The 2015 Chicago International Film Festival – Part 1

Margherita Buy in Nani Moretti's "Mia Madre"  credit:

Margherita Buy in Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” credit:

It’s time once again for the Chicago International Film Festival. The 2015 edition is the 51st Annual, and, unless I indicate otherwise, all films will be shown at the AMC River East Theaters at 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago.

Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre (My Mother) (Italy, 2015) is this year’s Opening Night film, and it’s a pretty good one. Moretti’s more recent films follow naturalistic narratives with sensible helpings of urgent emotional intimacy, drily amusing humanism and left-ish political savvy. But they’re invariably, and unapologetically, personal, either reflecting his own views of politics or religion, or drawing on his own personal history to explore unexpected extremity in everyday life. The arrival of Moretti’s first child spurred him (in seeming contradiction) to examine the ramifications of loss in The Son’s Room (La Stanza Del Figlio) (2001); his disdain for Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi led to Il Caimano (The Crocodile) (2006), and our film today is a fictionalized examination of the loss of Moretti’s own mother during the filming of Habemus Papam (We Have A Pope) (2011).

In the film, Moretti transposes his own story to a female protagonist, Margherita (the wonderful Margherita Buy), whom is in the thick of filming a rabble-rousing indictment of corporate injustice and organized labor’s retaliation thereof. Her creative negotiations on-set with a temperamental American lead actor, Barry Huggins (John Turturro), her time-allowed attentiveness to her mother’s condition (a bout of pneumonia that Mom’s enlarged heart may be too weak to otherwise overcome) and her interactions with her larger family (her current boyfriend, her daughter, a derisive ex-husband and, primarily, her brother Giovanni [Moretti]) all work to pragmatically challenge, and philosophically shift, the behaviors that her experiences have shaped and that she’s relied on up until now.

Even in a film like François Truffaut’s Day For Night, an acknowledged “great film” about filmmaking, specific characters and larger narrative arcs are far more interesting, and convincing, than the condensed presentation of What Really Happens On A Film Set, and Moretti’s film suffers mildly from the same issues. But, like the Truffaut film, character-by-character, scene-by-scene, the human specifics all ring so true that we set aside the situational incongruity and lock in on these fascinating, contradictory people. Margherita Buy’s work here is her usual excellence (I believe it’s pronounced ‘Boo-ee,’ like the nautical marker – sadly, we Americans only get occasional glimpses of her masterful, Emma-Thompson-like acting chops); Moretti’s screenplay concerns itself with conflict-and-resolution, hubris-and-takedown, assertion-and-surrender, and the hundreds of little agreements and compromises the players make with each other to keep their lives moving productively in the face of impending loss. Cinematographer Arnaldo Catinari’s work here is terrific, surveying a surprising variety of broad exteriors, intimate interiors and spaces in-between, in complement to Moretti’s tone of amused resignation and acceptance of life’s sadder truths. Sometimes disturbingly abrupt, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, Moretti’s film is almost better because of the tonal shifts that threaten to distort the narrative structure. It’s pretty affecting stuff, and an effective expression of Moretti’s own unique sensibilities. I recommend it.

Opening night for the 2015 Chicago International Film Festival is Thursday, October 15th at the Auditorium Theater, 50 E. Congress Parkway, starting at 6:30 pm.


Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (France, 2015) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year; it isn’t a particularly ‘good time at the movies,’ but if you’re up for a tense and sometimes thrilling examination of one particular refugee / immigrant experience – what they’re running from and what they’re generally forced to run to – then your indulgence will be well-rewarded.

Dheepan follows Sivadhasan (a rock-solid performance from Antonythasan Jesuthasan), a soldier whom had been fighting with the Tamil Tiger separatists against the Sri Lanka government (and ‘peacekeeping’ forces from India). With the defeat of the Tigers imminent, Sivadhasan chooses to flee the country and make a new start in France. But his only resort for escape is to take on a dead man’s passport and identity (a guy named Dheepan) and pose with two other complete strangers as Dheepan, his wife and his nine-year-old daughter. Arriving in France, they must keep up the family charade to secure housing, aid and, eventually, to find steady work. ‘Dheepan’ becomes the caretaker of a project building in the banlieue of Le Pré-Saint-Gervais. Fervent with drug-trade and gangsters, tending these surroundings would seem daunting, even near-suicidal, to most, but ‘Dheepan’ assures his ‘wife,’ Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) that these guys aren’t remotely as tough as the characters he’s used to dealing with. He becomes a familiar, businesslike-but-helpful presence, deferring to the gangsters when asked to, keeping his own head down and keeping the three of them out of danger while doing a very good job. Eventually, Yalini takes on work as well, as cooking-and-cleaning help for their neighbor, Monsieur Habib, whom is elderly and driftingly docile. But everything turns when Mr. Habib’s son, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), is paroled from prison and returns home. He’s clearly one of the generals of this burgeoning mercantile enterprise, and Yalini must tread carefully, taking care of Dad in the kitchen while enormous amounts of criminal activity occur in the living room.

