By Josh Parham
Every year, all of us cinephiles take so much pleasure in the many film festivals that happen around this time. It’s the opportunity to see so many highly anticipated movies, or at the very least, hear the reactions to them. Especially as awards season approaches fast, it’s a great opportunity for high profile contenders to finally have real exposure in the race. Many festivals receive this attention, but the Chicago International Film Festival is always the pilgrimage I make.
The festival continues to have a diverse lineup of films in their programming, ranging from different backgrounds from around the world. Their selection offers films that highlight local talent, black perspectives, LGBTQ content, Latin American cinema and so much more. Something the festival is also abundant in is the array of submissions for the Best International Feature Oscar. Over a dozen such films were playing at the festival this year, and this is a brief rundown of a few titles that I saw that will no doubt be in that conversation.
Morocco’s submission “Adam” centers its story around a young woman named Samia (Nisrin Erradi) who is attempting to look for work while also looking extremely pregnant. Her troubles are momentarily relieved when Abla (Lubna Azabal) takes her in to assist with her duties running the bakery she owns. Abla is a hardened woman, but soon the friendship that blossoms between them opens her up, and both of them end up learning a great deal about their present circumstances.
Maryam Touzani directs this film with a keen sense of organic storytelling, especially when allowing such intimate scenes to play out between these characters. There is a real exploration into the themes of motherhood, particularly through a perspective that comes from a woman bearing most of that responsibility alone. The film sets up some powerful moments between the characters and it’s an element that is constantly engaging. Much of that helps to uplift some of the deficiencies within the script, which oftentimes comes across as clunky and a bit obvious.
The two central performances here are also very well executed. Azabal handles a complex character whose layers slowly start to reveal themselves, and she delivers it beautifully. There’s a great subtlety to the work she provides which showcases an inner turmoil she struggles with, and it’s a great performance that realizes that. Erradi doesn’t carry quite as much with her role, but she still makes an impact as a woman struggling with regrets and attempting to salvage her life. She especially handles the darker moments at the end of the film well. Overall, “Adam” has its flaws, but ultimately is an interesting story about how women come together and deal with the problems the world has put upon them.
Poland’s entry for the Best International Feature Oscar is a stark tale about a juvenile convict named Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia). While incarcerated, Daniel has a spiritual awakening and feels the urge to become a priest. His criminal background prevents this, and he is instead sent out on parole to work at a local sawmill; however, upon his arrival, he undertakes different plans. He dons a priest suit that he stole and passes himself off as a visiting father. When the vicar takes ill, Daniel finds himself the new spiritual leader of this village and becomes deeply entrenched in their darker revelations.
“Corpus Christi” truly succeeds even in the smallest portion because of Bielenia’s performance. There’s such a strong dedication from him to showcase a young man who is flawed and wants to find the light in the world, even though he achieves it through unorthodox means. Every scene he’s in offers a fierce portrayal and he is constantly a captivating presence, even when the film is often not. The rest of the cast is fine, but nothing comes close to what Bielenia delivers.
There are worthy themes explored within the film that touches on the hypocrisy that religion affords some people to cling to hope in their time of grief while rejoicing in the torment of others. At the same time, there’s an emotional distance the story has that keeps these explorations from becoming truly profound, and it isn’t helped by the languished pacing and underwhelming ending. Jan Komasa directs “Corpus Christi” with a competent hand, but it never quite becomes something extraordinary. It certainly never matches the accomplishments of the central performance, but it’s a good effort nonetheless.
IT MUST BE HEAVEN
Elia Suleiman has had a long career as one of Palestine’s most noted filmmakers, and for the country’s Oscar submission, he turns his attention to something that seems a bit strange and quirky, yet attempts to say something quite profound. In essence, Suleiman plays a version of himself, a filmmaker who goes from his home country to eventually visit Paris and New York, with each stop showcasing the many ways in which the rest of the world has a kinship with his homeland. “It Must Be Heaven” utilizes these sections to provide many humorous set pieces that also serve this greater commentary.
So much of the film reminded me of the works of Jacques Tati, a filmmaker who often used his intricate framing to create a visually dazzling spectacle, often with a strong comedic edge. At the same time, a common complaint I’ve always had with his films is that their lack of a cohesive story leaves me at an arm’s length in connecting with them on an emotional level. For a lot of Suleiman’s film, it’s a similar issue. Even though so many of these setups are quite funny and entertaining, there is also no real character to become invested in. Suleiman is nearly mute throughout the film and mostly reacts to his circumstances, which though entertaining, feels shallow.
Still, the lack of character work doesn’t mean the film hasn’t any thematic weight to it. It’s striving for a larger discussion about how Palestine, its people, and customs fit into the larger global narrative. Showcasing the oddities that the rest of the world indulges in brings context to these observations, as well as some pointed satire on the state of international art and its perception. “It Must Be Heaven” is far from perfect, but its charm and philosophy have stayed with me surprisingly long after I saw it. That’s a testament to its intriguing storytelling, and one I would be interested in revisiting in the future.
