CIFF is a good time, as  Sacha Polak's Hemel might suggest.
CIFF is a good time, as Sacha Polak's Hemel might suggest.

Films Listed Alphabetically:
A-BC-EF-OP-ZSpecial Events

I live in the Albany Park neighborhood, said to be one of the most ethnically diverse in America, with one of the highest immigrant populations. “Although the majority of those foreign-born residents are from Latin America,” reports Wikipedia, “substantial numbers are from the Philippines, India, Korea, Cambodia, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia (Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia), Romania, Pakistan, and the Middle East (especially Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon). Over 40 different languages are spoken in its public schools.” Yet Albany Park is incredibly balkanized. Say hello to someone of a different race on the street and he’ll invariably look away; walk into any ethnic bar and the silent vibe you’ll pick up from the regulars is Get the fuck out!

By contrast, the Chicago International Film Festival has always exhorted Chicagoans to get the fuck in. “Come see the world . . . and be a part of it,” writes Michael Kutza, the festival’s founder and artistic director, in his introduction to the 2012 schedule. (Personally, I think “Get the fuck in!” is a much catchier slogan, and if the festival wants the rights, I’m open to discussion.) The irony is that, if you attend one of the festival’s glittering galas, you’re going to see a much richer and more homogeneous (i.e. white) crowd than you’ll find when you’re walking around Albany Park. Money has a way of making foreign cultures seem more alluring, partly because you can sample them at your leisure and then go home and not have to deal with them. (Or as Charlie Sheen reportedly once said of prostitutes, “I don’t pay them for sex. I pay them to leave.”)

To its credit, the festival has always maintained a commitment to keeping tickets affordable, though prices for almost everything have gone up this year. You can see most films for $14, not exactly cheap but only a few bucks more than you’d pay for Here Comes the Boom. Shows before 5 PM are only $5, and beginning this year, shows after 10 PM are only $10. Those are pretty good deals, especially if you’ve lost your job and can go the movies in the afternoon or late at night. I suspect that if any of my neighbors manages to scratch up the money for a ticket, they’ll be going not to sample a new culture but to reconnect with their old one. That’s the Chicago way. J.R. Jones

Following, in alphabetical order, are reviews of selected films screening through Thursday, October 18 (though repeat screenings after that date are also noted). For reviews of films screening Friday, October 19, through Thursday, October 25, come back next week to read the second part of our festival coverage.

Introduction • Films Listed Alphabetically:
C-EF-OP-ZSpecial Events

As Goes Janesville
Just after the 2008 financial crisis hastened the shuttering of the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, video maker Brad Lichtenstein began documenting the fate of three laid-off workers—two who transferred to a plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and one who returned to school through a federally funded program. These thoughtful stories of a disappearing middle class become more pointed as Scott Walker, the newly elected Republican governor, begins implementing his union-busting agenda in February 2011 and his upper-crust backers in Janesville try to attract new industry to the town. Tim Cullen, one of the 14 Democratic state senators who fled Wisconsin in order to stall a vote on the governor’s controversial budget-repair bill, figures in some of the video’s best moments, including a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a Travel Wisconsin program where he’s cheered so heartily and Walker is booed so mercilessly that the “Wisconsin Is Open for Business” shtick is barely audible. Kevin Warwick 88 min. Lichtenstein attends the screening. Sat 10/13, 2:30 PM.

The Believers
In 1989 two electrochemical scientists at the University of Utah shook the world with their announcement that they had produced “cold fusion,” a controlled emission of nuclear energy at room temperature, using simple seawater as fuel. This breakthrough might have revolutionized global energy production, but by the end of the year it had been discredited by physicists who couldn’t reproduce the results of the initial experiment. Documentary makers Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross revisit the media and academic firestorm that engulfed the two scientists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, and interview some of the scientific cultists who still believe that one day we might all have our own nuclear reactors in the kitchen next to the dishwasher. The movie is affecting on a human level—the controversy destroyed Pons and Fleischmann’s professional reputations—and fascinating for its glimpses of academic knife-fighting and utopian zeal. J.R. Jones 83 min. Brown and Ross attend the screening. Tue 10/16, 8 PM, and Sat 10/20, 2 PM.

