The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois. Part 1 is here. Part 2.
Ilias Addab and Nora El Koussour in ‘Layla M.’ credit: variety.com
Just when I thought I might have been a little hard on a previous film, along comes another that reaffirms my faith and my crankiness. Layla M. (Netherlands, 2016) is a smart and confident film by Dutch director Mijke de Jong that pays real respect to religious belief systems while fearlessly criticizing how humans, and their institutions, stretch and distort them to more self-serving uses.
Layla (Nora El Koussour) is 18, born and raised in Amsterdam and of Moroccan descent. She’s whip-smart and can be contagiously joyful, but she takes her Muslim faith very seriously. Like many politically smart and sensitive teenagers, she participates in street protests and is active online, denouncing what she views as mistreatment of Muslims abroad and calling out injustices in her own hometown. She also helps her Dad coach youth soccer, and video-chats with her devoutly Muslim boyfriend Abdul (Ilias Addab), who by all evidence genuinely loves her. Her family is loving and supportive, but views her political and religious passions as immoderate. As the ‘trouble’ she gets into makes itself more publicly known, her increasingly shamed family reprimands her, which, of course, just leads to further escalation – she is 18, after all. After confronting one of her best high-school friends with the idea that non-committal Muslims should rightfully be killed, she and Abdel decide to marry and elope to the Middle East, where the real work is done. Now she’ll be happy – now she has control over her own fate…
There’s a pretty big difference between characters we like and characters we respect, and both director de Jong and excellent actor El Koussour understand why the latter serves this story far better than the former. Cinematographer Danny Elsen keeps the visual narrative active and involving without crowding his subjects, quite nicely done with such loaded subject matter. It’s easy to conclude halfway through that Layla is just another cult-addled recruit, just another sheeplike disciple, but we know better because de Jong and El Koussour have so thoroughly and honestly demonstrated that that’s just not true. Don’t get me wrong, this film is going to make many of my fellow Westerners very angry. But It’s not just propaganda or provocation – it’s really good filmed storytelling, well-written, well-shot and well- conceived, and I highly recommend it.
Layla M. will screen on Sunday, October 16th at 2:30 pm, Tuesday the 18th at 8:15 pm and Thursday the 20th at 2:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).
Paolo Virzì is an Italian filmmaker whom I think deserves a little more action than his films generally get. Last year’s (slightly overstuffed) Human Capital was well-received, but didn’t get a lot of next-league distribution. His film previous to that, The First Beautiful Thing, was one of my favorites from that year (2010). And it’s no secret that his 1997 coming-of-age film Hardboiled Egg (Ovosodo) is the absolute favorite Italian comedy of many native Italians. So I’m delighted to see that Like Crazy (La Pazza Gioia, which translates to Mad Joy and is, of course, a much better title) (Italy, 2016) continues to parade his smarts, his great sense of humor, his technical skill and his rapport with his actors.
The Countess Beatrice Morandini Valdirana (a spectacular turn from Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), who may actually have all of those names or, perhaps, none of them, holds court at the Villa Biondi, a women’s mental institution in Tuscany. She’s an inexhaustible jet of aristocratic, egotistical, self-promoting energy, constantly dishing out advice, constantly declaring what she will and won’t have, and generally distancing herself from anyone with whom she might make any kind of healthy connection. That is until the arrival of Donatella Morelli (Micaela Ramazzotti), a skeletal shell of a woman who allegedly tried to kill herself and her baby son eight-or-so years ago, and has been shuttled around psychiatric hospitals ever since. Beatrice prevaricates and browbeats Donatella with her usual subtlety, and Donatella bares her teeth and suggests that she sod right off. But of course, they escape together, and, of course, there’s a wildly eventful road trip, and, of course, they both confront their pasts and find a way to reconcile their present. That all sounds pretty boring, which makes it all the more gratifying when those outline elements are performed with so much genuine commitment, intelligence, good humor and surprise. Virzì clearly gets an assist from his co-screenwriter Francesca Archibugi, but the real bargain here is paying full price admission for the irreproachable performances of Ramazzotti and Bruni Tedeschi. Wow. (And if you can play hookie on a Friday afternoon, you won’t even have to pay that…). Finally, I’d like to propose that Anna Galiena make a cameo appearance in far, far more Italian films. Like Crazy is probably the best comedy I’ll see all year.
Like Crazy will be shown on Sunday, October 16th at 2:45 pm, Monday the 17th at 5:45 pm, and Friday the 21st at 1:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).
