The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 2

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.

I suspect that adapting Massimo Gramellini’s bestselling novel proved to be a tough gig for the great Italian director Marco Bellocchio to turn down. His filmed version of Sweet Dreams (Fai Bei Sogni) (Italy / France, 2016) tries to put a more serious-minded, not-so-sentimental edge on the proceedings, but he and his two fellow writers are defeated by the material. A paean to Mommas in tutto il mondo, Sweet Dreams follows Massimo (the impressive Nicolo Cabras), a sensitive but precocious pre-teen boy whose beloved mother dies under mysterious circumstances. Handling that loss as a boy is tough going, and Massimo calls on the assistance of his imaginary guardian demon, Belphégor, to shore himself up. But when we meet Massimo as an adult (now portrayed by Valerio Mastandrea), he’s a distant and somewhat aimless journalist still haunted by loss after all of these years. Perché, Massimo, perché…? Bellocchio’s an irreproachable pro – the film looks great, the story is well-structured, he gets good work from reliable cinematographer Daniele Ciprì and able support from actors Cabras, Mastandrea, Bérénice Bejo and Barbara Ronchi. I just didn’t actually believe any of it.Your results may vary.

Sweet Dreams is showing on Saturday, October 15th at 2:45 pm, Sunday the 16th at 11:45 am and Friday the 21st at 3:45 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

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Stjepan Perić and Ecija Ojdanic in ‘Ministry Of Love.’  credit: CIFF

Pavo Marinković’s smart comedy Ministry Of Love (Ministarstvo Ljubavi) (Croatia / Czech Republic, 2016) is a thoughtful yet effectively-barbed satire on values, work, relationships and institutional misguidedness.

Krešo (Stjepan Perić) is a biologist who’s having trouble finding steady work. His father-in-law Slavko (Milan Štrljić), though, is a government bureaucrat, and the newest bureau under his charge is the ‘Ministry of Love’, a deceptively-named agency that disqualifies war widows from their widows’ pensions if they’re found co-habiting with new partners. No one in the real world begrudges these women those 20-year-old pensions, but austerity is the rule in governments these days, and the ambitious Slavko assembles a small army of investigators to reclaim pension payments from these scofflaw women.

Krešo isn’t thrilled with his new job as a Nosey Parker, but he has a wife (Olga Pakalović) and son (Oleg Tomac) to support (his boss’ daughter, remember…). He and his deadpan partner Šikić (Dražen Kühn) eventually work out some strategic deceptions that bust some of these minor-league charlatans while sending themselves up the bureau’s lucrative ladder. More experienced government agents are used to being discovered as scoundrels, but Krešo is heartbroken when people he’s come to like in the course of his work end up understandably turning on him.

Marinković makes it pretty clear at the beginning that ‘security and trust’ are the first casualties of well-intentioned government money-grubbing, in Croatia or anywhere else. His visuals are sly but straightforward, unobtrusive and technically proficient, just right for the material. The laughs are dryly consistent and nicely character-driven, and, as with most capable non-American comedies, the characters are honest-to-God grown-ups who gave up adolescence an agreeably long time ago. It’s no comedic masterpiece, but Ministry Of Love is a fun and intelligent 103 minutes in good company that you’ll be glad you spent.

Ministry Of Love will be screened on Saturday, October 15th at 6:00 pm, Sunday the 16th at 8:15 pm, and Thursday the 20th at 3:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

Director/writer Pavo Marinković is scheduled to attend the October 15th and 16th screenings.

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Adrian Titieni and Maria-Victoria Dragus in ‘Graduation.’ credit: Mobra Films

The director Christian Mungiu introduced a whole new league of Romanian film with his 2007 Cannes winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, and any new release from him is noteworthy. Graduation (Bacalaureat) (Romania, 2016) is yet another examination of regular folks navigating irregular extremity, and it’s riveting work.

Romeo Aldea (veteran Adrian Titieni) is a hard-working middle-aged doctor in the Romanian city of Cluj. His most fervent hope is that his talented teenaged daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) will qualify for scholarships and have a chance to study psychology in the U.K., away from what he sees as an ever-oppressive fate in Romania. But suspicious, seemingly undeserved things are starting to occur – who threw that big stone through their front window? Who shattered the windshield on their car? And, most horrifically, who tried to sexually attack Eliza in broad morning daylight, a very short distance away from her school’s entrance? Eliza escapes with a fractured wrist, and she’s understandably shaken, but Romeo’s biggest concern is her impending final examinations; with her state-of-mind unfairly compromised, he’ll do whatever he needs to do to ensure that Eliza’s scores are high enough to guarantee her big future.

Chicago audiences will no doubt recognize the roundelay of “I know a guy who helped this other guy who can now help you if you go to see this other guy and have him send you to the guy who will hook you up with the guy…” Or perhaps “That’s what other people do – the favor I need isn’t like that…“ That’s not just Chicago, my friends – that’s human nature, and the perceptive Mr. Mungiu understands, and meticulously chronicles, all of those little steps from favor to debt to corruption, from pride to compromise to nausea, and the slow but corrosive effect it can have on ourselves and even the people we love the most. Like 4 Months, Mungiu’s film works in the rhythms of the suspense thriller, even under these more prosaic circumstances, and the camerawork and editing are quite good. (Tudor Vladimir Panduru is the cinematographer rather than the great Oleg Mutu, but the visuals are crisp and efficient. Nice work.) Mungiu won Cannes’ best director award this year, and he may see more in the future. As for this festival, you can regard this terrific film as a must-see.

Graduation will be shown on Saturday, October 15th at 8:30 pm and Sunday the 16th at 7:45 pm.

Pushy and provocative, yet still somehow unconvincing, Kirill Serebrennikov’s The Student (Russia, 2016) is yet another study of fanatical religious psychosis rearing its ugly head unbidden within a prosaic white middle-class milieu that couldn’t possibly have fostered it. [Its Russian title, (M) uchenik, is a clever meme – Uchenik means student, Muchenik means martyr.] A high-school age young man, Veniamin Yuzhin (Pyotr Skvortsov) wakes up one morning and informs his single-parent Mom (Yuliya Aug) that he won’t be going to swim class / P.E. anymore. He’s a devout Christian now, suddenly, and won’t stand for Girls In Bikinis. He’ll attend other classes, but he won’t stand for pre-marital sex, or any promotion of homosexuality or any discussion of evolution. These kinds of Bible-spouting characters, who for better or (mostly) worse cause their contemporaries to rethink their prosaic priorities, are generally an excuse for writers to show off how effectively they can edit and reassemble quoted biblical passages to make everyone else seem acquiescent and silly, or to make their primary character look misunderstood or fascist. Or both. The world and his wife are speculating on where all of this homicidal fanaticism comes from, and how to express it within a context that the bourgeoisie will find palatable while still feeling the need for a fainting couch – we have shame, after all. I prefer Luis Buñuel, who presents stuff like this as both worthy of respect and silly, or storytellers like Bruno Dumont or Sion Sono, who embrace the more psychological extremes as part and parcel of committed religious fervor, unapologetically. Serebrennikov is adapting a play written by another here, but he’s fully committed to the material. The festival brochure describes the film as a satire, but it’s almost completely humorless. I found the godbothering here to be a weak substitute for some fairly elementary psychology, the introduction of anti-semitism and sex-abuse accusations to be sloppy button-pushing, and that the film has an ending that only Catherine Trammell would love.

The Student plays on Saturday, October 15th at 8:30 pm, Sunday the 16th at 12:15 pm and Monday the 17th at 2:30 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

 

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