What follows is slightly tough to explain, but it involves the couple going through multiple versions of an event that begins with the wife having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and leaving the tent. No matter how cautious they are, they always end up crossing paths with a trio of eccentric wanderers, along with their bloodthirsty dog. Each path takes us in a different macabre direction, but the second it becomes clear that the couple are doomed at the hands of these nut-jobs, the story resets. Director Johannes Nyholm has a twisted sense of playfulness and a wonderful eye for the fairy tale qualities of the story being told, which includes a graceful white cat that seems to indicate safety, as well as a shadow puppet display that is quite elegant and melancholy. In a more grounded sense, it’s also a solid story about a couple attempting to save their crumbling marriage, making the psychological impact of the proceedings all the more powerful. —Steve Prokopy

Screens Saturday, March 14 at 8pm, and Tuesday, March 17 at 6pm.

The Last Witness Image courtesy of Siskel Film Center

The Last Witness

Director Piotr Szkopiak has a personal interest in this noirish, fact-based story of the Katyn Massacre of 22,000 Poles early in World War II. His grandfather was one of the victims of the massacre, which the world was told was carried out by the Nazis in 1941. Both the British and American governments suppressed information about the mass executions by the Soviet secret police in 1940 in order to maintain good relations with the Russian government, a key member of the Allied forces. The film is set in 1947 England and features Stephen Underwood (Alex Pettyfer) as a local journalist in Bristol, site of a Polish internment camp. Underwood discovers a diary written by a Polish corporal in Russia, which tells the first-person story of the massacre in the Katyn forest. That begins Underwood’s search for the whole story, despite the opposition of every military and government official and his publisher (Michael Gambon). Underwood makes contact with the last witness, Michael Loboda (Robert Wieckiewicz), a Russian posing as a Pole, now in hiding at the Polish internment camp.

The story was suppressed at the time and it was not until 1990 that Russia officially acknowledged the Katyn Massacre. Today, however, there’s an effort in Russia to rewrite that history.  The Last Witness story is compelling and important but it deserves a better telling. The plotting is awkward, there’s a romance with no chemistry, and some of the acting is underwhelming. —Nancy Bishop

Screens Sunday, March 15 at 5pm and Monday, March 16 at 7:45pm. Director Piotr Szkopiak is scheduled to be present at both screenings for audience discussion.

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Lisa Trifone