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.
Milad Alami’s The Charmer (Charmøren) (Denmark, 2017) is not only a sometimes amusing, sometimes nerve-wracking examination of the trials and tribulations of a male immigrant working Europe for matrimonial prospects, but it’s also a darkly incisive examination of the middle-Eastern male psyche.
We don’t meet the, indeed, charming Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili) at the film’s outset – we see an unsettling out-of-context domestic tragedy instead, and its effect can’t help but color what comes after for us. Esmail finds himself at a disadvantage as well – he’s clearly on the last nerve of his current romantic partner, and she ends the relationship intimately but unmistakably. Esmail, an Iranian citizen with an expiring migrant visa, then anxiously resumes what seems to be his regular routine, frequenting the same upscale Copenhagen brass-and-fern bar to seek yet another candidate for romantic partnership and state-licensed marital bliss. One particular night he meets two lovely young Danish ladies, but one of them, Sarah (Danish pop singer Soho Rezanejad, very good here) is of Iranian heritage and cannily calls out Esmail’s marry-me opportunism. Oddly, it’s this relationship that turns surprisingly ‘real,’ since any participation in that arrangement has been pre-empted. Now they can just befriend each other, surprise each other, and socialize with each other; he meets her mother, a famous singer, and, despite his cautiousness, starts to ingratiate himself into Copenhagen’s Persian community. But, inevitably, some other incidental loose ends and unintended consequences slowly start to surface (again) that cast a darker personal urgency to his present situation.
Alami (with co-screenwriter Ingeborg Topsøe) builds a compellingly escalating narrative structure around Esmail’s practical / amorous pursuits. But there are darker reasons why his potential scores develop into washouts – Denmark seems to be full of smart and self-capable women who spot the sweaty desperation underlying Esmail’s seemingly earnest striving towards his expat aspirations. I don’t want to create spoilers, but let’s just say that Esmail carries a variety of assumptions about the uses to which the women in his life can be put in the pursuit of his own happiness, which then lead to a fitting-but-still-open conclusion. The filmmakers are assisted admirably by Sophia Olsson’s superb cinematography and Martin Dirkov’s rich and edgy musical soundtrack. It’s a great character study, a smart examination of complex cultural delineations, a brooding psychodrama, and utterly fascinating throughout. This is a terrific film.
‘The Charmer (Charmøren)’ will be shown on Friday, October 13th at 6:30 pm, Saturday the 14th at 3:00 pm and Monday the 16th at Noon (an $8.00 matinee).
Ruben Östlund’s The Square (Sweden, 2017) was this year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner, and is Sweden’s Foreign Film submission to the 2018 Oscars. It’s pretty smart, pretty funny and pretty entertaining, but has enough ironic and/or disturbing moments to keep you from taking it too lightly. I liked this film much more than his previous family comedy Force Majeure (2014), which I found a little mean-spirited. He’s more charitable here, working a wider dynamic, following a museum curator, Christian (the measured, superb Claes Bang), and his efforts to promote the museum’s newest installation – The Square, a 6-meter-square square, illuminated, set into the museum’s outer entrance plaza, which represents A Safe Space and the assumed high humanist ideals and aspirations of those who chose to stand In It.
Östlund’s satirical critiques of Modern Art, and the earnest white snobs who market it, are well-executed, and clever at the time, but after-film scrutiny doesn’t raise them much above My-Kid-Could-Do-That territory, even considering the uncomfortably violent lengths to which he takes one particular performance piece in the film. He’s far more successful with the smaller strokes of just following Christian and his own trials and tribulations; his quest for retribution towards a perpetrated criminal act against him, his can’t-be-bothered blundering of the video promotion of The Square, his awkward seduction of an American art critic (the excellent Elizabeth Moss, bringing her own dark and sparkling humor to the role), and his distressingly nonchalant attitudes towards his young daughters by his recently estranged wife (whom we tellingly never encounter). Bang is a superb straight-man, grounding the chaos constantly surrounding Christian – we tend to always give him the benefit of the doubt, even when someone else’s cries for help echo weakly in the background. I still think Östlund’s pretty mean-spirited overall, but it’s tempered here – he’s aspiring to a lot more in both ideas and scale, and I don’t begrudge him that. Many people will enjoy this film more than I did, but this time I won’t blame them.
‘The Square’ will be shown on Friday, October 13th at 8:15 pm and Saturday the 14th at 5:15 pm.
Hunting Season (Temporada De Caza) (Argentina, 2017), on the surface, seems to read as one of those tedious male-rites-of-passage slogs that we’ve seen countless times. A high-schooler, Nahuel (Lautaro Bettoni) has been living in Buenos Aires with his mother and stepfather. But, upon her passing unexpectedly, Nahuel has become surly and withdrawn, losing interest in his studies, snubbing his stepfather and starting fights. After his expulsion from school, the decision is made for Nahuel to live south, in deep rural Patagonia, with his natural father. He, Ernesto (veteran Germán Palacios), lives essentially off-the-grid with his wife and four young daughters, as a hunter and hunting guide for others. Nahuel is his usual acting-out self for a bit, but Ernesto refuses to take the bait. He, instead, starts to give Nahuel chores, and brings him along on hunts, letting Nahuel make his own mistakes but emphasizing a sense of shared responsibility rather than enforcing his own paternal authority.
I must say it’s an intriguing first-feature material choice for writer / director Natalia Garagiola – this is pretty thick testosterone territory, and yet Garagiola’s quiet, deliberate, one-thing-at-a-time approach works. She takes their communication shortfalls as a given, and constructs her scenarios around that. No hugs, no valuable lessons, just men finding their way through to the next thing. Cinematographer Fernando Lockett’s work goes a long way in supporting Garagiola’s efforts (he was one of the two DPs to shoot last year’s Kékszakállú); interior and exterior, social and solitude, urban and pastoral – Lockett makes clear visual distinctions that help to define the characters’ own stages in the ongoing narrative. Garagiola’s done well with short films over 4 or 5 years – her first feature is good, not great, but she’s a good writer and technically proficient director who clearly works well with her actors. This is nice work that I recommend.
‘Hunting Season (Temporada De Caza)’ will be shown on Friday, October 13th at 8:30 pm, Saturday the 14th at 1:30 pm and Tuesday the 17th at 1:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).