I just know how this world works. –George W. Bush, first presidential debate

The recent news that three years after the 9/11 attacks 123,000 hours of potentially useful recordings related to terrorism have yet to be translated by FBI linguists is a grim reminder of how limited our ability to know our enemies is. That President Bush thought it was OK to ridicule an American reporter for speaking French to French people in France suggests that we also have a problem when it comes to knowing our friends.

Fortunately, the desire in this country to understand others is intense. One of the easiest ways to learn about foreign cultures is to watch their movies, and over the next two weeks the Chicago International Film Festival–one of the oldest festivals in North America, now celebrating its 40th anniversary–is offering films from more than 40 countries. With 119 programs, including 14 revivals, this is a rare opportunity to learn more about how the world works.

Some of the features portray aspects of more than one foreign culture. Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre musique, a beautiful, oddly serene reflection on war set and filmed in Sarajevo, counts among its characters the French-Swiss Godard himself, a French-Jewish journalist based in Israel, Algerians, Vietnamese, and even Native Americans. Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade, a rousing drama about village women defying the tradition of genital mutilation, was filmed in Burkina Faso; this is the first time the father of African cinema, now in his early 80s, has made a film outside Senegal. My own selection for the festival, the late Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One: The Reconstruction–an autobiographical account of combat during World War II shot in the late 70s–is about as American as you can get, but its settings include North Africa, Sicily, France, Belgium, and Germany. Four films by Iranian filmmakers will be screened, including Marziyeh Meshkini’s Stray Dogs, set in Afghanistan, and Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly, set in Kurdistan on the border between Turkey and Iraq. And Raymond Depardon’s The 10th District Court documents the proceedings in a French courtroom, showing us contemporary France in all its multicultural contradictions. Apart from Turtles Can Fly, which I haven’t caught up with yet, these are my favorites of the films I’ve seen so far.

Festival selections more grounded in single national cultures are equally revelatory. The seven following films are next on my list of favorites, in rough order of preference. Shona Auerbach’s Dear Frankie is more proof (after David Mackenzie’s superb Young Adam) that an exciting and subtly inflected new brand of Scottish cinema is taking shape. David Gordon Green’s Undertow and Alexander Payne’s Sideways are both masterful examples of American regional cinema. (Undertow portrays the rural south as a gothic fairy-tale setting, and Sideways uses a tour of California wine country as a pretext for two buddies getting through midlife crises.) No less American is Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, a diaristic chronicle of a terminally dysfunctional family (put together for practically nothing on a computer), and no less bleak and analytical is Guka Omarova’s Schizo, which shows what it takes for a 15-year-old boy to get ahead in rural Kazakhstan. Chantal Akerman’s comedy Tomorrow We Move, set almost entirely in a Paris apartment, focuses on a young porn author (Sylvie Testud) whose recently widowed mother (Aurore Clement), a piano teacher, moves into her apartment, then tries to sell it.

I’ve seen five of the festival revivals–Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969), Patrice Chereau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998), Paul Morrissey’s Trash (1970), Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968; selected for the festival by Roger Ebert), and Liv Ullmann’s Sofie (1992). I can recommend only the first two or three with any enthusiasm, but then my memory of the others is dim. The films I haven’t seen but would most like to, based on what I’ve heard about them, are Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Thai Tropical Malady, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Japanese Nobody Knows, Turtles Can Fly, Elem Klimov’s 1985 Russian Come and See (selected by Michael Wilmington), Theo Angelopoulos’s Greek Trilogy: The Weeping Meadows, and Pablo Trapero’s Argentinean Rolling Family.

Of the titles I’ve mentioned, Moolaade, The Big Red One, Dear Frankie, Undertow, Sideways, and Tarnation are scheduled to open commercially later this year, so if you miss them now you’ll get another chance. Some of the other titles will turn up again, some won’t (though many will eventually become available on DVD).

It’s a pity that of the seven best films I saw last month at the Toronto film festival, only three–the Godard, the Sembene, and the Depardon–are screening at the Chicago festival. Another one, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Cafe Lumiere, will be at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a single screening next month. The remaining three are Jia Zhang-ke’s The World–my favorite movie of the year so far–Sally Potter’s Yes, and Abbas Kiarostami’s Five, and I’m pretty sure the first two will turn up here someday. (The Kiarostami may not because the distributor is MK2, the French company that wanted an exorbitant amount from the festival to show Alain Resnais’ splendid Pas sur la bouche and wanted way too much from the Film Center to show Five in its current Iranian film festival; both festivals declined to pay.)

But you can’t have everything at a festival, and there’s still plenty to keep you busy at this one. As you’re deciding what to see beware of that human tendency to reduce everything to the familiar. Stray Dogs, Marziyeh Meshkini’s second feature (the first was The Day I Became a Woman), packs a wallop as a portrait of contemporary wartime Kabul. It also looks terrific. But if I’d read the festival’s blurb beforehand I might have been dissuaded from going: It says the film’s imagery recalls the “brutality of Amores perros” (it’s got dogs) and the “pathos of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows” (it’s got kids in jail). Brutality and pathos are part of the mix, but the film’s major reference point is Italian neorealism–I was reminded of Vittorio de Sica’s Shoe Shine, though his The Bicycle Thief is what’s cited in the film. Meshkini also carries over some surrealist elements from her first feature. From the festival’s account you’d never guess that for all its horrors the film is basically an absurdist comedy.

This section includes the Reader’s annual pullout guide to the festival. Listings are also available online at chicagoreader.com. Screenings this year are being held through October 21 at River East 21 (322 E. Illinois), Landmark’s Century Centre (2828 N. Clark), and the Thorne Auditorium (375 E. Chicago). Single ticket prices are $6 for weekday matinees (Monday through Friday before 5 PM) and $11 for all shows after 5 PM ($9 for Cinema/Chicago members). Passes for most screenings are also available, good for up to two tickets per screening; they cost $60 (6 tickets, 7 for Cinema/ Chicago members), $80 (8 tickets, 9 for Cinema/Chicago members), $160 (16 tickets, 18 for Cinema/Chicago members), or $300 (50 tickets). The special presentations, which include “Critic’s Choice” and “Flashback” programs, are $15 ($13 for Cinema/Chicago members). Tickets can be purchased at theater box offices at least one hour before the screening; they can also be bought in advance (Cinema/Chicago, 32 W. Randolph, suite 600; Borders, 2817 N. Clark and 830 N. Michigan), by fax (312-425-0944), or by phone (312-332-3456; Ticketmaster, 312-902-1500). For more information call 312-332-3456 or see chicagofilmfestival.com.