As is customary every year, the season of film festivals is always an exciting moment in time for everyone who calls themselves a lover of cinema. It’s a special occasion where many can gather around and watch an onslaught of movies quickly. Whether they be high-profile contenders or smaller art house fare, the festival brings a wonderful opportunity of artistic indulgence. Some of these events may have a higher profile than others. Still, it must be said that the Chicago International Film Festival has consistently been one of the strongest regional festivals. That was no different this year, particularly with a lineup that was absolutely mesmerizing to behold. With such a diverse set of offerings, there were, of course, a good number of elements that were worthy of highlighting in such a bountiful spread.
If one could spot a theme amongst many of the films being shown, it was a showcase for strong directorial visions that aimed to craft memorable narratives. Many works displayed intriguing concepts that were well-executed by their directors. Some of these have been widely noted in previous debuts at other festivals. One of those would be Alice Rohrwacher and her efforts regarding “La Chimera.” It’s at first a somber and, admittedly, opaque story that eventually does find a more engaging rhythm, and her direction is one that embodies a grand sense of intimacy. She utilizes the 16mm photography to create a place in time that is both dated yet timeless, crafting a beautiful space full of vibrant emotion that simmers beneath the surface.Another noticeable directorial achievement was featured in “Bad Living,” which is representing Portugal for this year’s Best International Feature Oscar. It’s a stark tale of a group of women in a close yet dysfunctional family dealing with their fragile emotional states in the barren hotel they own. It’s a quiet portrait that allows for some compelling characterizations to be brought forward, all within a gaze that captures stillness that breathes loudly. It’s a great example of muted sequences that can still carry a great depth to explore, and João Canijo masterfully portrays this aspect. However, not all projects were tasked with portraying meditative character studies. “Departing Seniors” was an example of a delightful romp that mixed horror and comedy in an entertaining manner. The plot revolving around a high school senior who gains psychic abilities to witness gruesome murders before they happen is a fun concept, even if the execution at times felt stilted. Yet, director Clare Cooney, writer Jose Nateras, and star Ignacio Diaz-Silverio all collaborate to make an entertaining spectacle. Bonus points must also be awarded for shooting in a suburb of the Chicagoland area, making this a nice hometown treat as well.
If I had to pick a single piece that could be crowned as the best achievement in directing that was seen at the fest, that title could be bestowed upon Aki Kaurismäki for “Fallen Leaves.” This is another intimate analysis of ordinary citizens contemplating the small-scale decisions in their lives that still have a strong resonance in their consequences. However, here, he makes that quiet drama feel so engrossing. The romance at the film’s core is sweet and endearing, and the aesthetics once again carry his trademark of period-centric kitsch that also feels timeless when grafted onto the modern age. Considering Kaurismäki also took the festival’s Best Director jury-prize, it seems this sentiment is fairly popular. Hopefully, this gives it momentum to make a dent in the Oscar race because it is truly deserved.In addition to celebrating the work done by the director, there is also a slew of great performances that deserve to be singled out as well, and there were plenty to choose from in this selection. One of the boldest came from Ilinca Manolache, the star of “Do Not Expect Too Much of the End of the World.” It’s difficult to put into exact words all the feelings surrounding Radu Jude’s sprawling social commentary, which is sure to be just as polarizing as his previous film. However, Manolache’s performance is one that is undeniably captivating, always displaying a mystery to a woman who constantly keeps one invested. There’s a charming persona of a dedicated worker with a passion for Romanian culture that is just as engrossing as the alt-right alter ego she embodies for social media clout. Feelings of this particular effort are complicated, to put it mildly, but one can’t help but be in awe of her commitment.
There was also a nice turn from Lee Byung-hun in “Concrete Utopia,” the South Korean Oscar entry. The film itself is a mostly straightforward affair regarding an apartment complex trying desperately to survive following a devastating earthquake. It’s typical disaster fare that features a remarkable performance from Lee. His character is first introduced with a mysterious aura as he takes up the mantle of leading these citizens through such a turbulent time. However, it is soon revealed that his backstory is far more complicated, and as he seizes more power, his vindictive and psychopathic persona reveals itself. It’s a chilling portrayal that creates an enticing villain that is horrifying to witness yet impossible to avert one’s eyes.
Much like with the directors, some specific achievements deserved to be singled out for their exceptional work. The first is Théodore Pellerin in “Solo.” In the film, he plays a flamboyant drag queen who enters into a passionate relationship with a newly hired performer. Their romance burns bright and fast, quickly turning into a toxic affair fueled by cruelty and gaslighting. It could be very easy to lose sympathy for Pellerin’s character because of his insistence not to leave such a mentally damaging situation. Yet, the pathos he conveys in every moment is a marvel to behold. His exuberant energy masks the rampant insecurities, and so much is conveyed with a mere glance. He gives a charming and enthralling performance, one that is weighted equally in joy and sorrow in such an authentic manner.However, the best performance unquestionably was given by Zar Amir Ebrahimi in “Shayda.” She plays a mother who takes refuge in an Australian women’s shelter with her young daughter as she tries to separate from her abusive husband. Ebrahimi may have broken through on the international stage last year with “Holy Spider,” but this performance is truly nothing short of remarkable. The tenacity in her presence is deeply felt, capturing the fierce determination she must salvage whatever hope there is for a better life. She conveys the frustrations at a broken system that won’t grant her freedom, as well as the vulnerability of her shattered world. It’s a performance that showcases an entire range of human experiences that is beautifully rendered. It’s a grounded, authentic portrayal that is exceptionally absorbing. This was not only one of the best performances at the festival but one of the best performances of the entire year. One hopes that because this is Australia’s Oscar submission, such a distinction will keep this beautiful work in the conversation.
Obviously, this festival had many more excellent movies to offer. Such variety is what makes these events so meaningful to those who consume films with such a passionate fervor. For its fifty-ninth year, this event has shown it has no intention of slowing down. It remains a beacon of fantastic stories and beautiful performances to experience on the big screen, sharing such precious moments with others who have the same passions. It’s a consistently rewarding mentality, and the Chicago International Film Festival will always be a home for memorable cinematic revelations. There is no doubt that such offers will continue long into the future.
Did you attend the Chicago Film Festival this year? What were some of your favorite films that screened there? If not, which films are you looking forward to seeing? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.