The Bella Vista
The title of this laid-back documentary refers to a recreation center in rural Uruguay that once served as clubhouse for the local soccer team but for the past two decades has functioned as a transvestite bar and brothel. Director Alicia Cano displays obvious sympathy toward both the prostitutes and the elderly former soccer players who try, ever so politely, to make them leave town. Her central observation is that the subjects all behave similarly because they all belong to the same isolated region (she’s especially keen to the similarities of their respective group dynamics). The disagreement over the building comes to seem superficial in light of these shared qualities, though the subjects surely don’t see it that way. In Spanish with subtitles. Ben Sachs 74 min. Tue 10/16, 4 PM, and Sun 10/21, 4:30 PM.

The entire city convulsed in grief when Ben Wilson—a point guard for Simeon Vocational High School in Auburn Gresham and the top-ranked high school basketball player in the country—was shot to death on the street by a couple of punks in November 1984. This video documentary on his life, death, and legacy was produced by ESPN, whose investment in creating sports heroes tends to work against the story’s inherent tragedy: what makes Wilson’s murder an outrage is that it was so routine, and that young people of promise continue to be gunned down in the streets of Chicago every year. For all the celebration of Wilson’s athletic accomplishments, the most compelling personality in the video turns out to be his mother, Mary, a nurse who made the brave decision to take him off life support, delivered a stunningly dignified eulogy for him at Simeon the following afternoon, and subsequently became a powerful advocate for gun control. Coodie and Chike, best known for their hip-hop videos, directed. J.R. Jones 79 min. The directors attend the screening. Sun 10/14, 11 AM; Wed 10/17, 6 PM; and Thu 10/18,
8:30 PM.

[Recommended] Beyond the Hills
Raised in a German orphanage, Voichita has found peace as a novice in a Romanian convent, but her austere life is roiled by a visit from her unstable friend Alina, who has graduated from the same orphanage to a series of foster homes. In many ways this long, layered drama from writer-director Cristian Mungiu seems like a companion piece to his harrowing abortion story 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007); both movies trace the uneasy relationship between a survivor and her weak, dependent pal as they try to navigate a world of patriarchal oppression. Here that oppression is embodied by the Russian Orthodox priest who threatens to expel Voichita for her friend’s volatile behavior, yet Mungiu complicates this overt critique of religion by hinting that both Voichita’s devotion to God and Alina’s clinging attachment to Voichita are driven by childhood sexual abuse. In Romanian with subtitles. J.R. Jones 150 min. Fri 10/12, 8:15 PM, and Mon 10/15, 8:30 PM.

Boys Are Us
In this Swiss teen drama, two sisters decide to take revenge on boys after the younger one gets her heart broken; they decide she’ll seduce the first naive guy she finds on an online dating service, then dump him as soon as he falls in love. There’s a great film to be made about the impact of online communication on how young people think about sexual relationships and power dynamics in general. Writer-director Peter Luisi offers some insights, particularly in his characterization of the callous older sister, but his flashy narrative conceits—such as having three different actors play the sisters’ mark—prove more distracting than illuminating. In German with subtitles. Ben Sachs 73 min. Luisi and various cast members attend the screenings. Wed 10/17, 6:15 PM; Thu 10/18, 8:30 PM; and Fri 10/19, 3:45 PM.

Introduction • Films Listed Alphabetically:
A-BF-OP-ZSpecial Events

[Recommended] The Central Park Five
Ken Burns steps outside his sepia-toned comfort zone to revisit the savage rape of an upper-class jogger in New York’s Central Park in April 1989, and the gross miscarriage of justice that followed. The film offers a snapshot of the white hysteria then gripping the city, which was stoked by the tabloids and resulted in police and prosecutors railroading five black youths into prison; in 2002, after all five had served jail terms, the real culprit confessed and the original convictions were vacated. Burns and his codirectors, David McMahon and Sarah Burns (Ken’s daughter and the author of a book on the case), draw heavily on the videotaped confessions that police ground out of the black kids, which doomed them in court despite the dearth of physical evidence. The cops and district attorneys refused to speak to Burns and company, though now that the movie has been released, attorneys for the city have subpoenaed the outtakes to help defend it against the civil rights cases filed by the wronged men, which have been dragging through the courts for ten years. Burns never had this sort of problem with General Grant. J.R. Jones 119 min. Burns, McMahon, and Raymond Santana, one of the five, attend the screening. Sun 10/14, 5 PM.

