Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida
Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida

Launched back in 1998, the European Union Film Festival has grown into one of the city’s very best cinematic events, the only serious rival in size and quality to the venerable Chicago International Film Festival. This year, through April 3, Gene Siskel Film Festival presents 64 new features from EU member nations, including Chicago premieres of new work by Daniel Auteuil (Fanny, Marius), Francois Ozon (Young & Beautiful), Paul Verhoeven (Tricked), Lukas Moodysson (We Are the Best!), Michael Winterbottom (Everyday, The Trip to Italy), John Akomfrah (The Stuart Hall Project), and Mika Kaurismäki (Road North). We’re lucky if we can cover a third of the films screening, but as you can see below, we thought five of the six features covered this week were worth recommending. That ought to speak for itself. J.R. Jones

[Recommended] Child’s Pose A wealthy Romanian theatrical designer (Luminita Gheorghiu), celebrating her birthday with a party at a swank hotel, earns her guests’ applause with her abandoned dancing, but her brio is tested to its limits after her no-account son (Bogdan Dumitrache) kills a child in a speeding accident on the expressway. Screenwriter Razvan Radulescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Tuesday, After Christmas) follows this serpentine character as she barges into her son’s police interrogation, curries favor with the investigating officer, tries to persuade a witness to change his testimony, and coolly strategizes an offering to the dead boy’s parents that will get her live one off the hook. A tour-de-force performance from Gheorghiu carries this 2013 drama along, but Radulescu provides the fine edge, noting how this lioness cloaks her selfish crusade in a plea for humanity. Calin Peter Netzer directed. In Romanian with subtitles. J.R. Jones 112 min. Sat 3/8, 7 PM.

[Recommended] Ida Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love), this story of faith and despair is gracefully told, its simple, uncluttered spaces and luminous black-and-white photography harking back to Robert Bresson. Innocent young Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), raised in a Polish convent and preparing to take her vows, is persuaded by the Mother Superior to make contact with her only known relative, an aunt (Agata Kulesza) who reveals to the young novitiate that her father was Jewish and her parents both died in the Nazi occupation. Hoping to uncover the details, the two women set off for the family’s hometown, where the romantic attentions of a handsome young sax player in the hotel bar prove almost as troubling to Ida as her parents’ demise. In Polish with subtitles. J.R. Jones 80 min. Sun 3/9, 7:15 PM, and Wed 3/12, 6 PM.

[Recommended] Run & Jump An Irish furniture maker (Edward MacLiam) returns home to his lively wife (Maxine Peake) and two children after sustaining frontal-lobe damage in a stroke; studying this rare condition, and paying the family to permit two months of clinical observation, is an uptight neurologist (Will Forte) who soon becomes uncomfortably entwined in their painful emotional adjustment. Peake, who’s worked mainly in British TV, gives a breakout performance as the wife, a firecracker who holds the family together despite her silent grief that the strong man she married has turned into a different person—confused, irrational, and unable to relate to anything but animals. Over the two-month study, the expected love triangle emerges, but writer-director Steph Green develops it so patiently and notes its emotional dislocations so carefully that it never descends into cliché. J.R. Jones 105 min. Sun 3/9, 5 PM, and Mon 3/10, 6 PM.

[Recommended] A Spell to Ward Off Darkness Two distinctive avant-garde filmmakers, Ben Rivers of the UK (Two Years at Sea) and and Ben Russell of the U.S. (Let Each One Go Where He May), collaborated on this three-part documentary-cum-mood piece, sharing credit for direction, cinematography, and editing. Russell’s sensibility dominates: the first section shows the influence of early ethnographic films in its inquisitive view of communal living in the Estonian woods, and the third, which shows an avant-garde metal band performing in Oslo, reflects his enthusiasm for experimental rock. Rivers’s presence can be felt most strongly in the second section, in which Chicago musician Robert Lowe embarks on a solo camping expedition in a remote part of Finland. Credit both filmmakers for the hypnotic vibe and stunning 16-millimeter photography; the camera often suggests a ghostly presence, moving with uncanny smoothness through scenes of undisrupted intimacy and natural splendor. Ben Sachs 95 min. Sat 3/8, 9:15 PM, and Thu 3/13, 6 PM.

The Strange Little Cat This absurdist German comedy might also be called “The Strange Little Film.” It takes place almost entirely in the Berlin apartment of a large middle-class family over the course of a lazy Saturday. Catastrophe keeps threatening to strike (household items break with uncanny frequency, a pair of older siblings exhibit signs of incestuous desire), yet nothing remarkable ever happens; likewise, the characters come close to experiencing epiphanies but don’t quite make it. Writer-director Ramon Zürcher presents all this in a rigid, deadpan style; the camera never moves, and everyone speaks in unemotional non sequiturs. This is an acquired taste to be sure, but it’s certainly unique. In German with subtitles. Ben Sachs 69 min. Sat 3/8, 5:30 PM, and Wed 3/12, 6 PM.

[Recommended] What Now? Remind Me Documentary and personal essay are inadequate labels for this profound autobiographical opus by Portuguese filmmaker Joaquim Pinto; like Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) or Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Soft and Hard (1985), the film uses self-inquiry to divine what it means to be alive at this point in history. Pinto, who’s been living with HIV since the mid-90s and Hepatitis C since the early 2000s, shot this over a year during which he underwent an experimental medical treatment. Diaristic passages about his declining health are interwoven with meditations on science, religion, cinema, and marriage (there’s a moving portrait of Pinto’s husband, a former heavy metal singer turned gentleman farmer). The artful compositions and dense sound design are ravishingly sensual, balancing out the narration’s intellectual rigor. In English and subtitled Portuguese. Ben Sachs 164 min. Sat 3/8, 2:15 PM, and Wed 3/12, 7:30 PM.