Dispatch: Siskel Film Center’s Chicago European Union Film Festival: Spotlight on Belgium

After more than 25 years of March featuring the upcoming slate of films released from the nations of the European Union as part of their Chicago European Union Film Festival (CEUFF), the Gene Siskel Film Center has opted this year to narrow its focus to one country in the EU Presidency for a shorter run of screenings. From March 1-10, the Siskel introduces a new iteration of the festival, this year giving audiences the opportunity to immerse themselves in Belgian cinema, both current and classic. The event will also welcome filmmakers and invite audiences to discover the tastes of the country through special events and concessions.

The festival will kick off with the Chicago premiere of the vivid and arresting Omen (Augure), Belgium's submission for Best International Feature in this year’s Academy Awards, with the film’s director, Baloji, in person. Other festival highlights include Oscar- and César-winning actress Marion Cotillard in the tender, intimate docudrama Little Girl Blue; Belgian filmmaker duo Ann Sirot and Raphaël Balboni's whimsical, high-concept comedy, The (Ex)Perience of Love; the Chicago premiere of Life for Real, co-starring Charlotte Gainsbourg; and the Sight and Sound Critics Poll #1 Film of All Time, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. There will also be a free screening of the Dardenne Brothers's revelatory and affecting portrait of resilience, the 1999 Cannes Palme d'Or winner, Rosetta.

And as a preview, the nations that will be featured in coming years: are Poland (2025), Cyprus (2026), and Lithuania (2027). Get tickets and the full CEUFF schedule online here. Below are reviews of three of the Belgian films playing during the first week of the festival.

Omen

Winner of the Un Certain Regard—New Voice Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the feature debut from Belgian-Congolese artist and musician Baloji, Omen, tells the story of a Congolese man, Koffi, returning to his homeland's capital, Kinshasa, after living in Belgium for a number of years. With his pregnant white fiancée Alice with him, Koffi’s family reunion is less than ideal, kicking off with an ill-timed nosebleed that his more superstitious relatives believe is a blood curse by the devil. What follows is a great deal of distrusting and judgmental relatives, heartfelt connections, and a clear realization by Koffi that you can’t always come home and expect everything and everyone to be the same. Meanwhile, in the same area, two groups of young wrestlers get into a heated and explosively violent gang war that seems to mirror the emotional weight of Koffi’s circumstances. The film is vibrant, teaming with energy, creatively put together, and honest in its depiction of this place caught between old beliefs and modern concerns. The film was Belgium’s submission for Academy Awards consideration for good reason, and you’ll likely see nothing like it this year.

The film will screen on Friday, March 1, at 7pm. Director Baloji is scheduled to attend.

Here

I'm not sure if writer-director Bas Devos’s Here would fit in with a grouping of movies about food, but a whole lot of homemade soup gets passed around in this movie, and when it gets warmed up and eaten, everyone seems to be in a much better mood. Brussels construction worker Stefan (Stefan Gota) is about to go on an extended vacation in the off-season of his job, but as he’s cleaning out his refrigerator, he decides to make a soup of everything that’s left in it. As he’s saying his goodbyes, perhaps never to return, he distributes his soup like a farewell gift, and conversations seem to flow as a result. As he’s walking from place to place to see family and friends, he meets Shuxiu (Liyo Gong), a microbiologist studying local mosses, and the two seem to grow quite close as Stefan decides to tag along as she moves through the local forests collecting samples for her research. Shot on 16mm, this unassuming film isn’t attempting to be cute or charming, instead opting for quiet, contemplative, and ultimately, spiritually uplifting by simply allowing us to appreciate the power of good conversation and company over a bowl of soup while waiting for the rain to end. Here may sound slight, and it is, but it also finds a way to be quite poignant.

The film will screen Saturday, March 2, at 1:30pm; Sunday, March 3, at 3:45pm; and Wednesday, March 6, at 6:15pm.

Little Girl Blue

Director Mona Achache’s mission with her film Little Girl Blue is simple yet substantial: “I have an impossible dream: to raise my mother from the dead so she can tell me why she ended it all.”

Rather than tell a traditional ghost story, Achache instead works her way through thousands of photos, audio recordings, journal entries, and letters, left behind in bins by her mother, the writer and photographer Carole Achache, who in her lifetime, also wrote extensively about her own mother before killing herself in 2016. Mona recruits none other than Oscar-winning actor Marion Cotillard to play her mother in this film, while Mona portrays herself, and what results is a text drawn only from these raw personal materials. Less a documentary about Carole and more a re-creation of key moments in her life, the film features Cotillard frequently lip-syncing to recordings of Carole, telling stories about herself in full confessional mode about her upbringing, sexual exploits, drug use, and eventual decades-long stint as a wife and mother. Cotillard doesn’t reenact these moments, but simply mouths her character talking about them, with Mona using photos and home movies to illustrate what she can. Little Girl Blue is unconventional, expressive storytelling at its finest, and Cotillard brings such power to her Carole that it’s difficult to watch and listen at times as this life is laid bare.

The film will screen Wednesday, March 6, at 8:15pm.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.