The Cleaner
As a deadly virus sweeps Peru, a lonely forensic cleaner (Victor Prada) scrubbing down the home of dead woman finds her young son hiding in a closet; the local shelters are overrun with children, so the cleaner takes the boy under his wing. Director Adrian Saba shows a keen understanding of mise-en-scene, using the stark lines of door and window frames to create a visual design reminiscent of a de Stijl painting, and the dystopian setting feels authentic (the constant sound of barking dogs subtly communicates just how few people are left). But the cliched relationship between the man and the boy gradually drowns the film in sentimentality. In Spanish with subtitles. Drew Hunt 95 min. Saba and Prada attend the screening. Mon 10/15, 8:30 PM; Tue 10/16, 5:45 PM; and Fri 10/19, 4 PM.

“Underaged persons weren’t involved in scenes of explicit sex and nudity,” declares a title at the end of this Serbian drama. The disclaimer is necessary because at least half the film consists of what are obviously teenagers doing drugs and having sex (which includes graphic depictions of fellatio). An adolescent girl struggles with her father’s impending death by skipping school, drinking, snorting coke, and being treated like shit by her dumb and sadistic boyfriend, all of which she obsessively documents with her chintzy cell phone camera. (Director Maja Milos occasionally inserts these images, which eerily replicate Internet pornography.) That’s all the film is “about,” if it’s actually about anything. This is one of the ugliest pieces of Vice magazine-style exploitation I’ve ever seen. In Serbian with subtitles. Tal Rosenberg 100 min. Sat 10/13, 9:45 PM, and Sun 10/14, 7:45 PM.

Consuming Spirits
Chris Sullivan uses cutout and hand-drawn animation to create this gothic family saga involving corruption and madness in a decaying Appalachian industrial town. A talk-radio host dispenses vaguely sinister advice to listeners; his middle-aged daughter, who works at the local newspaper, tries to cover up a hit-and-run; and her alcoholic coworker, once her foster brother, fakes documents in order to claim possession of a truck that belonged to his biological father, now long missing. The film has a hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness feel and evocative ballads, and its macabre touches are sometimes funny. The animation is technically proficient but rarely pretty; Sullivan has made his characters look as grotesque as their warped personalities. Andrea Gronvall Sullivan attends the first screening. Tue 10/16, 7 PM; Fri 10/19, 9:30 PM; and Mon 10/22, 3 PM.

Day of the Crows
Based on a novel by Quebecois writer Jean-Francois Beauchemin, this meticulous hand-drawn animation tells the story of a child raised in the wild by his brutish, disenfranchised father. When the father is badly hurt in a fall, his son drags him to civilization, where the boy begins to understand the circumstances of their frosty relationship. Jean-Christophe Dessaint directed, and the great French filmmaker Claude Chabrol provided the voice of the town doctor, shortly before his death in September 2010. In French with subtitles. Peter Margasak 90 min. Sun 10/14, 4:45 PM; Fri 10/19, 1 PM; and Sat 10/20, 12:15 PM.

Everybody’s Got Somebody . . . Not Me
A snobbish editor in her mid-30s has a passionate affair with a high school senior; she exposes the girl to fine dining and contemporary art, and they have great sex, but differences in age and life experience quickly derail the relationship. This Mexican drama may be simple as storytelling and risible in its leering fascination with lesbian sex, but it’s so ravishing visually that you might be entranced anyway. Shooting in sparkling black-and-white, director Raul Fuentes lingers on faces and architecture to poetic effect, and the mood of poignant longing offsets the tony eroticism. Imagine French cine-poet Philippe Garrel directing a script by soft-core porn auteur Zalman King. In Spanish with subtitles. Ben Sachs 89 min. Fuentes attends the screenings. Sun 10/21, 1 PM; Mon 10/22, 8 PM; and Tue 10/23, 2 PM.

The Exam
Director Peter Bergendy has a rich premise: on Christmas Eve 1957, secret police in Budapest stage an exercise to test one of their prized agents, but in the process they uncover his tryst with a woman who may be a revolutionary soldier. The movie’s mordant critique of a communist police state invites comparison to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006), which dealt with the East German Stasi. But whereas that drama was highly focused, Bergendy tries to incorporate humor, suspense, and romance into an already complex narrative, and the whole film feels undercooked. Nevertheless, the numerous plot twists keep this entertaining, and actor Peter Scherer is terrific in a supporting role as a slimy, opportunistic operative. In Hungarian with subtitles. Tal Rosenberg 88 min. Sat 10/13, 2 PM; Mon 10/15, 8 PM; and Mon 10/22, 3:45 PM.

