The European Union Film Festival was launched by the Gene Siskel Film Center in 1998, five years after the Maastrict Treaty formalized the Union, and in the two decades since then, the festival has grown into one of the city’s most impressive film events. As the Union has grown larger, so has the festival, with the result that this year’s edition, spanning four weeks, includes more than 60 films from 28 countries.
I wouldn’t be exaggerating much to say that the year in cinema here in Chicago kicks off with the EU festival in March. The 21st edition, which opens Friday and continues through April 5, offers local premieres of work by some of the most gifted artists on the European continent, including Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men), Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale), Bruno Dumont (Hadewijch), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Kornél Mundruczó (White God), Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (The Night of the Shooting Stars), and Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club). Following are reviews of 16 films screening over the next four weeks; for a full schedule visit siskelfilmcenter.org. —J.R. Jones
Casting A female filmmaker prepares to shoot a remake of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s classic The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant with the title character’s younger lover now male rather than female. Filming is only a week away, but the director hasn’t cast the lead role yet and tests one actress after another, losing focus with each successive audition. This tedious German drama won’t make much sense if you’re unfamiliar with Petra von Kant and will seem maddeningly trivial if you are; cowriter-director Nicolas Wacker has nothing to say about relationships or the art-making process that Fassbinder didn’t say already. The auditions are presented in thorough, painstaking detail, with lots of inside-baseball talk about the nature of acting; if you’re into that sort of thing, I recommend Chantal Akerman’s Les Années 80 (1983). In German with subtitles. 91 min. —Ben SachsSun 3/25, 5:15 PM, and Mon 3/26, 6 PM.
The Citizen In the opening scene of this poignant drama, an African refugee who has lived in Budapest for years (first-time actor Marcelo Cake-Baly) fails an oral exam required for Hungarian citizenship. Determined to pass the next test, he pays for private lessons from a local teacher, a married woman about his age, and their intellectual bond evolves into romance. Other characters threaten their happiness, reminding us of the racism, both hidden and overt, that nonwhite immigrants face in majority-white countries. But what might have felt like a heavy-handed movie of the week instead seems natural and timely, largely because of Cake-Baly’s grounded performance; he infuses the role with genuine emotion drawn from his own refugee experience. Roland Vranik directed his own script. In Hungarian with subtitles. —Leah PickettFri 3/30, 8 PM, and Tue 4/3, 6 PM.
The Death of Stalin This loony British farce details the struggle for power that erupted at the Kremlin after Joseph Stalin died of a stroke in 1953. The English and American players—Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend—dispense with the fake Russian accents, and their dialogue has the sort of riffing spontaneity you’d find in a Judd Apatow comedy. Director Armando Iannucci (In the Loop) draws on the Monty Python school of casual cruelty in his treatment of Stalinist atrocities; in one scene, bureaucrats stroll down a hallway absorbed in conversation while screams emanate from behind every door. Needless to say, the movie has been poorly received in Moscow, where the ministry of culture speculated that it was part of “a Western plot to destabilize Russia by causing rifts in society.” Well, isn’t that too bad. 107 min. —J.R. JonesSat 3/10, 8 PM, and Wed 3/14, 6 PM.
Directions Bleak but powerful, this Bulgarian ensemble drama presents the capital city of Sofia as a society suffering a collective nervous breakdown. The characters are either living in poverty or demeaning themselves to get out of it; prostitution is a recurring theme, as is suicide, and everybody is miserable and angry. Despite the focus on social decay, the filmmaking is consistently alive: much of the action takes place in taxis, and director Stephan Komandarev (The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner) establishes a constant sense of motion, moving briskly from one short, revealing episode to the next. No one actor appears onscreen for very long, but each performs with such intensity that the movie feels like one long, continuous scream. In Bulgarian with subtitles. 103 min. —Ben SachsScreens on Friday, March 9, as part of the opening-night program, with a reception after the screening. Fri 3/9, 6 PM, and Thu 3/15, 8:15 PM.
The Guardians French filmmaker Xavier Beauvois brought an extraordinary sense of solitude and contemplation to his 2010 feature Of Gods and Men, about Trappist monks walking a fine line between selflessness and survival in war-torn Algeria. That same hush pervades this leisurely drama about a French farming family during World War I, with Nathalie Baye in a decidedly unglamorous role as the beleaguered matriarch. Her two sons and her son-in-law have all joined the army, leaving the farm understaffed; help arrives in the form of a hard-working young woman from town, but the mother turns against her after one of the sons, home on leave, falls for her. A story of women waiting for their soldiers to return, this unfolds in fairly predictable fashion, though the film’s solemnity is seductive—when Beauvois indulges in a bit of string music on the soundtrack, it seems almost extravagant. In French with subtitles. 135 min. —J.R. JonesSun 3/25, 2:30 PM, and Thu 3/29, 6 PM.
