By Josh Parham
This is always the busiest time of year for the most dedicated of cinephiles. The fall movie season is in full swing, and with it, the avalanche of film festivals with a wide range of stories to showcase. While places like Telluride, Toronto, and New York get the bulk of the notices, the many regional festivals provide wonderful opportunities to seek out anticipated films in other parts of the country. It’s one reason why the Chicago International Film Festival has been such a treasured event, and for the 57th annual event, the offering was no different. Here is a rundown of some of the titles I was able to see. This list isn’t representative of all thirty films I saw in a two-week time period but just a small sampling of what I was able to see.
BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION
Festivals are often intriguing places to discover new horror films, and “Broadcast Signal Intrusion” operates with much affinity for the inherently creepy aura conjured up by analog technologies. The story focuses on James (Harry Shum Jr.), a lonely video archivist in late 1990s Chicago. He happens to come across an old broadcast of a mysterious, cryptic message that interrupted shows from about a decade earlier. The culprits behind those events were never known, and their motives remained unsolved. James becomes fixated on finding the answers to this unexplained event, taking him further down into a web of horror and conspiracy that will challenge his own mental state.
There is a great deal paid to the atmosphere crafted for the film, and the unsettling imagery can be pretty effective. At the same time, it feels like a deliberate overcompensation for a thin narrative whose central mystery is not compelling in the slightest. As the layers get peeled back, the storytelling only finds more opaque avenues to travel rather than making the new information discovered feel enlightening and engaging. The characters are mostly flat, and while Shum carries himself well in the role, the material doesn’t give him much to do. The crafts do their best, particularly an inventive sound design, but the lethargic pace makes this celebration of retro-horror a hollow exercise that is far more style over substance.
Final Score: 4/10
THE HOUSE OF SNAILS
Another facet of horror films that are ripe for discovery is what an international slate can provide. Stories in this genre from outside the United States can carry their own unique perspectives and commentaries that are fascinating to watch. “The House of Snails” takes its own aim at the werewolf tale, as it focuses on a writer named Antonio (Javier Rey) who travels to an isolated town in Spain to work on his next novel. As he is introduced to the local community that influences his upcoming work, he soon learns of the dark secrets that the villagers are keeping. As he continues writing, he only ends up sinking further into discovering the menace that seems to be haunting these people, which eventually leads to sinister revelations of his own insidious activities.
One can feel a reverence for classic 1970s horror thrillers, as the premise of a lonely visitor getting entangled in the mysteries of a small town would showcase. Director Macarena Astorga creates an exciting atmosphere that utilizes some exceptional crafts, particularly its lighting and sound design. However, as handsome as these elements are, there’s a hollowness to the storytelling that’s difficult to overcome. While that mystery is intriguing, its more indulgent genre pieces are often convoluted and struggle to create a cohesive narrative. The tension doesn’t have a steady rise in escalation and makes the pacing a chore. The script offers little intrigue beneath the surface, but the aesthetics are appreciated all the same.
Rey’s performance is a solid anchor to the film, though he sadly is hindered by a bland role that fulfills a pretty standard protagonist archetype. Still, he delivers a fine portrayal that works to hold the center as the film progresses. The best performance probably belongs to Paz Vega as a companion to Antonio in the town, as she embodies more empathy and emotion. At the same time, acting is not usually the most successful aspect of a horror film. The atmosphere and frightful sequences are of vital importance. While they are not extraordinarily executed here, there’s enough care paid to their construction that the effort is acknowledged.
Final Score: 6/10
THE GRAVEDIGGER’S WIFE
Another excellent resource for film festivals is the opportunity to see a host of submissions for the International Feature Oscar. “The Gravedigger’s Wife” is the entry from Somalia, a notable feat being the country’s first-ever submitted film. The story is that of Guled (Omar Abdi), a man of limited means who barely makes a living by burying dead bodies that arrive at the hospital. He tries his best to take care of his family, particularly his ailing wife, Nasra (Yasmin Warsame), who is suffering from a terminal kidney infection. While she is determined to enjoy whatever time she has left, Guled resorts to whatever means he can in an attempt to secure the funds for her expensive life-saving surgery.