Introduction • Films Listed Alphabetically:
A-BC-EP-ZSpecial Events

The Final Member
Have you ever seen a sperm whale’s penis? It’s the size of a tree trunk. The Icelandic Phallogical Museum has one, along with hundreds of other animal specimens collected by founder Sigurdur Hjartson, but this documentary by Zach Math and Jonah Bekhor centers on his quest for a human sample. On-screen this registers as an endless wait for either a revered Icelandic eccentric to die or a seemingly unbalanced American eccentric to cut off his junk (which he calls “Elmo”) and ship it express. The friction between the three dissimilar personalities generates some fun moments (a barrage of strange and graphic e-mails begins to persuade the agreeable Hjartson that the American is off his rocker), but the directors’ heavy-handed treatment of the museum proprietor’s health problems near the end distracts from their entertaining exploration of each character’s phallic fixation. In English and subtitled Icelandic. Kevin Warwick 73 min. Math attends the second screening. Fri 10/12, 9:15 PM, and Sun 10/14, 3:15 PM.

Taking its cues from the emotionally brutal dramas of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, this film from the Czech Republic chronicles the gradual unraveling of a dysfunctional family. The father is a train signal operator whose gambling has driven the family deep into debt, but everyone here has issues: the daughter, who dreams of leaving their blue-collar town, learns that she’s pregnant but can’t reveal the father’s identity; the drug-dealing son liquidates his stash to hire the deceitful hooker he adores; and the apathetic mother spends most of her time in an aerobics class. Director Zdenek Jirasky piles as much misfortune on his characters as possible, proving himself adept at mortification but not much else. In Czech with subtitles. Drew Hunt 91 min. Jirasky attends the weekend screenings. Sat 10/13, 6 PM; Sun 10/14, 2:30 PM; and Tue 10/16, 1 PM.

A Fockload of Scotchtape
Shot in Chicago, this dark musical centers on a troubled and beguilingly fragile young guy (Graham Jenkins) who drifts into a life of horrific crime. After aiding a murderer, he copes with his guilt and loneliness by harming those close to him and occasionally lip-synching to torch songs performed by a talented Tom Waits impersonator. Director Julian Grant delivers a pastiche of gritty visual styles that’s likable for the first half hour, while the movie is still in Urban Cowboy-meets-Midnight Cowboy territory. Once the kid snaps and begins bashing gay men, his endearing voice-over narration becomes foul, unthinkingly violent, and metaphorically overdetermined—as does the whole movie. Asher Klein 85 min. Grant attends the screenings. Thu 10/18, 8 PM; Sat 10/20, 9:30 PM; and Tue 10/23, 1 PM.

[Recommended] Gimme the Loot
Small but bursting with energy, this indie comedy follows a pair of teenage taggers from the Bronx over two days as they hustle for the $500 they need to realize their dream of spray-painting the giant apple at Citi Field. Writer-director Adam Leon brings wit and genuine suspense to the various scenes of haggling, scamming, and petty theft. The colorful characters vary in age and class, though to Leon’s credit he doesn’t make a big deal of this; the movie is endearingly relaxed about the homogeneity of modern New York, while its feistiness and street-level detail evoke such Depression-era comedies as Raoul Walsh’s Me and My Gal and Roy Del Ruth’s Taxi! Ben Sachs 81 min. Leon attends the screenings. Wed 10/17, 8:10 PM, and Thu 10/18, 6:30 PM.

[Recommended] Hemel
The title of this Danish drama translates as “Heaven,” the given—and ultimately ironic—name of its bewitching protagonist (Hannah Hoekstra). Prowling the clubs at night, she picks up men for sex, and after they’ve satisfied her she cruelly dismisses them. But Heaven begins to seem less a predator than a victim once we’ve been introduced to her silver-haired father (Hans Dagelet), a sophisticated monster whose own sexual appetites have wrecked his family and scarred everyone in his orbit. The quiet scene in which he gathers up his sleeping grown daughter from bed and puts her on the toilet to pee, as if she were three years old, hints at the mingled tenderness and control that have made her the mess she is. Sacha Polak directed a crafty, finely shaded script by Helena van der Meulen. In Danish with subtitles. J.R. Jones 80 min. Mon 10/22, 5:45 PM, and Tue 10/23, 8:30 PM.

