Every year in the month of March, the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts the Chicago European Union Film Festival. I’ll give capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can. All films are shown at the Film Center, 164 N. State Street, right across State St. from the Chicago Theater. See you there!
Pernilla August’s A Serious Game (Den Allvarsamma Liken) (Sweden, 2016) is based on a classic and beloved tragic romance novel of the early 1900s by Hjalmar Söderberg. Broke young journalist Arvid (Sverrir Gudnason) and painter’s daughter Lydia (Karin Franz Körlof) meet when Arvid’s editor Markel (Michael Nyqvist) pays a visit to the eccentric father, Anders Stille (Göran Ragnerstam), at their island home. Arvid and Lydia hit it off immediately, but the humble and practical Arvid discourages their coupling now in the hopes that their mutual fortunes will be more accommodating later on. But not too long after Anders’ passing, Lydia marries a wealthy older man, Roslin (Sven Nordin) and secures a content but ultimately loveless future. Meanwhile, after a few years of reviewing operas and other arts events for the newspaper, Arvid meets the Randels, a wealthy but unpretentiously friendly family, and their lovely daughter Dagmar (a very good Liv Mjönes). Dagmar’s family has no problem with Arvid’s humble origins, and, with the family’s encouragement, the two marry happily. But one night Roslin and Lydia go to the opera…
Being a fairly classic scenario, you can envision the series of dubious passion-driven choices made by our two married-to-others protagonists, and the subsequent messes made. Director August (and veteran screenwriter Lone Scherfig) do their damnedest to keep things fresh, urgent, passionate and sympathetic. The characters are nicely detailed and placed into a credible period context. The story is lucidly structured, there’s a good sense of how time passes from event-to-event, and the entire film is well-designed and shot. But the fairly classic scenario remains just fair. Perhaps the creators felt reined in by the specifics of the novel, but they needed to find a way to inject some real hot-bloodedness into these characters. Lydia, in particular, is given a variety of circumstances in the narrative to assert some real complexity, but she just ends up kind of diffuse and defeated. Arvid’s character ultimately suffers from the same malaise. It’s a shame with such an admirable first 40 minutes, but I really can’t recommend the film. Pernilla August and Lone Scherfig are pros who’ll bounce back in future projects, but this one was very disappointing.
“A Serious Game” screens on Friday, March 10th at 2:00 pm and Monday, March 13th at 6:00 pm.
Gianfranco Cabiddu’s The Stuff Of Dreams (La Stoffa Dei Sogni) (Italy, 2016) is a modest but smartly done hybrid, combining the outlines of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with the specifically Italian concerns of the political commedia of Eduardo de Fillippo in the 1920s and 30s. Like The Tempest, there’s a shipwreck, and a separated group of castaways. But here, the island is the prison island of Asinara, off the coast of Sardinia, and its Prospero is the prison’s warden, DeCaro (Ennio Fantastichini) who, of course, has a comely daughter named Miranda (Alba Gaia Bellugi). The castaways are a family theatrical troupe of four, led by the gracious and resourceful Oreste Campese (Sergio Rubini) with his wife Maria (Teresa Saponangelo), the older actor Pasquale, and his young daughter Anna. Along with them are three fugitive Camorra convicts who extort the Campese’s into letting them pass as fellow actors in the troupe. Being eventually rounded up by the prison police, Warden DeCaro requests the troupe perform, oh, y’know, what’s that Shakespeare play about the storm…? Can the Campeses pull it off without incurring the wrath of, or betraying, their dangerous impostor co-stars? The ferry’s here in five days – the show’s in four. Break a leg.
Written with Ugo Chiti and Salvatore De Mola, Cabiddu strikes a nice balance between his historically-altered homage and the specifics of the situations and characters that are important for him to convey as well, outside of Shakespearean model. Shot expertly by Vincenzo Carpineta, the play-within-a-play-within-a-film concept sounds laborious, but I was very pleasantly surprised here. It’s quite engaging, even charming, but he keeps some points and sharp edges around to keep the stakes credible throughout. Cabiddu seems to have taken some time off from the film biz before returning with this, his first since 2007. I highly recommend it.