Isabelle Huppert and Edith Scob in ‘Things To Come.’ credit: filmsdulosange.fr
Mia Hansen-Løve is the author and director of very thoughtful semi-autobiographical character studies, and her newest film. Things To Come (L’Avenir) (France, 2016), is extraordinarily well-observed. The caveat here is that, while Hansen-Løve is singularly incisive in presenting these characters within the passage of time in the film, it’s easy to walk out of these films with hardly a thought of what you’ve just seen. Hansen-Løve’s admirable accuracy and empathy, weirdly, rarely create genuinely memorable films.
She’s given herself every chance to make an involving one here by casting the great Isabelle Huppert as Nathalie Chazeaux, a passionately dedicated philosophy professor who has enveloped herself in academia, mentoring, publishing, caring for her aging mother and her marriage. But the dependable rhythms of her life seem to be eroding all at once. Her publisher wants to jazz up the well-regarded philosophy textbook she’s authored and updated, much to her chagrin. Her husband Heinz, of 20 years, is revealed to be carrying on an affair, and, when exposed, he chooses the younger woman. A young protégé of hers, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), seems to be pulled further away from academia by his studies, towards a more France-in-the-sixties non-urban collectivism. Imagine, he really thinks he can just hang out on a farm with two or three friends and publish in perpetuity. Nathalie, of course, encourages her charge, knowing her own younger sympathies towards his leap-of-faith idealism. She’s been there, done that.
Each thing that happens, each obstacle, each small betrayal, is consciously felt and dealt with by the resilient Nathalie. Hansen-Løve doesn’t stint on assessing the toll that the time has taken on Nathalie, but she nonetheless leaves us with a happy and hopeful image – Nathalie caressing her granddaughter, having just fed her children a holiday dinner. One may allege that both Camille in Goodbye, First Love and Paul in Eden overstay what’s interesting about their characters – Hansen-Løve is meticulous about chronicling the passage of time – but the time-palette that Nathalie is working across seems just right. See it for yet another fearsome Isabelle Huppert performance, but also go to watch a good screenwriter get immensely better, and a good director gain even more impressive command of the storytelling medium. This may be Hansen-Løve’s best film.
Things To Come will be shown on Sunday, October 16th at 5:00 pm and Wednesday the 19th at 5:45 pm.
Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseni in ‘The Salesman.’ credit:cineuropa.org
Both Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, and devoted husband Emad (Shahab Hosseni) in Asghar Farhadi’s newest film The Salesman (Forushande) (Iran, 2016) carry a profound fear of not living up to their own standards, and, in that failure, letting down the people they love most. Like another director who excels at the suspenseful domestic drama, Cristian Mungiu, Farhadi takes ordinary people, shifts their seemingly normal lives into abnormal circumstances, and then examines the true colors that emerge.
Emad and Rama (the always-reliable Taraneh Alidoosti) are a longtime couple. He teaches high-school age students in writing and literature, and they both participate in semi-professional theater in the evening – these days, he’s Willy and she’s Linda in their production of Death Of A Salesman. But those aforementioned abnormal circumstances rear their head in a flurry: the apartment building they’ve been living in is rendered unstable in a random construction accident, and they move to a different place made available to them by a friendly fellow cast member, Babak (Babak Karimi). The previous tenant was made unwelcome by the neighbors due to her side-gigs in the world’s oldest profession. And one fateful day, Rama, expecting Emad, leaves the apartment door open for him, but Emad isn’t who walks through. And after the trauma, Rama, as we met her, may never return.
Understandably, the tone of the film darkens as Emad quizzes his neighbors about the previous tenant and works to discover the identity of Rama’s assailant. There are clues, of course, in fact big ones, but they refuse to go to the police – Emad, with a few of his neighbors agreeing, considers the police to be both ineffective and indiscreet. But his own personal investigations veer less towards justice and more towards revenge, and one questions whether he’s properly attending to Rama’s compromised state of mind.
Farhadi always presents to us how women’s lives are shaped, and often warped, by the predominance of male prerogative and power in urban Middle Eastern society. Rama’s reaction to Emad’s idea of the right-thing-to-do tells us everything we need to know about who he’s been up until now and who he really is, and the identity of the assailant is one of the more profoundly awkward reveals I’ve witnessed in quite a while. Farhadi’s writing is superb and the acting is solid, and the overall quality of each of his films is so consistently high that it seems silly to grouse. (He switches between two reliable cinematographers – for this film it’s Hossein Jafarian.) A Separation and The Past felt, to me, far more successful, far more eventfully cohesive, but The Salesman keeps excellent company.
The Salesman screens on Sunday, October 16th at 5:45 pm and Wednesday the 19th at 6:00 pm.