What is immediately apparent is just how beautifully crafted this film is. Khadar Ayderus Ahmed utilizes striking imagery that gives the visuals a rich, textured aesthetic. The compositions are artfully executed, giving one an appreciation for the visual design and the perspective of the landscapes these characters exist in. Unfortunately, most of that is in service of a very thin narrative that lacks any sort of nuance. Even at only eighty minutes, the film’s weightless thematic heft is difficult to sustain engagement.
Abdi’s performance is not particularly groundbreaking, but he anchors the film well with an everyman quality which highlights the authenticity of the tone. He has an endearing chemistry with Warsame, herself embodying an inviting persona masking the tragedy underneath. The rest of the ensemble is hindered by underwritten roles, particularly a rebellious son who is given a pedestrian arc. There is much to appreciate from the perspective of the crafts, but the storytelling languishes on the surface and contributes to its sluggish pace. It’s a well-made effort that struggles to find a deeper connection with its themes.
Final Score: 5/10
Yet another International Feature Oscar submission is Cambodia’s “White Building.” This one centers its scope on the city of Phnom Penh, where Samnang (Piseth Chhun) is enjoying youth with his friends and imagining an optimistic future. However, that bliss is disrupted when significant events start to take place. One of his friends ends up moving to start a new life in Europe, while the government has also declared that the historic housing block his family lives in will be demolished. As his father, suffering from diabetes, attempts to rally the residents to stay and fight for better compensation, Samnang can’t help but watch the folly of his younger days slip by as the realities of the world start to settle in.
Director Kavich Neang creates a dreamy landscape that is expertly captured through the vibrant cinematography, giving real life to this city and its lively environment. There’s a real care to craft a quiet tone that is intensely focused on the characters and their struggles between lofty dreams and weighted reality. Kavich and co-writer Daniel Mattes deliver on these themes, wrapped inside a familiar commentary that relates to gentrification and the difficult battle citizens face against it. Despite its slow pace, there’s an engaging sense of momentum within the storytelling until it eventually stalls in the latter half. At that point, the wheels in the plot start to spin, and it’s no longer quite as captivating toward the end.
Chhun’s performance is one that is quite internalized, and he communicates the evolution of this character’s carefree mentality to the recognition of the crushing responsibilities thrust upon him with adulthood. It’s a quiet turn that works for the somber aura presented, and the rest of the ensemble delivers similarly standout portrayals. One gets the sense that there’s not quite enough thematic exploration to sustain itself all the way until the end. However, the results are still an intriguing look at the bittersweet nature of leaving childhood ambitions behind while grappling with the new truths ahead.
Final Score: 6/10
THE LAST EXECUTION
Not all intriguing exploits into international cinema have to come under the banner of Oscar representation. “The Last Execution” is one such example. It chronicles the events that led to the moment when Dr. Franz Walter (Lars Eidinger) would become the last person to be executed for crimes against the state of East Germany. Starting as an ambitious scientist with hopes of becoming a professor, Walter is convinced to take a slight detour and work for the state. Here he is drawn into the web of blackmail, torture, and espionage, which is being weaponized against his fellow citizens. Growing more conflicted by the day, his conscience tells him to resist and find any way he can to break free from this system, no matter how grave the cost of failure.
By far, the best aspect of the film is Eidinger’s performance, as he is able to capture an authentic emotional journey of naivety transforming into rebellious concern. He plots that evolution in his portrayal, and every moment he’s on-screen is one that radiates empathy for a character who is desperately trying to set things right in an unjust world. Eidinger gives a towering performance, whether being stoic or vulnerable, and he really is the only member of the cast with much to do. Luise Heyer does showcase some complexities as the suffering wife, but the role is too underdeveloped to make much of an impact.
Franziska Stüenkel has a mostly anonymous approach to the filmmaking. While not terribly flashy, her direction does craft an intimate perspective that works well for this character study. The smaller moments of human drama are done well, and the film works strongest when it plays directly into the emotional headspace of its protagonist. Her script can often be a point of contention, as the back-and-forth structure of the presented timeline often disrupts momentum. Despite being sluggish in areas, the central performance carries one through, along with a stark reminder of the horrific events in a country’s troubled past.
