Recap: 56th Chicago International Film Festival Wraps with Final Films, Award Winners

The 56th Chicago International Film Festival officially wrapped up on Sunday, October 25 after more than a week of virtual screenings and events, not to mention a handful of in-person drive-in screenings (many of which sold out). Though this year’s program was smaller in scale than in years past (just dozens of films instead of more than a hundred), many of them will continue their journey to audiences in the coming months, from film’s opening as early as this weekend to those anticipated in December (One Night in Miami opens on Christmas Day) and beyond. Revisit all our dispatches from this year’s Festival, including a few additional brief reviews below, and keep an eye out for Festival films to come to virtual cinemas (or actual movie theaters) in the coming months.


Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival

As the Festival entered its final weekend, this year’s award winners were announced, from narrative features to documentaries and short films. Top honors (the Festival calls them “Hugo” awards, though why exactly remains a mystery) were bestowed on Polish drama Sweat, about three days in the life of a social media influencer who reaching a breaking point. Andrei Konchalovsky claimed Best Director honors for Dear Comrades!, a black-and-white drama set in 1962 Soviet Russia. And Yorgos Lanthimos protege Christos Nikou and co-writer Stavros Raptis claimed Best Screenplay for Apples, the weird and somber story of a man afflicted by a silent pandemic and his journey to recovery. In documentaries, Things We Dare Not Do and Little Girls were named Gold and Silver Hugo winners, respectively. See the full list of this year’s Chicago International Film Festival Award Winners.


A German production from first-time director/co-writer Michael Venus, Sleep is filled quite densely, powerfully, and nightmarishly with the ways in which the sins of older generations of absorbed into the psyche of the younger generation—a problem that is apparently rampant in Germany, at least according to this film. Sleep begins with flight attendant Marlene (Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann) who says she’s leaving for work one day but ends up going to a quaint hotel that she somehow associates with a past trauma (hers or someone close to her). By the end of her stay, he is hospitalized and largely non-responsive when her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) arrives and follows in her mother’s footstep, landing at the same off-season hotel and given the royal treatment by husband-and-wife co-owners Otto (August Schmolzer) and Lore (Marion Kracht). What happens next is best experienced and not explained, but it involves a combination of horrific visions and nightmares that often result in actual physical injuries. Are these visions actually memories stored in the walls of the hotel, or are they the ghosts of those who died in its walls (we learn of several suicides that have taken place there)? And the less Mona sleeps, the more her waking and dreaming states become blurred (as does our comprehension at times). But Mona is unquestionably the hero of Sleep, and her determination to get to the bottom of her dark family history, despite the possible threat to her sanity or life, is admirable and inspiring. (Steve Prokopy)


Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival


German filmmaker Christian Petzold has made some of the most compelling dramas in recent memory, including 2015’s Phoenix and last year’s Transit. Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski starred in the latter, and they re-team with Petzold for Undine, a modern-day fable about the mythology of Undine, the “elemental beings” of the water who must marry men in order to become fully mortal. A seemingly simple bargain, until you consider that the husband’s infidelity, if committed, will cost him his life. Petzold uses this obscure mythology as a jumping off point for his latest, as we meet his central character (named Udine, played by Beer) as she’s being left by the man who vowed to love her forever. A tour guide at Berlin’s architecture museum, she soon meets Cristoph (Rogowski), a professional diver who works in nearby bodies of water, and they hit it off instantly. It’s a romantic, sentimental courtship, almost enough to make us forget Undine’s heartbreak. But her destiny is set by forces far more powerful than her, and strange events begin to unfold around her, Christoph and her ex, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz)—some inexplicable, some of her own design. Petzold delivers a beautifully realized, bittersweet fairy tale about love and loss and the price we pay in each, with Beer and Rogowski again anchoring the film’s emotional center—their chemistry is obvious, and their performances touching. As a contemporary drama, Undine does an admirable job exploring the scars that remain when love ends and how far a new love can go to heal them; and though Transit in particular is a tough act to follow, Petzold remains a filmmaker with a growing catalogue of worthy narratives. (Lisa Trifone)


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