In Their Skin
Selma Blair and Josh Close play a well-to-do couple, vacationing with their young son at their secluded second home, who are terrorized by a strange, lower-middle-class family. As torture porn, this Canadian shocker is quite effective—Close (who also wrote the script) and Blair make for sympathetic victims, and first-time director Jeremy Power Regimbal has a knack for slowly escalating the terror—yet the skillful filmmaking hardly justifies the ugly sensationalism. The movie flirts with social commentary whenever the torturers express envy of the other family’s comfortable life, but any sort of statement is diluted by their obvious psychosis. Ben Sachs 97 min. Regimbal attends the screenings. Wed 10/17, 10:30 PM, and Sat 10/20, 11 PM.

The Last Sentence
Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell (The Emigrants) was ready to retire after his 2008 drama Everlasting Moments, but a fascination with the crusading newspaper publisher Torgny Segerstedt prompted him to direct this respectful biopic. Segerstedt’s full-throated denunciation of Adolf Hitler made him a target of the Nazis and a controversial figure in ostensibly neutral Sweden, especially after the government provided rail access to German forces during their invasion of the Soviet Union. Limited to politics, this might have become an exercise in hagiography, but Troell also probes Segerstedt’s unhappy marriage and his affair with a Jewish colleague (“You two have your Hitler!” his wife complains bitterly. “What do I have?”). Unfortunately, Troell chose to shoot the movie in digital black-and-white; the imagery seems anachronistic in its precision, undermining the period decor and clashing with the occasional low-grain newsreel footage of Nazis on the march. In Swedish with subtitles. J.R. Jones 120 min. Troell attends the Friday and Saturday screenings. Tue 10/16, 5 PM; Fri 10/19, 6 PM; and Sat 10/20, 4:30 PM.

Mr. Sophistication
Like most bad movies about stand-up comics, this one operates on the false pretense that they just hop onstage and start rapping about their lives, rather than writing, rehearsing, and endlessly honing their material. Harry Lennix plays a foul-mouthed, ostensibly world-wise comedian (read: Richard Pryor) who destroyed his career years earlier with a drug-addled meltdown on a late-night talk show. Reduced to headlining his wife’s little club in Chicago, he gets a shot at a comeback in LA, where he promptly takes up with an empty young hottie who’s never known a love like this before, etc. The script is weak and so is Lennix, though there are good performances from Tatum O’Neal as the comedian’s long-suffering wife and Robert Patrick, cast against type, as a shaggy showbiz manager. Danny Green directed. J.R. Jones 98 min. Green and Lennix attend the screenings. Sat 10/20, 7:15 PM, and Sun 10/21, 12:15 PM.

Off White Lies
A prepubescent Israeli girl, having exhausted the patience of her mother and stepfather in California, is shipped back to her native land to live with her father, a homeless and eccentric “inventor.” Scrambling to find shelter, he decides they’ll pose as refugees from the north, which is being bombarded by Hezbollah, and they wind up in the home of a wealthy man, his wife, and their teenage son. The title refers to the father and daughter’s ruse—it’s darker than a white lie, but not so dark as to harm anyone—but might also describe the film itself, pitched somewhere between comedy and drama. Unfortunately the comedy frequently lapses into gimmickry (the father has invented the “Smokeless,” a gizmo that masks cigarette smoke), though the tumultuous relationship between the girl and her dad makes for compelling drama. In Hebrew with subtitles. Tal Rosenberg 83 min. Mon 10/15, 8:15 PM, and Tue 10/16, 6:15 PM.

Introduction • Films Listed Alphabetically:
A-BC-EF-OSpecial Events

La Playa DC
This Colombian mean-streets drama suffers from a rather jumbled script, but it’s rescued by its easy authenticity and Luis Carlos Guevara’s magnetic lead performance. He plays an Afro-Colombian teenager whose family has begun to splinter after being driven from the Pacific coast to Bogota by the ongoing civil war. His father has been killed, his ambitious older brother has just returned from Canada and may be going back soon, and his rudderless younger brother is being hunted by drug dealers after smoking the stash he was supposed to sell. Writer-director Juan Andres Arhas sets much of the action at a glassy, brightly lit mall where the protagonist works as a barber’s apprentice, learning to shave designs into Afros; these attentively detailed sequences and the bouncing Afro-Caribbean hip-hop on the soundtrack are typical of the movie’s vibrant street culture, which counteracts the downbeat story line. In Spanish with subtitles. J.R. Jones 89 min. Sun 10/14, 8:30 PM; Mon 10/15, 8:15 PM; and Wed 10/17, 3:30 PM.

