The 23rd Chicago International Film Festival, running from Monday, October 19, through Sunday, November 8, promises 131 separate programs, not counting repeats. As a newcomer to this event who has attended about a dozen other international film festivals, most of them several years in a row, I can offer at this point only a single, broad generalization about what seems to make Chicago’s relatively pluralistic and amorphous, for better and for worse.

Although film festivals come in all shapes and sizes, one can generally make a loose distinction between the free-for-alls, where anything and everything is likely to turn up (Cannes, London, Los Angeles’s Filmex), and the ones with a more discernible selection process that tend to project a more critical and polemical profile (Toronto, New York, Rotterdam). By reputation and to all appearances, Chicago belongs more in the first category than in the second. What this means in practice is that the shopping spectator has to become his or her own critic while browsing through the festival schedule, rather than trust in either fate or some imagined philosophical unity in director Michael Kutza’s selections.

Practically speaking, with a festival this size, taking some initiative is what everyone has to do anyway. Unless you intend to see half a dozen films a day for nearly three weeks, it becomes necessary to carve out your own piece of the action. You might want to concentrate on the festival’s designated subcategories–Latin American films, Asian films, Italian films, golden oldies from Paramount, contemporary world cinema–but be forewarned that even there the quality of what you see is likely to range from the sublime to the awful. Any festival that elects to show the latest Claude Lelouch as well as the latest Alain Resnais can’t be accused of having any particular ax to grind.

As a partial aid to festivalgoers, we have endeavored to round up as many critical reviews of the movies as possible, commissioned either from writers who have seen the films at other festivals or from reviewers who have more recently attended this festival’s press screenings. (Overall, for the festival’s three weeks, we have drawn on the critical talents of 20 writers from nine cities–Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, and Washington–although others may conceivably join the fray before were done.) When we couldn’t get a review, we resorted to a brief description, drawn from the festival’s own blurb if we had nowhere else to turn. Having seen only a handful of the films myself at this point, I can only add my major recommendations–Alain Resnais’ Melo, Leos Carax’s Bad Blood, Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, and Clarence Badger’s It–scheduled for the weeks ahead.

In the meantime, a few basic ground rules: Screenings are at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln, and the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, except for opening night at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State. Tickets can be purchased at the theater box office the day of the screening, starting one hour prior to the first screening, at the Film Festival stores at 1551 N. Wells and 1157 N. State, or by calling 664-3400 (credit cards only). General admission to each program (with some exceptions–see below) is $6.50, $5 for Cinema/Chicago members. Exceptions: (A) All weekday 5 PM screenings are $4 general admission, $3 for Cinema/Chicago members. (B) Opening night is another ball game entirely: the movie cost: $5-$15, and a cool $150 gets you into both the movie and the party.

For further information, call 644-3400 (questions) or 644-5454 (24 hour update/hotline), or listen to radio stations WBBM (78 AM) or WNUA (95.5 FM), or watch WMAQ TV (Channel Five) for updates and coverage. Happy hunting!