Letters to Father Jacob
Letters to Father Jacob

The 14th European Union Film Festival continues Friday, March 18, through Thursday, March 31, at Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, 312-846-2800. Tickets are $10, $7 for students, and $5 for Film Center members. Following are selected films screening through Thursday, March 24; for a full schedule see siskelfilmcenter.com.

R The Arbor British playwright Andrea Dunbar was only 18 when The Arbor, her blunt account of life in a squalid council estate, premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1980; by age 29 she was dead of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving behind three completed works and three children by three different men. This daring film by Clio Barnard revisits Dunbar’s sad life and the even sadder life of her eldest daughter, Lorraine, dissolving the line between the stage and the real world just as the playwright tried to do. Domestic interior scenes from the eponymous play are staged outdoors at the Buttershaw estate where Dunbar lived, with residents looking on from the sidelines; and in the movie’s most audacious gambit, actors lip-sync audio interviews recorded with the actual people in Dunbar’s life. The resulting film is harshly, almost unbearably tragic, but it’s also a startling paradox, impressively layered even as it strips the situations down to their naked truth. 94 min.—J.R. Jones  Reader critic J.R. Jones will introduce the Thu 3/24 screening, and a reception will follow. Sun 3/20, 7 PM, and Thu 3/24, 6 PM.

The First Beautiful Thing The protagonist of this 2010 Italian drama is a failed writer whose depression and fear of intimacy escalate after he’s called back to his hometown to care for his dying mother. Skipping back and forth over three decades, writer-director Paolo Virzi charts the conflicted relationship between the son and the mother, whose high-spirited, somewhat flaky behavior—including marital infidelity and a string of reckless romances—caused great emotional turbulence for her two young children. Virzi deftly handles the nonlinear narrative, which alternates her sometimes hilarious escapades with sobering insights into how they affected her beloved bambini. In Italian with subtitles. 122 min. —Albert Williams  Sun 3/20, 4:45 PM.

R Letters to Father Jacob In this superbly acted Finnish drama (2009), a hard-bitten convict serving a life sentence for murder (Kaarina Hazard) is pardoned and hired to work as secretary to a blind, elderly priest (Heikki Nouisiainen) living in the rectory of an abandoned country church. The priest’s ministry—indeed, his reason for living—consists of answering letters from troubled people who seek his counsel and prayers; the convict’s job is to read the old man his mail and respond on his behalf, which forces her to confront her own bitter skepticism. Written and directed by Klaus Härö, this finely wrought character study transcends preconceptions about religion to explore the mutual redemption of two people, each isolated in his or her own way. In Finnish with subtitles. 74 min. —Albert Williams  Sat 3/19, 3:15 PM, and Mon 3/21, 6:15 PM.

Nenette The subject of this 2010 documentary is a 40-year-old orangutan that has lived most of its life in the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Widowed three times and separated from all but one of her children, Nénette spends her old age, sadly, as many humans do: staring idly at life through a glass screen. Nicolas Philibert (To Be and to Have) emphasizes the ape’s detachment by shooting the entire movie from outside the cage and presenting its caretakers only as offscreen voices. These formal tactics effectively illustrate the division between human and animal consciousness; they also become a little monotonous after a while. In French with subtitles. 67 min. —Ben Sachs  Also on the program: Night Falls on the Ménagerie (2010, 11 min.), Philibert’s charming video portrait of the same Parisian zoo at dusk. Sun 3/20, 3 PM, and Wed 3/23, 6:15 PM.

Le Quattro Volte Hard-core formalist filmmaking from Italy—grandly pictorial, completely wordless, and resolutely thematic in its development of four linked episodes about death, decay, and generation. In the first, an aging goatherd tends to his flock and then expires; in the second, a calf is born but gets separated from the flock and starves to death under a giant fir tree; in the third, the tree is felled by villagers and the trunk is ultimately sectioned to build a natural coal furnace; and in the fourth, the coal burns down and the furnace is torn apart to reveal the slag heap beneath. Filmmaker Michelangelo Frammartino favors elaborately composed long shots, making fine geometric use of the choked village’s winding alleyways and wisely exploiting its earthy textures to soften his rigid visual design. Like the incessant ringing of cowbells in the first two segments, the film may either hypnotize you or drive you stark staring mad. 88 min. —J.R. Jones  Sat 3/19, 5:15 PM, and Mon 3/21, 7:45 PM.

Rabbit à la Berlin and The Invisible Frame Each of these short documentaries takes an indirect, fanciful approach to the ugly history of the Berlin Wall. From Poland, Bartek Konopka’s wryly funny Rabbit à la Berlin (2009) unfolds from the perspective of the rabbits that lived in the no-man’s-land between East and West; for them the wall is no symbol of bitter division but a paradise of quiet and “green, succulent grass.” From Germany, The Invisible Frame (2009) is a sometimes compelling mood piece in which Tilda Swinton rides along the path where the wall once stood. Between long, passive takes, she muses generically on the nature of freedom and more pointedly on communism’s enduring effect on Germany. Cynthia Beatt, who collaborated with Swinton on the similarly themed Cycling the Frame (1988), directed. The total running time is 99 minutes. —Ben Sachs  Sun 3/20, 4:45 PM, and Wed 3/23, 7:45 PM.