Rhino Season
This moody drama is Bahman Ghobadi’s first feature since state authorities drove him from Iran in 2009, and it’s notably drained of the spontaneous energy that enlivened his earlier films. A poet struggles to reenter society after being incarcerated for nearly 30 years under the Islamic Republic, during which time his wife and children have been led to believe he’s dead (Ghobadi says he based the story on the experience of a family friend). The family has relocated to Istanbul, and though he goes there to find them, he can’t bring himself to make contact. Ghobadi illustrates the character’s inner torment through a fragmented narrative that jumps between present experience, memory, and hallucination; he also includes images of physical abuse that would be impossible in an Iranian production. This is deeply felt, poetic filmmaking, though the unrelentingly dour tone isn’t for everyone. In Farsi with subtitlesBen Sachs 96 min. Wed 10/17, 3:30 PM; Sat 10/20, 2:15 PM; and Sun 10/21, 7:45 PM.

Room 237
Directed by Rodney Ascher, this Sundance-produced documentary inventories some of the wilder theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror opus The Shining: it’s really about the Holocaust, about the genocide of Native Americans, about Kubrick’s rumored collaboration with the U.S. government to fabricate the Apollo 11 moon landing. The evidence offered for these theories is so slight (continuity errors, set-dressing details) that the movie registers less as logical argument than as an artifact of the Kubrick cult; the notion that anything committed to celluloid by this famously deliberate filmmaker might have been random or accidental is beyond some people’s comprehension. Generously illustrated with clips from The Shining and other Kubrick movies (including, most hilariously, Eyes Wide Shut), this is sure to amuse you if you get a bang out of the claims that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and Dark Side of the Moon was intended as a soundtrack for The Wizard of Oz. J.R. Jones 102 min. Fri 10/19, 9:45 PM, and Sat 10/20, 1 PM.

A Royal Affair
Despite some concessions to contemporary realism (backlighting, handheld camera), this Scandinavian coproduction is essentially an old-fashioned period spectacle, offering the tried-and-true pleasure of romantic melodrama in fancy costumes. The talented young actress Alicia Vikander plays Caroline Matilda of Great Britain, bride to the mentally unstable King Christian VII of Denmark; Mads Mikkelsen is Johann Friedrich Struensee, the German doctor who enters the king’s inner circle, inspires him to enact progressive reforms, and has an affair with the queen. This is more convincing as a romance than as a history lesson; in familiar biopic shorthand, every opponent of reform is portrayed as scheming, condescending bully. Nikolaj Arcel directed. In Danish and German with subtitles. Ben Sachs 137 min. Arcel attends the screenings. Sat 10/20, 8:30 PM, and Sun 10/21, 2:30 PM.

A Secret World
An alienated high school student in Mexico City whose chief extracurricular activity appears to be staring at the ceiling while she’s humped by random men ditches her perplexed mother and sets off on a cross-country journey of discovery. During her wanderings she meets a painfully shy young man who offers the prospect of genuine tenderness, but ultimately she deserts him too. This debut feature by Gabriel Mariño is the sort of thing critics like to praise for its “formal rigor”: there are no dissolves, zooms, or inserts, and most scenes transpire in a single, straight-ahead shot with a shallow depth of field, so that characters blur as they recede from the lens. In the final shot, the young heroine, having taken to the sea in a boat and bonded with a passing whale, flashes us a small, mysterious smile before Mariño cuts to black. Wherever her secret world might be, we’re definitely not invited. In Spanish with subtitles. J.R. Jones 87 min. Mariño attends the Thursday and Saturday screenings. Thu 10/18, 6:15 PM; Sat 10/20, 9:45 PM; and Tue 10/23, 1:15 PM.

