Dispatch: Chicago Int’l Film Fest’s Full Week of Programming Opens with Impressive, Compelling International Filmmaking
The Chicago International Film Festival continues through October 22, and this full week of screenings means there are still dozens of opportunities to see many of the global films selected by festival programmers. This preview of Monday and Tuesday, October 16 and 17, includes our writers' latest suggestions.
Vera Egito’s second feature is a breathtaking and thrilling account of the final events leading to the police crackdown at the University of São Paulo’s Faculty of Philosophy on Rua María Antônia on October 2, 1968, at the height of Brazil's military dictatorship. Shot in 21 propulsive long takes in 16mm black and white by William Eschebehere, The Battle is structured in the form of a countdown to the clash, beginning with the debate among a group of left-wing students on whether or not to send a ballot box to the school across the street that’s under the control of the Communist Hunting Command, a militia group trained and supported by the dictatorship. Evoking Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday and United 79, Eschebehere’s camera picks up one character to then follow another, capturing the hectic and electrifying nature of decisions made and actions taken as well as the tension of facing its politically dangerous consequences.
For some, like philosophy teacher Leda (Gabriela Carneiro Da Cunha), it’s not easy to take sides even when their sympathies align with the students’. For others, like Lillian (Pâmela Germano), our point of entry into the film, she has no choice but to act to protect the one person she loves: the firebrand Angela (Isamara Castilho) who is eager to throw a Molotov cocktail or two at those well-dressed Communist “hunters” in memory of her sister who was disappeared by the military. Each segment ends with the film’s leader spooling out, marking the passage of time as the fictitious cameraman loads his camera to continue shooting. The Battle is one more example of the vibrant, exhilarating filmmaking that the region has been producing since the beginning of the century. (Alejandro Riera)
Receiving its International Premiere as part of the festival’s New Directors Competition, The Battle screens one last time tonight at 7:45pm at AMC New City. Director Vera Egito will be present at the screening.
Receiving its North American premiere as part of the festival’s New Directors Competition, José Pablo Escamilla’s experimental feature firedream is the kind of jewel in the raw one is meant to discover at film festivals everywhere. A product of the Biennale College Cinema, a development program from La Biennale Di Venezia for first- and second-time filmmakers, firedream is confounding, challenging, strange and dreamlike, a film that stays with you for days.
Written by Escamilla and Nicolasa Ruiz, firedream begins with a poem of unknown provenance, recited in voice-over, that is later woven into the film’s story about friendship. Lucas (Diego Solis) is an aimless teenager who works at a fast food joint in the Mexican industrial city of Toluca where his mother (Teresa Sánchez, Dos estaciones and The Chambermaid) took him and his sister to start a new life away from Lucas’ father. Oscar (Imix Lamak), his best friend and coworker, is obsessed with computers and Japanese pop culture. He is also paranoid and has very low self-esteem. Both friends spend their time talking, listening to music, drinking, and popping pills from Oscar’s portable medicine kit. Oscar entrusts Lucas with a shoebox full of his memories and most valuable possessions as he prepares to depart to a different place.
How the poem and its accompanying images full of double exposure and streaks of light fit into this story requires a second or even third viewing, even though we, at the end, suspect who is its author. Outside of their boss’ constant haranguing and misguided notions of self-improvement, and rather lowkey arguments between Lucas and his mother, Escamilla eschews all dramatic tension, even keeping his camera at a remove in some dialogue-less scenes. He imbues his film with a sense of ennui, loss and alienation, his characters caught in a void even if Lucas finds a way out in photography. This type of narrative experiment can sometimes border on the pretentious, but Escamilla’s empathetic portrayal of these two friends and the mythical quality of the poem makes firedream simultaneously beguiling and demanding. (Alejandro Riera)
Firedream screens one last time tonight at 8:15pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director José Pablo Escamilla will be present at the screening.
In the Rearview
The idea of a roughly 90-minute documentary that takes place (almost) entirely in the back seat of a car doesn't exactly inspire the masses, but rest assured, In the Rearview is one of the most compelling films of recent memory. Filmmaker and aid worker Maciek Hamela sets up a camera between his driver's seat and the passenger's, pointing towards the refugees occupying the back seats, Ukrainian families and individuals (and sometimes their pets) he's helping shuttle to safety in the midst of the Russian occupation. It's unclear what exactly Hamela told his passengers about this camera looking them in the face during one of their most vulnerable moments, but that doesn't seem to stop them from chatting—to each other, or to him. And though every story is different, each has one powerful trait in common: these are the human cost of conflict, people who just want to live their lives peacefully and without incident.
