The 14th European Union Film Festival continues Friday, March 11, 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 17; for a full schedule see siskelfilmcenter.com.
Aurora Without abandoning the hyperrealist precision of Stuff and Dough (2001) or The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), Romanian writer-director Cristi Puiu pushes his art toward near-intractable strangeness with this stunning third feature. A detached middle-aged man, played by Puiu himself, goes on a cross-country drive to shake down several people and kill a few others, though his reasons aren’t divulged until the very end. Because Puiu never identifies the protagonist’s relationship to the other characters, his most mundane interactions, often lingered over with Warholian fascination, become the stuff of tantalizing mystery. Puiu is a master of offscreen space, and here he uses it to suggest a complex world beyond our reach. His manipulation of tone is no less impressive: many scenes induce a voyeuristic trance, only to dispel it with chilling violence or absurd humor. In Romanian with subtitles. 174 min. —Ben Sachs
Change Nothing Leave it to Pedro Costa (In Vanda’s Room, Colossal Youth) to achieve a painterly beauty with the oddest of formats, black-and-white digital video; his low-contrast imagery isolates the subjects in pools of warm shadow and gives them the haunting sense of existing outside of time. The accomplished French actress Jeanne Balibar (best known for her work with Jacques Rivette and Olivier Assayas) appears here in her side career as a singer, rehearsing and performing with the avant-pop musicians who make up her backing band. More an experimental feature than a documentary, the movie depicts their creative process as a series of discrete actions, each with its own logic. The results are mesmerizing, though rarely abstract: Costa, a former rock musician himself, understands the democratic impulse behind any good band and the simple grace of hard work. In French with subtitles. 99 min. —Ben Sachs
Illegal This hard-edged, documentary-style drama (2010) by writer-director Olivier Masset-Depasse chronicles the ordeal of a young Russian woman (the superb Anne Coesens) living illegally in Belgium with her 14-year-old son. Stopped on the street for a routine police check, she’s arrested, detained, interrogated, and threatened with deportation by the brutal Belgian authorities. But the physical and psychological abuse she endures are less terrifying to her than her separation from the child, who’s now at the mercy of a Russian mobster. Shot in and around the city of Liege in southern Belgium, this is a gritty and timely response to the desperation of illegal immigrants. In English and subtitled French and Russian. 90 min. —Albert Williams
Kawasaki’s Rose The narrative of this 2009 Czech drama is engaging enough: a man who’s cheating on his wife learns that his father-in-law, a psychiatrist lionized for his resistance to the Soviet police state, in fact seriously compromised himself under communism, informing on his patients and impugning the reputation of a romantic rival. But director Jan Hrebejk (Beauty in Trouble) offers up this story in a wholly inappropriate visual style, with warmly lit, almost syrupy interiors and dully picturesque city views, cliches that tend to elide the complex compromises and moral equivocations that characterized life in the Eastern bloc. In Czech with subtitles. 100 min. —Fred Camper
The Red Chapel Danish director Mads Brugger documents a cultural exchange visit to North Korea by the Red Chapel, a pair of shticky comedians who were born in Korea but adopted and raised by Danes. As the guests quickly discover, the exchange is strictly one-way, and the theatrical commissars assigned to chaperone them immediately begin tailoring the duo’s act to fit the propaganda objectives of President Kim Jong Il. On a political level the movie is unassailable, but on a personal level it can be grating in its arrogance (“By now, my understanding of the North Korean mentality was second to none,” Brugger announces in voice-over). One of the comedians, Jacob Nossell, suffers from cerebral palsy, which would have doomed him under the North Korean regime; his refusal to be exploited during a giant rally constitutes the movie’s most courageous moment, yet Brugger isn’t above exploiting him either, closing the documentary with Nossell’s cloying, caterwauling performance of “Imagine” in a karaoke lounge. 88 min. —J.R. Jones
To Die Like a Man Slow but engrossing, this French-Portuguese drama (2009) focuses on a middle-aged transvestite in crisis. His career as star of a local drag show is waning, which presents him with the decision of whether to live as a man or a woman; his relationship with his young junkie boyfriend is crumbling; his silicone breast implants are infected; and his son, sexually conflicted and estranged from the father, has gone AWOL after killing a male sex partner. As turgid as all this might sound, it’s elevated by cinematographer Rui Pocas, who makes poetic use of light and color, and writer-director Joao Pedro Rodriguez, whose artful blend of humor, fantasy, and religious imagery reaches past the obvious antecedent of Pedro Almodovar toward such dream weavers as Cocteau, Fellini, Fassbinder, and Tennessee Williams. In Portuguese with subtitles. 134 min. —Albert Williams
Two in the Wave If you’re curious about the friendship between Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard—which helped birth the French New Wave in the late 50s and then ruptured amid the radical politics of the late 60s—I highly recommend Richard Brody’s article “Auteur Wars,” which the New Yorker published in April 2008. This French documentary (2010) by Emmanuel Laurent travels much the same narrative arc, but even with its wealth of film clips and archival interview footage, it lacks the drama and insight of Brody’s story, absorbing Truffaut and Godard’s brilliant aesthetic dialogue into a more general (and generic) recap of the New Wave. Laurent adds an interesting stroke with his treatment of Jean-Pierre Leaud, the young actor who worked with both men and was torn between them when they fell out, but also trivializes his story with pointless shots of actress Isild Le Besco, an inheritor of the New Wave’s empty cool, paging through old copies of Cahiers du Cinema. In French with subtitles. 90 min. —J.R. Jones