Happy Birthday A student uprising in Athens threatens to pull a family apart when a headstrong teenager (Nefeli Kouri) lobs a Molotov cocktail into the street, narrowly missing her policeman father (Dimitris Imellos). Her alarmed mother sends the two to their summer home in a picturesque seaside village to cool off, but matters barely improve. The strident daughter shuns her authoritarian dad; he tries to charm her in awkward, semicomic interludes that involve rollerskating and a visit from her activist boyfriend (implausibly, he’s never asked her what dad does for a living). Writer-director Christos Georgiou fares much better with a tense sequence in which the local police badger a couple of petty thieves, power quickly going to the officers’ heads. In Greek with subtitles. 85 min. —Andrea GronvallSat 3/10, 8 PM, and Wed 3/14, 8:15 PM.
Hitler’s Hollywood Critic Rüdiger Suchsland follows From Caligari to Hitler (2014), his documentary history of German cinema between the world wars, with a sequel on the moviemaking of the Third Reich, as controlled by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The giant UFA studio, taken over by the Nazis in 1933, was a dream factory on par with any American movie operation, and the documentary challenges viewers to appreciate the extraordinary beauty of the clips presented without forgetting the heinous philosophy they promoted (or sometimes concealed). Suchsland, a careful and observant critic, argues that the Nazi cinema was more varied and politically ambivalent than we might imagine, and he examines a broad range of movies from the era, from anti-Semitic propaganda like the infamous Jew Süss (1940) to “films of legitimization” whose stories softened people up for fascism to dramas released near the end of the war that offered coded critiques of the Nazi regime, just as Hollywood movies hinted at sexual subjects during the same period. Udo Kier narrates. 105 min. —J.R. JonesFri 3/9, 2 PM, and Wed 3/14, 6 PM.
A Hustler’s Diary Croatian expatriate Ivica Zubak directed this energetic, incisive, and sometimes hilarious Swedish feature about a restless young Turkish immigrant in a low-income suburb of Stockholm. The hero (Can Demirtas, who cowrote the screenplay with Zubak) senses he can do better than his current life of crime and fancies himself the next Al Pacino; during a disastrous audition at a prestigious acting school, he misplaces his diary, a vivid chronicle of his escapades, and it winds up in the hands of a posh book publisher (Jorgen Thorsson). The ensuing battle of wits between the thug, who fears exposure, and the snob, who smells a best seller, highlights the gaping class divide between them. In Swedish with subtitles. 97 min. —Andrea GronvallFri 3/23, 2 PM, and Tue 3/27, 6 PM.
Ice Mother In this Czech drama, a 67-year-old widow (Zuzana Kronerová) finds love, friendship, and a renewed sense of purpose after joining a winter swimming club for seniors. Director Bohdan Sláma refuses to infantilize or condescend to his elderly characters: the protagonist is a complex, independent spirit, and her love interest (Pavel Nový), a homeless septuagenarian who sleeps on the swimming group’s bus, defies the lusty geezer stereotype with his confidence and enigmatic sex appeal. Unfortunately the middle-aged people often seem like caricatures, particularly the woman’s two vile sons; one is a mooch, the other a snob. In Czech with subtitles. 106 min. —Leah PickettSat 3/31, 8 PM, and Wed 4/4, 8:15 PM.
Ismael’s Ghosts A famous film director (Mathieu Amalric) struggles to complete a movie about his older brother’s legendary exploits in the French foreign service; meanwhile the filmmaker’s long-lost wife (Marion Cotillard) materializes after more than 20 years, to the consternation of his current partner (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Writer-director Arnaud Desplechin pays homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo by naming the wife after Carlotta Valdes, the mysterious historical figure in the earlier movie, and similarly immortalizing her on canvas; there’s also a film within the film that details the brother’s adventures while the hero is agonizing over his screenplay. Unfortunately all the metafictional layering only highlights the lack of engagement at the center of the story, the three stars acting up a storm but barely acknowledging each other. Desplechin’s best films (Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale) weave intimate stories into epic narratives, but the artifice here feels self-indulgent. In French with subtitles. 114 min. —J.R. JonesSat 3/17, 5:30 PM, and Thu 3/22, 6 PM.
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc With this heavy-metal musical, French writer-director Bruno Dumont marries the religious themes of his Hadewijch and Outside Satan with the absurd humor of his Li’l Quinquin and Slack Bay. The results are one of a kind and certainly not for everyone, but if you can get on its wavelength, you’ll find much to appreciate: the natural settings are gorgeous, the conversations on faith are probing, and the music rocks. Dumont opens in 1425, when the eight-year-old Jean is first discovering her religious fervor; the second half considers the teenage Jean as she prepares to join French troops in battle. The supporting characters include a pair of head-banging nuns and a trio of levitating saints; these playful details alleviate the heavy theological discourse, which is open-ended and provocative nonetheless. In French with subtitles. 108 min. —Ben SachsSun 3/11, 3 PM, and Thu 3/15, 6 PM.