Though Hamela sometimes moves the camera to show us what he's seeing as the driver, from the various, redundant checkpoints to the road ahead that's simply blasted into oblivion and entirely impassable, it's the people in his back seat who have the stories that need to be told. Most heart-wrenching are the families with children, from the young girl who just wants to play on her mother's phone but can't (she has to preserve the battery) to the teenager girls who confide in each other their similarly eerie run-ins with older Russian soldiers. An older woman cries about all she left behind, including their dear family cow. An African immigrant who came to study the oil industry has to be transported safely to a hospital with the resources to care for her. It's essential viewing any time to better u,nderstand the reality of life in a war zone; it's even more imperative now. (Lisa Trifone)
In the Rearview screens Monday, Oct. 16 at 5pm at AMC Newcity.
The latest from directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (Boys State, Mayor Pete) tells the story behind the 2018 killing of young American missionary John Chau while he was attempting to spread the word of Jesus among one of the world’s most isolated peoples, the Indigenous inhabitants of South Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal, off the coast of India. The Mission filmmakers use Chau’s journals (it’s never explained exactly how they were recovered) as well as video diaries he made of his preparation for the illegal and misguided journey, using a network of pirates and close friends as his guides and advisers—some of whom are interviewed for this documentary (with a few noticeable—and frankly, cowardly—holdouts).
But simply telling Chau’s story wouldn’t be enough for those of us who think he was foolish for making the trip in the first place, perhaps suffering from a messiah complex, so the filmmakers wisely pivot their very personal storytelling into an examination of the broader practices of missionary work and explorers going to visit isolated tribes, and how films and television shows about researchers coming into the villages of so-called “primitive” peoples have poisoned the minds of the civilized world that these people are in need of saving or discovering by outsiders. One of the greatest offenders in this regard were the documentaries made by National Geographic (who is distributing this film) in the 1960s and 1970s that showed anthropologists being worshipped as gods in some cases. But just as often, it seems, they are chased away with threats of death and cannibalism—threats that were greatly exaggerated in accounts in magazines and exploration docs. The film isn’t afraid to ask hard questions about faith, exploitation, and the potential harm and destruction outsiders can cause to an isolated people, leaving them no choice but to keep them out however they can. The Mission examines the very scientific practices that it’s engaging in to a degree, and that makes it all the more honest and fascinating. (Steve Prokopy)
The film will screening on Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 7:30pm at AMC NEWCITY, with director Jesse Moss scheduled to attend. The film screens again on Wednesday, Oct. 18, at 1:30pm at AMC NEWCITY. The film will open in Chicago on October 27 at the Music Box Theatre.
The Persian Version
Writer/director Maryam Keshavarz bites off quite a lot in the busy, multi-generational The Persian Version, the story of a young Iranian American woman, Leila (Layla Mohammadi), and her large family who gather on the occasion of their father's major heart surgery. The film is edited to within an inch of its life, not always to its own benefit and causing a bit of whiplash regarding which genre Keshavarz is going for exactly; and the script ultimately tells two complete stories, Leila's and her mother, Shireen's (Niousha Noor), attempting to draw parallels between their seemingly polarizing experiences. Bursting with bright colors and a main character with wit to spare, The Persian Version is nevertheless a delightful viewing experience that somehow manages to stick its landing, delivering a warm and heartfelt mother-daughter reconciliation that earns its emotional weight.
The first half of The Persian Version risks confusing audiences as it bounces between Leila's modern American life, dating women and partying every chance she gets. Somewhere in there, she drunkenly sleeps with a straight, male actor who gets her pregnant, but first we're zipped back to learn all about Shireen's boundary-pushing life as an immigrant Muslim woman who builds her own real estate empire. Also in the mix are Leila's eight brothers and a mischievous grandmother with perfect comedic timing. By the time we've caught up with everything in Leila's life, and the film's third act finally starts to fall into place; we've at least spent enough time with this over-the-top family that we're invested in the outcome of Ali Reza's (Bijan Daneshmand) surgery, not to mention the fragile but promising peace between Leila and Shireen. The Persian Version is a lot of movie, and for most of its running time, that's not a compliment. But when she remembers her purpose and puts us back on course, Keshavarz delivers a smart and sincere story of girlhood, womanhood, motherhood and more. (Lisa Trifone)
The Persian Version screens Tuesday, Oct. 17 at 5:45pm at AMC NewCity.
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