The Chicago International Film Festival is back again, from Thursday, October 12th to Thursday, October 26th, and I’ll 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.
David France’s excellent, affecting 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague chronicled the rise of ACT UP in the U.S. from the late eighties into the nineties, and it’s catalytic role in spurring genuinely aggressive medical research for the treatment, and potential cure, for the HIV virus and AIDS. It remains one of the go-to film sources on the subject. Now we have another equally powerful chronicle of the era crafted by the French filmmaker Robin Campillo, who himself was a member of ACT UP Paris in the 1990s. A collaboration with fellow screenwriter and ACT UP Paris member Philippe Mangeot, BPM (Beats Per Minute) (120 Battements Par Minute) (France, 2017) is a fictionalized but still-impressive account of these same sexual, cultural and political issues in France. It’s a very thorough but passionate ensemble overview of ACT UP Paris’ membership, structure and tactics, as well as an intimate and moving portrayal of one couple’s joining together, both as fellow activists and lovers, and, regrettably, the sad and too-typical demise of one of them.
Campillo thrusts us into the action from the start – the interruption of a government presentation by the activists proceeds far more intensely than one of the activists feels they agreed to; some join her questioning of the tactical extremity and its effect on potential allies, while others defend whatever level seems to have the most actual results. One of the most vocal participants, Sean Dalmazo (the excellent Argentinian actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is quick to start an argument, a fight or a party. A flamboyant queen and fiercely loyal friend, Sean has serious differences with the leaders of the chapter, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) and Sophie (Adèle Haenel) ; Sean is dying, and wants results now, feeling frustration at those who don’t share his survivalist sense of urgency on behalf of thousands of others. Drawn by Sean’s fearsome resolve and love of life, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is discreet about his HIV-negative status, but knows he’s been lucky and is resolved to help his community.
We follow the activists to a French high school, where they pass out explicit leaflets and condoms, and are met with a mix of positive and negative reaction from the faculty and administration, while another action, at a pharmaceutical corporation’s Paris headquarters, becomes a fake-blood-drenched mess of (again) dubious effectiveness. But we also have a raucously joyous parade (with cheerleaders!) and a series of nicely stylized visual interludes in dance clubs. Interspersed within it all are Sean and Nathan and their mutual love, expressed in both intimate conversations, and impressively frank nearly-explicit sex. But no matter what else is presented to us, their relationship consequently comes to the fore, and the film’s penultimate scenes are both heartbreaking and joyful. Campillo strikes a superb tone here, graciously sympathetic without overdoing the sentiment.
The film is France’s Foreign Film submission to the 2018 Academy Awards – considering the annual field of films in France, yours had better be good. This one is quite wonderful. It’ll get a regular theatrical run from November 17th, but these should be well-attended early screenings you’ll be glad you made time for.
‘BPM (Beats Per Minute) (120 Battements Par Minute)’ screens on Saturday, October 14th at 8:45 pm and Sunday the 15th at 11:30 am.
Peter Bebjak is a very good Slovakian director whose prolific TV work seems to allow him his more adventurous feature film work. His newest film, The Line (Čiara) (Slovakia, 2017) is an urgent, smoldering crime drama about inter-generational smuggling syndicates along the Slovakia – Ukraine border in 2007. That’s the year the EU established the Schengen Area – 26 European states that did away with passports and border control to allow unrestricted travel between them. In Slovakia’s case, it opened their shared north, west and south borders in Europe, but reinforced the border at Ukraine, making the already tight smuggling routes practically impassable. Cigarettes and refugees have been the normal contraband that Adam Krajnak (a very good Tomáš Maštalír) transports for the sordid but successful Krull (Stanislav Boklan), but when Krull starts slipping narcotics shipments in without Adam’s knowledge, then business-as-usual starts to deteriorate. With the border tightening, Krull needs to pump up his margins, but Adam wants to stick to the old-school program he’s used to living with – he has a family, after all. Adam trusts his friend Jona (Eugen Libezňuk) to handle the Ukrainian side of things [with Slovak border police captain Peter Bernard (Andrej Kryc) on his side of the checkpoint], but, with Jona’s son in a Ukrainian jail, he’s mightily tempted to let Krull help him out for a price.
It’s easier to make delineations if you’re aware of the language shifts from Ukrainian to Slovak – we Americans are at a disadvantage there, unfortunately – but, still, with the subtitles it’s not a tough story to follow. The efficient management of a longtime criminal enterprise, and where that intersects with profoundly deep familial concerns, is Godfather territory, but Bebjak works both aspects admirably – some of Adam’s family turmoil is indeed genuinely heartbreaking. Peter Balko’s script sets a well-structured course, but leaves plenty of room for the actors to show and not tell. Many of cinematographer Martin Ziaran’s visual strategies mimic surveillance – things seen from two views simultaneously, through windows, over other people’s shoulders, or things we probably shouldn’t see at all from skewed, intrusive angles. But he’s not afraid of settling in to harder geometric, Gordon Willis-like chiaroscuro compositions either.
I liked this film a lot. It’s technically excellent, visually vibrant to watch and follow, and well-told as a complex but compelling story. It’s Slovakia’s Foreign Film submission to the 2018 Academy Awards, and well worth seeing.
‘The Line (Čiara)’ will be shown on Saturday, October 14th at 8:30 pm, Sunday the 15th at 2:30 pm, and Tuesday the 17th at 3:15 pm (an $8.00 matinee).