The Dheepan-and-Yalini-in the-lion’s-den thread is at the forefront, but there’s admirable attention paid to the other details of their domestic situation. The daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), barely had time to mourn her own mother’s death before being plucked out of the refugee throng by Yalini and Dheepan; she, in some ways, adapts the quickest to their new circumstances, but she’s at a heartbreaking disadvantage since neither of the adults seem to have any real interest in creating any kind of caring familial foundation for her. This is the more compelling thread of Audiard’s (and co-writer Thomas Bidegain’s) story – the slow and unlikely ultimate creation of a real-live family under unimaginable circumstances. This film will see a regular theatrical run pretty soon, but either now, or then, I highly recommend it.

‘Dheepan’ will be shown on Friday, October 16th at 8:30 pm and Saturday, October 24th at 5:30 pm.

We Monsters (Wir Monster) (Germany, 2015) is the feature-film debut of German director Sebastian Ko, and it’s an admirably executed film with a compelling story, technical finesse and solid performances. If that seems like damning with faint praise, it is.

Paul (Mehdi Nebbou) and Christine (Ulrike C. Tscharre) are divorced, and are starting to move on with new partners. But they still share custody of their embittered teenaged daughter, Sarah (Janina Fautz), who is clearly indignant about the separation and forthright in her disdain for both of them. When Sarah announces to Paul that she has just angrily pushed her girlfriend Charlie off of a reservoir dam to her death, there is, sadly, no reason for him not to believe her. He keeps the revelation to himself, to protect her, but Charlie is clearly missing, and her absence is drawing lots of attention. When Christine pries the truth from Sarah as well, she and Paul must conspire to shield her from investigation. “How Far Will They Go?” one asks oneself, and the answer is what propels the subsequent action.

Director and writer Sebastian Ko (with co-writer Marcus Seibert) has created a fairly propulsive scenario, unencumbered by any sense of the actual world, or real-world-behaviors. Each choice each character makes, each action they commit to, and each consequence they must adjust for, is purely in the service of the plot mechanics; they’re impressive and efficient mechanics, but they don’t hold up in the long run. In that initial “I killed her” scene, it’s a little frightening how credible Sarah is at that moment. But we don’t have enough of a sense of the rest of her life to maintain our sense of what she’s capable of – we fear her, or get fed up with her, because everyone else in the script does. Ko’s conceit is that Paul and Christine are so riddled with guilt about ‘failing’ Sarah that they’ll match her level of extremity to ‘save’ her. Much like Mary Lambert’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, the worst-possible-thing-always-happens-next strategy gets pretty monotonous pretty quickly. Ko ends up revealing to us so much more than the characters themselves know that we no longer feel empathy towards them – no choice they make will shock or surprise us – things will just get progressively nastier, progressively bleaker. There’s genuine skill here, but the uses to which it’s been put are ultimately very disappointing.

‘We Monsters’ screens on Friday, October 16th at 7:15 pm, Saturday the 17th at 9:45 pm and Monday the 19th at 12:30 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

Wan Qian and Hsiao-chuan Chang in Chung Lee's

Wan Qian and Hsiao-chuan Chang in Chung Lee’s “The Laundryman.” credit:

Longtime readers know I have a soft spot for some of the crazier offerings from our Asian filmmaking friends. But for many, some of the strong-medicine ultra-violent, ultra-sexual content isn’t appreciated. But if you do a little homework, you can safely pass up the newest Ki-duk Kim (Pieta, Moebius) or earlier Takeshi Miike (Audition, Ichi The Killer) films in favor of the same levels of wildly creative craziness from other, lesser known filmmakers, without those pesky extremities. I have pretty good luck in this regard with the Japanese director Sion (or Shion) Sono (we’ll look at his newest, Tab, later this week). But, clearly, Taiwanese first-timer Chung Lee joins this company as well. His film The Laundryman (Qing Tian Jie Yi Hao) (Taiwan, 2015) both revels in, and subverts, the genres he’s gleefully plundering here. The back story of the film is superb, but I’ll just give you the basics; Joseph Chang (Hsiao-chuan Chang) is a professional hitman / assassin – working for evil genius behavioral psychiatrist AND dry-cleaning magnate AND sultry babe A Gu (Sui Tang) – who finds himself being haunted by the ghosts of his victims. Employing a medium (whom sometimes escorts as well), Lin (Wan Qian), he discovers that the ghosts want to know why they were killed, and who hired him. He’s just a contractor – he doesn’t know anything about them. But Lin turns out to be the real deal as mediums go, and as they get the real stories, each ghost is appeased. But the more they backtrack, the more they annoy the imperious A Gu, and she starts working to discourage further investigations. There are enthusiastic nods here to John Woo’s crime films, Won Kar Wei’s lush romances, Chinese ghost story and vampire films of the seventies and eighties, a little j-horror, and the frantic street-fighting films of Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen. The small-ish budget of a first-timer can’t help but peek out here and there, and the ending is a glorious mess, but I thought this film was wildly enjoyable and much smarter than it needed to be. This one will be much harder to see after the Fest, so I’d jump on it while you can. A big, happy recommendation.

‘The Laundryman’ will be shown on Friday, October 16th at 10:30 pm and Tuesday, October 20th at 2:30 pm (an $8.00 matinee).


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