Final Score: 6/10
OSCAR MICHEAUX: THE SUPERHERO OF BLACK FILMMAKING
Every year also has a plethora of intriguing documentaries to discover, and one cannot argue that the subject of “Oscar Micheaux: The Superhero of Black Filmmaking” isn’t inherently fascinating. This is indeed a look at the life and career of not only one of the most important and prolific Black directors of the past century, but also one also a vital voice in the entire independent film landscape. The narrative traces his humble beginnings that led him to become interested in storytelling, first as a novelist and then a filmmaker. What is chronicled is the often arduous journey that was necessary for Micheaux to communicate his uncompromised vision.
Like many biopic-centric documentaries, there’s a bit of a formula here that this film struggles to break. The setup of starting with the early beats of his career that evolved into the more notable projects is not presented with any unique method. Even the sparing bits of animated reenactments feel suited to similar works in the past. Francesco Zippel constructs a film reasonably straightforwardly that isn’t particularly inventive, save for the out-of-order presentation of certain life events that just come across more as distracting and some tangents that don’t have much impact.
Still, the most crucial element is the subject themselves, and there’s no doubt how utterly captivating Oscar Micheaux was as a cultural figure. The revealing footage shown of his work and even glimpses of the man himself during that time is a good showcase for the power of his career. The film speaks to his filmography as a critical piece of cinematic activism, one that challenged the general population to view a full portrait of the Black community. It’s interesting to see the discussions that Micheaux brought forward, not always making members of his community to be saints but always showing how the malignant racism endured in a daring manner. Seeing how he crafted Black art in a manner that felt universal yet simultaneously specific is a grand gesture for any time, even more remarkable back then. While the execution may be a tad flat, the discussions within this film are still worthy of being viewed for such a monumentally influential person.
Final Score: 7/10
Another subgenre that film festivals can provide is a look into the vibrant world of LGBTQ cinema from around the world. “Wandering Heart” is the story of a gay father named Santiago (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and his frantic personal life that is now in shambles. Having just broken up with his long-term partner, his fragile mental state is further exacerbated by his teenage daughter on the cusp of aging into her own independence. Faced with further threats of isolation, his behavior becomes more erratic and volatile. Traveling from Argentina to Brazil to accompany his daughter’s visit to her mother, Santiago continues his journey toward self-acceptance and inner peace.
Sbaraglia has been an impressive talent for some time, previously giving striking performances in films like “Burnt Money” and “Pain and Glory,” and he once again shows how engaging he can be here. There’s a true magnetism in his portrayal, capturing the anger and sadness that torment this character. The layers underneath are a tad pedestrian, but Sbaraglia delivers an endearing turn that makes use of a captivating screen presence. He is an exceptional anchor to the film, even though there are good performances also from Miranda de la Serna as his suffering daughter and Alberto Ajaka as the estranged former flame.
Leonardo Brzezicki crafts an intimate perspective that is primarily unassuming in its style. Despite the occasional flourish, the filmmaking is generally a mundane effort that indulges in far too many oppressive close-ups. Still, there’s a tenderness that is appreciated within the story of a lost soul seeking personal gratification, and the emotional moments are well-delivered. Even though the tonal shift in the second half stalls the momentum, at the core is an interesting character study that is helped immensely by a satisfactory performance in the center.
Final Score: 6/10
MY BROTHERS DREAM AWAKE
It can often be a pleasant discovery for an under-the-radar film to cross one’s path and hopefully turn one onto a new talent. That was certainly the potential for “My Brothers Dream Awake,” a moody examination of a group of young people inside a juvenile detention facility in Chile. Ángel (Iván Cáceres) and Franco (César Herrera) are two bothers admitted after they commit a petty crime who attempt to fill their days with activities. However, the longing for freedom never leaves them, eventually planning to escape with another group of boys. As their despair turns to desperation, the walls feel like they’re closing in, all leading up to a severe set of consequences for the group to tolerate.
There’s a lot of care that director Claudia Huaiquimilla puts into creating a grounded and authentic perspective for this group of disaffected young people. The stark aesthetics lend themselves well to the overall tone, though it does mean the pacing can be sluggish and the character archetypes fairly standard. There is an impressive feat from the crafts, particularly from an inventive sound design that compliments the imagery. Still, there isn’t much complexity within the characterizations, and even for a short runtime, the film struggles to become a thematically rich and thoroughly engaging piece.
