The Chicago Latino Film Festival is one of the best festivals around, not just for its impressively extensive programming, but for the sense of discovery it affords. Each year I come away treasuring new films and new directors that I hadn’t previously known. This can happen at most festivals, but CLFF is one that consistently expands my horizons with movies that, were it not for the organization’s mission, I might not otherwise hear about.

This year’s festival, its 36th edition, takes place virtually between September 18–27, with 43 features and 38 short films spanning Latin America, Spain, Portugal, and the United States. It was originally scheduled for mid-to-late April but got postponed, like most everything else, when the pandemic took hold. I highly recommend purchasing a pass, which costs $100 (or $80 for International Latino Cultural Center members) and is good for ten films; individual tickets are $15 for the general public and $13 for ILCC members, students, and seniors. I was able to screen 12 films, each with its own merits, and there are many more titles of interest I wasn’t able to watch. (On that note, I’ll probably be getting a pass of my own.)

Two films I previewed are likely to be among my favorites of the year. Ema, the latest from Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín, is a sublime fever dream centered on a young, crazy, cool dancer (the stunning Mariana Di Girólamo) as she contends with the aftermath of “returning” a child she adopted with her choreographer husband (Gael García Bernal). Larraín broke into the mainstream with Jackie (2016), and his upcoming film about Princess Diana is hotly anticipated, but his other 2016 film, Neruda, and now Ema—neither as commercially appealing but masterful in their technique—may be among the best films of the last decade. Juanita is a comedy from Dominican director Leticia Tonos Paniagua, a filmmaker I’d never heard of but with whom I’m now eager to catch up. The movie tells the story of an unlikely romance between the titular Dominician woman (Cheddy García) and a surly Spaniard (Tito Valverde); it’s a lighthearted romp with impressively dimensional characterization. Tonos Paniagua’s direction is delightfully assured as she navigates the nuances of relationships within and across cultures.

Other narrative features of interest include: Chilean director Felipe Ríos’s The Man of the Future, a subtle drama about an estranged father and daughter who reconnect in unlikely circumstances; and the amusingly bizarre Technoboss, from Portuguese director João Nicolau. The latter follows security systems salesman Luís (Miguel Lobo Antunes) as he takes on a job at a fancy hotel where a former paramour works—it features quirky musical interludes that are as catchy as they are confounding. Amalia, directed by Omar Rodríguez-López of rock band the Mars Volta, has its flaws but is engaging as a horror film with vibes reminiscent of David Lynch and Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession.

Not available for preview but noteworthy is Brazailian writer-director Gabriel Mascaro’s Divine Love, the follow-up to his 2015 breakout Neon Bull. Another feature has decidedly local appeal: Cuaco, written and directed by Pilsen theater collective Colectivo El Pozo. The festival description says the film, about a Mexican immigrant who attempts to return home via the same route by which he came, includes their full 2010 production of Mexican playwright Raúl Dorantes’s On the Way to Now. I’m also intrigued by the concept of Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak’s The Wall of Mexico, in which a wealthy Mexican-American family attempts to keep out white locals who want to steal their magical well water. Likewise, Dominican writer-director José María Cabral’s The Projectionist, about a projectionist who becomes obsessed with finding a woman who appears only in his discarded 16mm footage, entices my cinephilic sensibilities.

Two documentaries in the lineup concern groups of five extraordinary women. Jaime Murciego and Pablo Iraburu’s Cholitas follows five indgidenous women from Bolivia, whose husbands are mountain guides and porters, as they themselves endeavor to climb Argentina’s Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas. Marlén Viñayo’s Cachada: The Opportunity is about five Salvadoran women, all street vendors and single mothers, who form a theater company. The documentary shows them collaborating on a play about their various, overwhelming struggles; as they find solace in theatre, it speaks to both their tenacity and the power of art. Guatemalan director Ana Bustamante’s Asphyxia is one of my favorites of the documentary selections. This auspicious debut utilizes a vaguely experimental approach to explore the disappearance of Bustamante’s activist father by the Guatemalan military. Two other, promising-sounding documentaries not available for preview are Ben DeJesús’s Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage, about the iconic Puerto Rican actor, and Angel Giovanni Hoyos’s The Road to the Law, which follows the fight for legalized abortion in Latin America.

In addition to narratives and documentaries, dramas and comedies, films are also labeled with such genres as animation, experimental, family, thriller, horror, science fiction, and LBGTQ. (To the credit of what I hope is an ever-evolving landscape, some selections that aren’t part of the LGBTQ category still incorporate queer characters, like Ema and The Man of the Future.) All this is to say nothing of CLFF’s robust short film selection; as in festivals past, each feature-length film will be paired with a short that aligns with its theme. Within those, anything labeled animation or experimental is sure to be of interest.

To find a silver lining in having to attend festivals virtually rather than in person, watching movies at home allows one more time to peruse unfamiliar titles. For example, I knew I was interested in Ema because of my ongoing appreciation of Larraín’s work, but having an entire weekend to watch films—socialization happening less frequently these days—I was able to check out a few others I might normally not have considered. Juanita is one such film, as I don’t typically gravitate towards contemporary comedies; now I’m thankful that I took a chance on it. With plenty to discover, I’m already eager to continue exploring worlds to which I wouldn’t otherwise be privy.   v