The Sessions
Character actor John Hawkes is often cast as a frightening rustic (Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene), but he gives a tender and witty performance here as Mark O’Brien, a writer paralyzed from the neck down who hired a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity and recounted his experiences in the magazine The Sun. Helen Hunt handles the role of his sex partner with great delicacy, and their scenes together are suitably touching, embarrassing, and funny. Unfortunately, their relationship doesn’t provide enough material for a feature, and writer-director Ben Lewin is forced to bookend it with abbreviated treatments of two romances O’Brien pursued, neither of which approaches the daring or intimacy of the sex therapy. With Adam Arkin, Moon Bloodgood, and William H. Macy as a Catholic priest offering discomfited spiritual counsel to the horny quadriplegic. J.R. Jones 95 min. Hunt attends the screening. Sat 10/20, 7 PM.

[Recommended] Shamelss
A young man drops out of college in order to live with his older half sister, for whom he harbors a seemingly unshakable sexual attraction, while rejecting the attentions of a more appropriate romantic partner, a charming gypsy woman. This robust and well-acted Polish feature from first-time director Filip Marczewski is far less sensationalistic than the premise might suggest, even when it incorporates a politically charged subplot involving the gypsy family’s violent disputes with a gang of neo-Nazis (the leader of whom happens to be the sister’s fiance). Marczewski’s attention to detail and nonjudgmental treatment of the various taboos involved turn what might have become tabloid hogwash into a tasteful and socially conscious drama. In Polish with subtitles. Drew Hunt 80 min. Marczewski attends the Sunday and Monday screenings. Sun 10/14, 7 PM; Mon 10/15, 6 PM; and Wed 10/17, 1 PM.

Shun Li and the Poet
A young Chinese woman (Jia Zhang-ke regular Tao Zhao), transported to a Venetian coastal town as an indentured servant, strikes up a friendship with an aging Yugoslavian fisherman (Rade Serbedzija), but their growing intimacy angers the Chinese crime boss who monitors her performance and controls her access to her young son back home. Predictable but gently told, this touching Italian feature marks the dramatic debut of documentary maker Andrea Segre, who illuminates the hardship and injustice suffered by Chinese immigrant labor better than she could have in a factual film. An opening reference to Qu Yuan, the ancient poet whose spirit is said to mingle with the rivers, nicely links the Venetian setting with the Chinese village where the young woman’s heart still lies. In Italian with subtitles. J.R. Jones 100 min. Sun 10/21, 5:30 PM, and Tue 10/23, 6:15 PM.

[Recommended] StringCaesar
South African filmmaker Paul Schoolman has dramatized the formative years of Julius Caesar against the backdrop of three prisons (Pollsmoor in Cape Town, Cardiff in Wales, and Drumheller in Alberta, Canada), giving some roles to respected professionals (Derek Jacobi, John Kani, Alice Krige) but augmenting them with a talented cast of hardened convicts. “Kill whom you wish to kill, rape whom you wish to rape!” orders Jacobi, clad in an orange jumpsuit as the Roman general Sulla, and his words ring with authority amid the concrete walls of the Pollsmoor common room where the scene is staged. Schoolman uses various narrative pointers—split screens, captions in graffiti lettering—to surmount the challenge of telling a historical tale with actors speaking various languages, but what really puts this across is his brilliant governing conceit, which drives home the brutal politics of the Roman Republic. In English and subtitled Xhosa and Afrikaans. J.R. Jones 91 min. Schoolman attends all three screenings, joined at the second and third by Krige (his wife). Fri 10/19, 8:45 PM; Sun 10/21, 3 PM; and Mon 10/22, 2 PM.

Something in the Air
Olivier Assayas revisits the high school lovers of his 1995 drama Cold Water, picking up their story not long after the action of the original film and chronicling their exploits in the radical politics of the early 70s. Not having seen the first movie, I can’t offer a comparison of the two, though the pretty actors and counterculture nostalgia kept reminding me of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. This is a much better film, infused with Assayas’s characteristic love for the freshness of nature and the eagerness of youth, but ultimately the lovers and their new-left classmates begin to seem as shallow as they are beautiful. Their maiming of a security guard during a nighttime terror strike doesn’t seem to bother any of them, and at the end of the movie, when they’re all abandoning their rigid Marxism and matriculating into bourgeois life, they seem to be driven by neither wisdom nor disillusionment but simple boredom. In French with subtitles. J.R. Jones 122 min. Sun 10/14, 3:30 PM, and Wed 10/17, 8:20 PM.