Cáceres actually manages to find more depth in his portrayal than what is written on the page. He gives Ángel a captivating sense of melancholy that still doesn’t lose the thread of optimism, and he delivers a rather robust performance in a film that doesn’t always meet his level. The vast majority of the supporting players lack this nuance and are mostly serviceable, even though they do fine to support the story as a whole. The ensemble is not the issue here. Even though there is much to appreciate from a filmmaking perspective, the narrative itself is not incredibly captivating. It’s a shame, given the potential for such a heartbreaking story to be truly impactful.
Final Score: 5/10
Animation can also be an intriguing arena for some creative storytelling, and “Mad God” will almost certainly go down as one of the most unique expressions the medium has ever seen. The plot itself is rather bare, as all the audience is treated to is a lone explorer traversing a hellish landscape in search of some unknown objective. The environment is a dark and grimy world filled with mad scientists, deformed creatures, and nightmarish creations that haunt and plague the miserable citizens. The journey will end with a grand revelation, but the setting will continue to be a haunting plague to all travelers.
Phil Tippett, mostly known for visual effects work, took decades to complete this stop-motion project, and the effort is clearly visible on the screen. The detailed sets and character designs are impressive and immediately memorable. With virtually no dialogue, the visual aesthetics are the driving force behind the narrative, and it’s easy to let the overwhelming imagery wash over the senses. It’s a wholly singular vision, even though stylistically it shares some sensibilities to the work of the Quay brothers. Still, one can’t help but be arrested by the ambition on display, and the film utilizes its format to execute some exceptional concepts.
Unfortunately, that’s about as much that can be appreciated with this film. Even though the filmmaking and creative design are highly captivating, the threadbare story leaves a lot to be desired. There are vague themes regarding the futility and disposability of life, but it’s not presented well. Furthermore, the occasional live-action and CGI elements are distracting, and the story eventually gets repetitive. At the end of the day, this is an experimental film that comes with its own set of expectations. Still, even though the results are fascinating from a visual perspective, there isn’t much in terms of thematic commentary to have one truly invested. It’s notable that such a monumental achievement exists, even though it feels relatively weightless in its final form.
Final Score: 5/10
One of the final films that was seen at the festival was another International Feature Oscar submission, this one being “107 Mothers” from Slovakia. Its story focuses on a women’s prison in Ukraine, where Leysa (Maryna Klimova) has just given birth to a son. Iryna (Iryna Kiryazeva), the prison’s warden, keeps a watchful eye on the situation. Leysa is one of many mothers attempting to care for their children behind bars, and these women have three years to earn parole or get a guardian to receive their child, or else they will be sent to an orphanage. Leysa struggles to maintain the relationship with her child, all while contrasted against Iryna’s own desire for a family. Both women face their own sets of hardships within this chaotic environment.
Peter Kerékes creates some striking compositions and stark imagery that complements the harsh world these characters exist in, and it’s a rather powerful method of storytelling. He perfectly observes the mundanity that can take hold along with the heightened emotions that exist just beneath the surface. There’s an authenticity to the characterizations, even though that is only extended to the two main characters and not to the extended ensemble. An interview set-up recalling a documentary format attempts to give more nuance to the supporting players, but the methods only serve to disrupt the momentum. The filmmaking is more impressive than the writing, as the craft emphasizes the emotional perspective more so than the writing.
Klimova carries herself with a stern stoicism that is constantly masking a fragile vulnerability. Kiryazeva has a similar sensibility with her portrayal, though it appropriately feels inverted in just the right places to Klimova. Both represent women trapped in less-than-ideal circumstances and yearn for an elusive domesticity, and that juxtaposition is highlighted well in each of their performances. They lead a cast that’s filled with good turns that aren’t nearly as impactful as the two of them, but all contribute to this fascinating story. While some narrative decisions indulge in evident and predictable choices, the genuine heartbreak shown captures a gripping look at damaged lives seeking any sliver of redemption.
Final Score: 7/10
It’s always an insanely busy time of year when one tries to catch as many films as possible in a short window. Truthfully, it can be a daunting task. At the same time, it’s a rewarding experience that I’m sure every lover of cinema treasures. The Chicago International Film Festival is a wonderful opportunity to see hotly anticipated new releases and unknown discoveries waiting to be given the light. Regardless of quality, that deserves celebration, and I am always overjoyed when I can experience it every year. No doubt such elation will continue with this festival for many years in the future.
Have you seen any of these films yet? If so what did you think? Have you ever been to the Chicago International Film Festival before? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Josh and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @JRParham