“The Stuff Of Dreams” will be shown on Friday, March 10th at 6:00 pm and Wednesday the 15th at 8:15 pm.
Working her way past a very good showing in short films and TV, the director Miranda Bowen brings us her debut theatrical feature film Gozo (UK / Malta, 2015). Joe (Joseph Kennedy) and Lucille (Ophelia Lovibond) are on an extended holiday in Malta, on the small island of Gozo. They have the run of a relative’s big vacation house if they supervise some work being done. Lucille is content to be a tourist, especially upon discovering that the kinda-creepy-leering workers doing the plumbing don’t speak English. (Maltese is a Sicilian / Arabic blend that isn’t common anywhere else.) Joe is a sound engineer and recordist, and he occupies himself with making field recordings all around the island. But Joe is also trying to reconcile a recent tragedy, and tends to use his work to isolate himself. When days pass without any water being made available, or what water there is being unusably nasty, Lucille is left on her own to deal with it, making inquiries in town and befriending an American tending to his late father’s estate. And as Lucille moves forward in self-sufficiency, dealing with their expat’s House Of Usher, Joe seems to spiral, increasingly haunted…
Bowen’s film has some pretty good ideas; the narrative preoccupation with the person who won’t ever really be there, the discomfort and rigor of finding your bearings in foreign surroundings, the insistent symbolic motif of the water… But they’re awkwardly expressed – at times the unblended distinctions seem deliberate, but then something will happen to her that shouldn’t relate to him, or vice-versa. They’re both in denial, they each reach a crisis of sorts, but there’s no real structure or common thread to each of their conditions. When the mood’s right, the story’s off. When the story kicks in, the atmosphere’s indifferent. Bowen can clearly tell stories well through cinematic means – her BBC Women In Love is reportedly excellent. Let’s perhaps dismiss this as an early screenwriting disappointment for her, and look forward to the other good work she’ll be doing in the future on someone else’s scripts.
“Gozo” screens on Friday, March 10th at 6:15 pm and Tuesday, March 14th at 6:00 pm.
Olmo Omerzu uses his second feature, Family Film (Rodinný Film) (Czech Republic, 2015) as an experiment in how far he can take a family apart and still have it remain intact in the end. Igor and Irena (Karel Roden and Vanda Hybnerová) have raised their two children in economic comfort, with obvious mutual love and trust between them all. As the film opens, the parents have decided to treat themselves to a weeks-and-weeks-long sailing adventure by themselves while the kids are still in school – they’ll fly to meet the parents for Christmas when school’s out. The elder daughter Anna (Jenovéfa Boková) seems to be the more responsible of the two – she dutifully keeps up her schoolwork while younger brother Erik (Daniel Kadlec) skips classes and works on his kickscooter form. But Anna has also invited her friend Kristýna (Eliška Křenková) over for an extended stay, and she’s a cooly corrupting influence on all involved. When Erik’s school absences become a major issue, Igor’s brother Martin (Martin Pechlát) intervenes on their behalf to smooth things over and straighten Erik up. And things seem to settle in better with Martin checking in regularly… except now they haven’t heard from Igor and Irena for quite a while…
Director Omerzu, writing his screenplay with Nebojsa Pop Tasic, starts the film off as a tamer version of Larry Clark’s Kids, but keeps adding enough unsettling but incisive detail to veer things more into Asghar Farhadi territory; our sympathies ebb and flow from person to person, especially when we become aware of the parents’ fate and events thereafter. Omerzu has a great sense of how family dynamics function, and how easily they can be subverted or even relied on; even the title expresses his arm’s-length objectivity, but he shows us genuinely compelling characters and situations. I liked this film a lot; Omerzu has given the narrative an intriguing shape, and Lukás Milota’s fashion-hazy digital camerawork is weirdly perfect. Make a point to catch it this weekend – I suspect, sadly, that it won’t be back.
“Family Film” will be shown on Friday, March 10th at 8:00 pm and Saturday, March 11th at 6:15 pm.
Actress Jenovéfa Boková will be present for audience discussion at both screenings.