Featuring films from across the European Union, the Chicago EU Film Festival continues through March 17 at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street. As for films to check out over the festival’s second (and last) weekend, our critics suggest a variety of options, from a moving and somber narrative to a documentary that recounts a history more relevant today than ever.
Find tickets and showtimes online here.
A child actor, Damir Onackis (in his film debut as 10-year-old Markus), carries The Pit from beginning to end. Several plot lines swirl around him and other characters, both major and minor, and affect his life, but this is Markus’ film.
Markus doesn’t seem to be a lovable child but over the course of the film and its flashbacks, we learn how he came to be living in a rural Latvian village with his grandmother Solveiga (Dace Eversa) instead of in Riga with his parents. (His father, who taught him to draw and to appreciate visual art, is dead, possibly a drug-related death.)
Secrets and lies fuel the ambience of this small town. The incident of the pit that gives the film its title is told throughout this non-linear film until we finally learn the whole story. Markus and Emily (Luize Birkenberga), a schoolmate and little princess, get into an argument. She insults his father and grabs the drawings he’s working on; he chases her so she falls into a well, or pit. He refuses to help her out and when Emily is missing, the girl’s mother begins a campaign to mark him as an evil child.
Markus, whose face rarely gives way to emotion, listens in on adult conversations and catches glimpses of adult cruelty and violence. He opens up and begins to smile when Juris/Sailor (Indra Burkovska), a glazier artist and an outsider who lives at the edge of the forest, befriends him, sees his talent, and teaches him the art of stained glass.
In her feature film debut, director Dace Pūce skillfully depicts this often ugly small-town atmosphere and how it affects Markus. But most of the other characters are in the background and we learn little about their grief and trauma. The film is adapted from the stories of Latvian writer Jana Egle. (Nancy Bishop)
The Pit screens Friday, March 11, at 8:15pm.
The Story of My Wife
Long considered one of Europe’s foremost visionary filmmakers, Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi’s (My 20th Century, On Body and Soul) latest, The Story of My Wife, is an adaptation of the Milán Füst novel about Danish sea captain Jakob Störr (Gijs Naber), circa the 1920s, who makes a bet with a close friend that he will marry the first woman who walks through the door of a restaurant where they are dining. He believes being married will cure certain illnesses unique to sailors, but when Lizzy (Léa Seydoux) walks in, he is thunderstruck. Thankfully, she’s a modern woman, up for a fresh adventure in her life, and the two get married within a week. Since he’s gone for months at a time, there’s no real commitment, but they are a handsome couple and their physical attraction gives way to genuine emotion in no time. She likes when other women take an interest in him, and he gets jealous when men look at her or she flirts with them. But it all seems to fuel whatever it is that makes their marriage viable.
This shot-on-film feature includes a colorful cast of supporting characters: Italian star Sergio Rubini as Jakob’s close business associate who is likely also a con artist, and Louis Garrel as a French would-be suitor of Lizzy, who Jakob is convinced is also a con artist and parasite. Set mostly in Paris and Hamburg and running nearly three hours, the film’s biggest problem is that a great deal about its emotional content and love story is unconvincing. Seydoux is a gifted actor, but even she can’t convince me Lizzy has fallen completely for Capt. Dullard. And I never quite understood the games they are playing with each other when it comes to the affairs they have or might have had with other people. She seems to say that infidelity is expected of both of them, but claims she has never cheated on him. She claims she enjoys thinking of him lusting after other women, but does she? And why do I care? Maybe I don’t after a while. Who can tell since these Hungarian/German/French/Italian co-productions are all the same. The Story of My Wife is beautifully shot but ultimately frustrating in its storytelling and character building. I wanted desperately to care about these two, individually and as a couple, but the film doesn’t allow that, and that keeps it from being the epic romance its running time would have us believe it is. (Steve Prokopy)
The Story of My Wife screens Saturday, March 12, at 1pm.
The timing of this documentary about a Lithuanian sailor attempting to defect to the United States in 1970 couldn’t be better. While working as a radio operator on a Soviet vessel off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Simas Kudirka jumped off his boat and onto a U.S. Coast Guard cutter that it was tied to, while Russian maritime officers were on board the cutter negotiating fishing routes in the area. Kudirka begged for asylum, and though the U.S. policy for decades had been to provide sanctuary to anyone requesting it, the Coast Guard did not want to disrupt the negotiations. So the crew were ordered to give Kudirka back to the Russians, who in turn beat the man unconscious, took him back behind the Iron Curtain, and put him in a subzero prison to rot. But his treatment by the Americans is what garnered headlines and massive protests around the nation, and a campaign began to get him released, with President Ford even making a call to ask the Soviets to not only release him but also ship him back to America. Even crazier: Kudirka is still alive and tells his own account of these events, along with a few others who were instrumental in his story.
The Jump is a wild, chaotic and politically charged Cold War story with that rarest of qualities: a happy ending. It also helps that Kudirka’s thick accent and fairly solid English makes him the only one qualified to give his version of this story, as only he can, sometimes returning to the places of his greatest suffering, including the original Coast Guard vessel and his Soviet prison. Like many great writers and speakers, he has a gift for choosing exactly the right words and expressions to both lay out his tale and give it the right amount of Eastern Bloc color. Director Giedrė Žickytė realizes that even though it’s clear Kudirka survives this ordeal, we aren’t sure until late in the film where he is now or how damaged he remains from these events. It’s a story of a true American patriot, and it gives us yet another reason to despise the Russian government. (Steve Prokopy)
The Jump screens Saturday, March 12, at 6:30pm.
Bloom Up: A Swinger Couple Story
From director Mauro Russo Rouge comes the Italian documentary Bloom Up, an unexpectedly surreal and moving examination of a middle-aged Italian couple who are still very much in love, run a pet supply store by day, and seem to spend their free time swinging or arranging to get together with other combinations of acquaintances to have an array of sexual encounters. The film opens with Betta giving an interview about these experiences (when we meet them, they’ve been in this life for about four years), but we realize she’s crying as she does, after which the filmmaker takes us back a few months to happier times with husband Hermes. We’re deliberately not told how or why the couple got into swinging, but it turns out to be vital information that we learn later, when director Rouge returns to that first interview and reveals a great deal about the couple’s history and how swinging brought stability to their relationship. No matter how wild the sex or locations (parties, dinners, cars, out in the rain) get, the tender heart of this couple carries us through these moments and keeps us from judging them too harshly on their lifestyle choice.
Bloom Up is more than simply a voyeuristic exercise, although Rouge does throw us in the deep end of sex with multiple partners and seemingly no boundaries. But there’s also great fun in listening to the couple arrange connections for various days of the week—sometimes with just a “single” (male or female), other times with multiple couples—and passing judgment on the suitability of others who want to meet up with them. The movie certainly never attempts to sell the audience on the lifestyle, but it does make it clear that some of those who engage in it are lovely, living souls who respect each other’s desires, even if this risks putting their relationships in jeopardy. It’s a far more emotional journey than one might expect, and it’s beautifully photographed, making the whole experience full of surprises, some of which may be too much for some. (Steve Prokopy)
Bloom Up screens at Sunday, March 13, at 6:45pm.
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