Jupiter’s Moon Magic realism is a matter of contrast, the power of its magic increasing with the harshness of its reality. That’s the secret of this astounding Hungarian feature from Kornél Mundruczó (White God), in which a young Syrian refugee (Zsombor Jéger) crossing over from Serbia into Hungary is shot several times by a policeman (György Cserhalmi) and not only survives but begins to levitate at will. Smuggled out of a refugee camp by a humane doctor (Merab Ninidze), the Syrian gets tangled up in the terror plot of a fellow refugee, and what began as a fabulistic drama turns into one long, endlessly thrilling chase sequence. Mundruczó compulsively circles his subjects with the camera, fostering a sense of constant revolution that opens out into the big blue sky whenever the angelic hero lifts off. The movie is so grandly entertaining that you may not even notice the sneaky Christian allegory sanctifying the least of our brothers. In Hungarian with subtitles. 127 min. —J.R. JonesSat 3/10, 5:15 PM, and Mon 3/12, 7:45 PM.
Montparnasse Bienvenue In the opening scene of this fast-moving French comedy, a young woman ejected from her lover’s apartment beats her forehead bloody against the front door—and she’s just getting started. Laetitia Dosch gives a wildly funny performance as the red-headed heroine, Paula, whose audacity knows no bounds: needing a job and a place to sleep, she first passes herself off as an experienced nanny and later crashes with a stranger who’s mistaken her for a long-lost friend. The easiest route to a roof over her head would be finding another man to take her in, but she’s still obsessed with her lover—an up-and-coming photographer whose most famous image is a portrait of her—and she treats the dance-club lotharios in her orbit like so much chopped liver. Paula flies off the handle whenever anyone points out that she’s now “a free woman”; from her perspective, freedom is nothing but chaos, and she’s more than willing to share hers with everyone else. Léonor Serraille directed this sharp debut feature. In French with subtitles. 97 min. —J.R. JonesFri 3/30 and Mon 4/2, 6 PM.
The Nothing Factory Running nearly three hours, this Portuguese drama focuses on a standoff between labor and management at a failing industrial plant, and the epic length underscores the frustration of its working-class characters as the plant sits idle. Called to the plant in the middle of the night, they clash with truck crews that have been sent to haul away the machinery; the company has been taken over, and middle managers arrive on the scene the next morning to interview employees, offer deals to a lucky few, and sack everyone else. At the same time, a hairy Marxist academic who’s been hanging around the factory tries to persuade the workers to collectivize and run the place themselves, a notion that soon collides with their unenlightened self-interest. Director Pedro Pinho breaks away from the main story at times to follow one of the workers in off hours with his wife and child; their aimless enjoyment of life and each other shows how sweet nothing can be when you’re not getting paid to do it. In French and Portuguese with subtitles. 177 min. —J.R. JonesSun 3/18, 2 PM, and Tue 3/20, 6:30 PM.
Rainbow: A Private Affair Paolo and Vittorio Taviani return to the final days of World War II, a period they chronicled in their 1982 masterpiece The Night of the Shooting Stars. (This feature marks the first time that Paolo has directed solo, though he and Vittorio collaborated on the script.) Whereas the earlier film celebrated life going on in wartime, this one is a stark consideration of death, following an Italian resistance fighter as he ventures into a fascist stronghold to rescue a captured compatriot. Flashbacks reveal that both the hero and his friend wooed the same woman, and these episodes relieve tension from the present moment, when the hero knows he can die at any time. The film is less than a hour and a half long, yet the Tavianis make every minute count; this has the concision and intensity one associates with late masterworks. In Italian with subtitles. 84 min. —Ben SachsFri 3/16, 6:30 PM, and Wed 3/21, 6 PM.
The Young Karl Marx Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, emboldened by his success at bringing James Baldwin’s prose to life with the documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016), tackles a more difficult literary endeavor: dramatizing the life experiences that drove Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to write the Communist Manifesto in 1848. This intelligent biopic touches on the men’s marriages but focuses mainly on the various radical constituencies across Europe that they hoped to unite with a powerful philosophical statement. August Diehl, best known here for his small role in Inglourious Basterds (2009), invests the twentysomething Marx with a quick mind and a feverish impatience that propel the narrative forward, his energy a real asset to a film that trades heavily in ideas. “Criticism devours everything that exists, and when nothing is left, it devours itself,” the German radical Wilhelm Weitling tells Marx—and yet Peck dares to frame his movie as an intellectual adventure. In English and subtitled French and German. 118 min. —J.R. JonesScreens as part of the closing-night program, with a reception after the screening. Sat 3/31, 3 PM, and Thu 4/5, 6 PM. v