The Weekend
After 18 years in a German prison, a former terrorist with the Red Army Faction (Sebastian Koch) wins an early release and reunites with his older sister (Barbara Auer); she organizes a weekend getaway with their friends and former comrades, but tensions escalate as he wonders aloud which of them might have ratted him out to the police back in the day. Much of this drama is given over to heated arguments in which the ex-con chides the others for having abandoned their far-left principles, and director Nina Grosse devotes pitifully little attention to style. This would be forgivable if the story unfolded in an intriguing manner, but Grosse, adapting a novel by Bernhard Schlink (The Reader), is more interested in melodramatic plot twists than in the conflict between 70s radicalism and contemporary complacency. In German with subtitles. Drew Hunt 97 min. Grosse attends the screenings. Wed 10/17, 8:45 PM, and Thu 10/18, 5:45 PM.

Winter of Discontent
This Egyptian drama follows three characters—an activist, a female news anchor, and a security official—through the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that hastened the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Director Ibrahim El-Batout draws stark lines between the government and the citizenry, showing the media control and police oppression (including flashback sequences of the imprisoned activist enduring electocution torture) that made the choice for freedom difficult and risky. The storytelling is vivid, but given the ongoing unrest and power struggles in Egypt, the film feels a bit premature. In Arabic with subtitles. Peter Margasak 94 min. Sat 10/13, 4 PM; Sun 10/14, 5:45 PM; and Tue 10/16, 3:45 PM.

The World Is Funny
Even sexual fulfillment seems mawkish in this episodic Israeli feature, a collection of sitcom-ready interactions and achingly cute characters. The main characters are adult siblings estranged from one another: a single father whose older son has just awakened from a nine-year coma, a radio producer whose girlfriend is being treated for brain cancer, and a travel agent whose grown daughter has died in a military operation. Writer-director Shemi Zarhin approaches these tragic situations with a complacency worthy of Neil Simon, continually reassuring us that everything will turn out OK; so little here registers as genuinely painful or humorous that when the characters declare that laughter helps us through painful situations, even this mundane wisdom seems unearned. In Hebrew with subtitles. Ben Sachs 123 min. Thu 10/18, 8:45 PM; Sat 10/20, 7:45 PM; and Mon 10/22, 3:15 PM.

Next: Additional personal appearances, including Viola Davis and Philip Kaufman

Introduction • Films Listed Alphabetically:

The festival opens Thursday, October 11, with a screening of the crime comedy Stand Up Guys and scheduled appearances by producer Tom Rosenberg, director Fisher Stevens, and stars Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin, Julianna Margulies, Vanessa Ferlito, and Addison Timlin. The Chicago International Film Festival closes Thursday, October 25, with a screening of Flight, starring Denzel Washington as an airline pilot whose heroic emergency landing is followed by a troubling investigation into his performance; director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) is scheduled to attend.

In addition to personal appearances at the screenings, which are noted in the capsule reviews, the festival hosts various classes, discussions, and other events. Selected programs follow, all taking place at River East 21, 322 E. Illinois; unless otherwise noted, regular ticket prices apply.

Actress Joan Allen receives the festival’s career achievement award and discusses her work, both onscreen and onstage with Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Tickets are $25, $50 for a VIP package that includes an 8:30 PM reception at PUBLIC Chicago, 1301 N. State. Sun 10/14, 6:30 PM.

Director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) takes part in a Q&A session and signs copies of his new book following a screening of his 1974 arctic adventure The White Dawn. Tue 10/16, 5 PM.

Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar talks about his work and introduces a screening of his Oscar-nominated drama Footnote as part of the Spotlight Middle East series. Mon 10/22, 4:30 PM.

Actress Viola Davis will receive the festival’s career achievement award as part of the annual Black Perspectives program. Tickets are $35, $75 for a VIP package that includes an afterparty. Mon 10/22, 7 PM.

Documentary maker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) appears for a 90-minute discussion of his work and the state of documentary film as part of the festival’s series The Chicagoans. Tue 10/23, 6 PM.

Silent-film historian David Robinson, author of Chaplin: His Life and Art, presents a 90-minute program of rarities from the silent era. Tue 10/23, 6 PM.

Voice-over and radio artist Ken Nordine (Word Jazz) presents a live reading of Agenbite of Inwit, a 14th-century prose work in Middle English, as part of the festival’s series The Chicagoans. Wed 10/24, 6:30 PM.