Song Without a Name

The films I’m most excited about at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival—Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger and Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela—weren’t available for preview, but I’m fairly confident that I can recommend both sight unseen. Veiroj and Costa are two of the most innovative filmmakers working today, and it speaks well of the festival that the programmers would choose to present their work. Many of the other filmmakers showcased in the festival aren’t as accomplished; in characteristic fashion, the programmers have emphasized the work of first- or second-time directors. As always, I recommend taking risks on films that sound interesting in the festival program and discovering what new voices have to say.

The six films I’ve reviewed below only scratch the surface of this year’s lineup, though I’m pleased to note that I found all of them worthwhile in some fashion. I didn’t have time to look at anything in the “Architecture x Design” spotlight (presented in conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Biennial), the shorts programs, or the documentary sidebar, but if the films I watched were any indication, there are plenty of revelations to be found.

Leticia Jorge Romero and Ana Guevara Pose, who wrote and directed the delightful Uruguayan comedy Tanta Agua (2013), return with another witty chronicle of family dysfunction, this time with a larger cast of characters and morbid undertones. (Both women wrote the script, though Jorge Romero is the only credited director here.) After her husband dies, an octogenarian woman assembles her three grown children (and their children and grandchildren) to settle her finances and manage the family home. The filmmakers deftly juggle nearly a dozen characters before zeroing in on the relationship between the woman’s only son and her ne’er-do-well youngest daughter, whom the son supports financially and emotionally. Like many of the best Uruguayan comedies (Whisky, Gigante, Rambleras), this balances a knowing sense of life’s disappointments with a winning affection for the people who endure them. In Spanish with subtitles. 88 min. Thu 10/17 at 5:45 PM and Sat 10/19 at noon

RBy the Grace of God
François Ozon won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for this uncharacteristically solemn docudrama about child sexual abuse within the French Catholic Church. Forgoing a single protagonist, the film follows one man who’d been abused by a priest as a child, then gradually switches focus to another of the priest’s victims, and then another. This clever narrative strategy reflects the shocking magnitude of the priest’s crimes (his victims number in the dozens, if not hundreds); it also allows Ozon to consider how different people deal with the trauma of abuse within a religious institution. The first victim we meet is a happily married father of four who remains a practicing Catholic despite having wrestled with his faith; the other two, an atheist and an agnostic, are more troubled, and some victims who serve as peripheral characters seem completely broken by their experience. This is a thoughtful, engrossing issue film that’s nicely free of sanctimoniousness. With Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, and Swann Arlaud. In French with subtitles. 138 min. Tue 10/22 at 5:45 PM and Wed 10/23 at 8:30 PM

RGhost Tropic
In modest fashion, this poetic Belgian feature manages to say a good deal about life, death, and the state of the globalized world. It centers on a Muslim cleaning woman from an unspecified country who’s lived in Brussels for about two decades. One night after work, she falls asleep on the train ride home, misses her stop, and wakes up after the routes have stopped running. She makes her way home on foot, stopping occasionally to chat with strangers and take in the depopulated cityscape. Writer-director Bas Devos depicts the heroine’s trek as a low-key odyssey—indeed the film comes to feel like a compressed epic. The painterly images of lonely urban environments (captured gorgeously on 16-millimeter film) suggest the influence of Belgium’s greatest filmmaker, Chantal Akerman, but Devos’s work is distinctive in its emotional directness. In subtitled Dutch and French. 84 min. Fri 10/25 at 6:15 PM and Sat 10/26 at 6:30 PM

I Was at Home, But . . .
The title of Angela Schanelec’s arty drama evokes Yasujirō Ozu’s silent classic I Was Born, But . . . , though the affectless performances, presentational style, and oblique approach to narrative feel closer in spirit to the films of Robert Bresson. It centers on a middle-aged single mother in Berlin, specifically the stress she experiences mourning her late husband and raising two kids; for the most part, Schanelec doesn’t confront the character’s distress, but rather circles around it. (A large part of the film concerns the heroine’s efforts to buy, then return, a used bicycle from an absentminded older man.) The writer-director also departs sometimes from her protagonist to consider random people on the street and rehearsals for a middle-school production of Hamlet. I’m not sure what all this adds up to, but it certainly casts a pungent, funereal mood. In German with subtitles. 105 min. Thu 10/17 at 8:15 PM and Sun 10/20 at 4 PM

Song Without a Name
Set against the backdrop of Peru’s political turmoil of the late 1980s, this beautifully shot black-and-white docudrama centers on a young woman whose baby is abducted after she gives birth at a medical clinic. She appeals to a journalist to investigate the abduction; gradually he uncovers a far-reaching conspiracy to take the babies of poor women and sell them for adoption abroad. The story sometimes departs from the investigation to consider the journalist’s lonely personal life; the subplot feels superfluous until the final act, when the filmmakers reveal that the viewers aren’t the only ones who have been following him. This evokes a particular time and place with commendable immediacy, giving one a vivid sense of Peru’s political history even though it’s rarely commented upon directly. Melina León directed a script she wrote with Michael J. White. In Spanish with subtitles. 97 min. Fri 10/18 at 1:30 PM, Fri 10/25 at 6:15 PM, and Fri 10/26 at 12:30 PM

A Thief’s Daughter
This social realist drama from Spain is worth seeing mainly for Greta Fernández’s quietly powerful performance as a young working-poor woman taking care of her infant son and seven-year-old brother. The narrative revolves around her efforts to land steady employment so she might win custody of the brother, whom their father, recently released from prison, is trying to reclaim. Director Belén Funes is clearly indebted to the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne in her aesthetic choices (the camerawork is all handheld, the only music we hear is diegetic) and detailed portrait of life on the economic margins. The movie generates more suspense from whether the heroine will keep her job in a kitchen after her trial period ends than from whether she’ll win her custody battle. In subtitled Catalan and Spanish. 102 min. Mon 10/21 @ 5:45 PM and Tue 10/22 at 8:30 PM   v