This submission from The Netherlands centers around Nicoline (Carice van Houten), an experienced psychologist who takes a new position working in a prison. It’s here that she is introduced to Idris (Marwan Kenzari), a man convicted of numerous sexual abuse crimes yet puts on a charming persona to his superiors. As his unmonitored probation trips outside the prison are about to commence, Nicoline harbors a deep distrust of his intentions and sees him as nothing more than a master manipulator. She’s also drawn into him in a twisted affection, and as the two continue to cross each other, the danger only becomes more potent.
Van Houten and Kenzari have already appeared in recognizable projects this year, those being “Game of Thrones” and “Aladdin” respectively; however, this film allows for their talents to be shown in a range few have witnessed. Van Houten portrays an incredible rawness to her character, a woman who is incredibly damaged but trying to remain resilient – and one never knows how much control she really has. Kenzari bursts through with devilish charm that easily can turn nasty, and he plays this character with the right amount of sincerity and menace to be completely transfixing and terrifying. The scenes they share are the highlights of the film, with each one adding more layers of intrigue with their performances.
With “Instinct,” Halina Reijn makes her directorial debut, and those results are decidedly more mixed. There’s a great appreciation for her attention to keeping this story with a female perspective, especially one in which the topics could be so easily mishandled. It’s often difficult to watch unfold, but it never feels exploitative and that’s a true credit. At the same time, the film also drags in long stretches, and despite the stellar performances, there’s a real start-stop quality to the pacing, which makes it difficult to sustain momentum. It’s a flawed film, but one whose central characters provide the most engaging elements to it.
The submission from Uruguay attempts to tell a significant story that is an important part of the country’s history. Based on a novel, its focus is on the career of Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler), a low-level worker in an investment company whose ambition quickly grows into money laundering schemes that take advantage of the fragile economies of several countries. His meteoric rise is detailed against interior betrayals and the involvement of even more serious crimes, all while he slowly loses control and falls into tumbling chaos.
There’s a noble effort on display in “The Moneychanger” to showcase what is obviously a turbulent era in the history of Uruguay. The intrigue and complex dealings that were carried out are shown with a fair amount of intrigue, and director Federico Veiroj displays some craft here. Unfortunately, the script he has assembled comes across as very clunky and wooden, and it’s the biggest roadblock from getting invested in this story. The protagonist isn’t a very compelling character, at least on paper, and seeing him anchor the narrative that revolves around him is never quite captivating to watch.
Hendler does what he can with this material, but there isn’t a whole lot more he does to elevate it. He certainly nails the meek and timid persona that Brause embodies at the beginning of the film, but the transformation into someone more cunning is never really felt. Part of this is by design, as Brause himself admits his own limitations, but there’s never a true sense that he’s becoming a different person, and as much as Hendler tries, it never comes together. It’s a decent performance, much like the rest of the cast. The film overall isn’t terrible, it’s just not enticing to watch, which is a shame given the stories involved.
THE PAINTED BIRD
The Czech Republic has submitted this incredibly dark story that focuses on an unnamed child known only as The Boy (Petr Kotlar). Set during World War II, the boy is sent by his parents to live with a foster mother in the countryside. When the woman soon dies, he leaves on a mission to find his parents. In doing so, he goes on an episodic journey where he encounters several new people along the way, oftentimes adding horrific trials he must go through to eventually be reunited with his family.
Right away, “The Painted Bird” strikes a tone that shows how incredibly bleak and dire it is, and that’s both a benefit and a hindrance to the film. Some elements compel you to feel as if you’re watching the more realistic version of a Grimm fairy tale, and combined with the stunning black and white photography, Václav Marhoul directs the film in a way that makes you want to appreciate all the aesthetics, even the horrific ones. As with many episodic stories, however, some chapters are more interesting than others, and eventually, the ones that feel repetitive start to add up over the nearly three-hour run time. By the time the end approaches, all the suffering feels like it has numbed you.
Kotlar’s performance serves as a stoic anchor to the center of this misery, and while there’s nothing here that translates as an incredible performance being delivered, it’s still admirable that a young actor could handle this incredibly dense and dark material as he does. The supporting cast is made up of some surprisingly familiar faces, ranging from Udo Kier to Barry Pepper, Julian Sands, and Harvey Keitel. But because much of their dialogue ends up being dubbed, the effectiveness of their performances is limited. The same is true for the film as a whole. Despite a strong start, “The Painted Bird” doesn’t maintain that level of momentum, and is reduced to crawling across the finish line. There are some powerful themes at work, but it just takes too long to say them.
These are far from the only submissions that played at the Chicago International Film Festival, but it’s a great testament to the programing that such a wide array of films are available to see. These are also not the only films I have during my time here, and there will be a second part to this piece that will detail even more films. A great advantage of this festival is that there is no shortage of intriguing films to explore, and more will be discussed very soon.
You can follow Josh and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @JRParham